International Security Studies

Events

Book Discussion--The CIA and the Culture of Failure

October 16, 2008 // 12:00pm1:00pm

The two disastrous intelligence breakdowns of this decade – the failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the mistaken assessment about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities that became the basis for war – have generated broad public criticism of the CIA. John Diamond assesses the origins and magnitude of these failures by looking back to the post-Cold War period, when the Soviet Union disintegrated and what had been the CIA's central organizing mission came to an end.

Diamond views the CIA's record during the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iraq war as mixed. His analysis illuminated the links between lower-profile intelligence controversies during the 1990s (such as the Ames spy case and response to al-Qaeda's initial attacks) and the high-profile failures subsequently. The CIA successfully tracked Al Qaeda plotters to an important meeting in Malaysia, but then lost the trail and failed to coordinate with the FBI as the terrorists entered the United States. Yet Diamond argued that the CIA's broader failure before 9/11 was its dearth of analytical work on Osama bin Laden and the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

Diamond emphasized two major factors underlying the CIA's failed performance: the overcorrection of error, and the politicization of intelligence. These problems were not unique to this period, but were accentuated during it. To elucidate these themes, Diamond focused on the intelligence controversies over Iraq's WMD programs and the ballistic missile threat.

The CIA's performance during the lead up to the 2003 war was, in part, a reaction to its shortcomings before the 1991 Gulf War. The CIA then failed to predict that Saddam Hussein was mounting an invasion of Kuwait, instead concluding that the Iraqi dictator was engaged in saber-rattling. The intelligence community overestimated the difficulty of the war, while underestimating the covert progress that Iraq had made in acquiring nuclear weapons. By contrast, a decade later, Diamond noted, the CIA concluded that Iraq retained WMD stocks and that a military invasion of Iraq would be a short, easy war. Before the 2003 war, the CIA identified suspect WMD sites in Iraq for UN weapons inspectors. When none of those leads proved fruitful, the CIA resisted the conclusion that UN inspections had successfully disarmed Iraq of its unconventional weapons.

On the issue of ballistic-missile proliferation, Diamond stated that "missile-defense advocates played the game of politicizing intelligence with great skill." In 1995, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq could not mount a long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States for at least 15 years. Diamond argued that when thwarted by the NIE's finding, national missile defense advocates set about to change the intelligence. The Rumsfeld Commission, created by the Republican-controlled Congress, questioned the accuracy and reliability of the intelligence community's conclusion. The Commission warned of the near-term ability of rogue states to wed WMD and ballistic missiles to inflict major destruction on the United States. Diamond concluded that "the elements of politicization of intelligence used by the Bush administration to sell the Iraq war were field-tested in the campaign for national missile defense."

Robert Litwak, International Security Studies

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