Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


The New Politics of Intelligence: Will Reforms Work This Time?
By Richard K. Betts


Richard K. Betts is Director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and Co-editor of Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence. He previously served on the staff of the Senate's Church Committee investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies and as a consultant in the intelligence community.


The Truth Is Offshore

The failure to prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, and the proliferation of official investigations trying to figure out what went wrong in both cases have combined to put intelligence issues in a very unusual position this year: at the center of a closely contested presidential campaign.

All the attention creates both an opportunity and a danger. The opportunity stems from the consensus that major reforms are necessary. Previous controversies over the quality of intelligence have generally been inside-the-Beltway debates leading to only minor reforms at best. That will probably be true this time as well. But if there were ever a moment when public demand might overcome the entrenched institutional interests that block radical change, this should be it.

The danger stems from the gap between the urge to do something and the uncertainty about just what that something should be — as well as from the entanglement of intelligence and policy issues involved with the Iraq question in particular. Political points are scored by painting issues in broad swaths of black and white, but the real choices in this area are inevitably found among shades of gray, and ill-considered reforms could do more harm than good. At the end of the day, the strongest defense against intelligence mistakes will come less from any structural or procedural tweak than from the good sense, good character, and good mental habits of senior officials. How to assure a steady supply of those, unfortunately, has never been clear.


Professionals And Politicans

In earlier cases when strategic intelligence has been a national political issue, the character of partisan alignments has generally kept the controversies within bounds. After Pearl Harbor, executive commissions and a congressional investigation revealed mistakes and charges of cover-ups that critics tried to use against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1944 election. By the time the full story came out, however, F.D.R. had died, the war had been won, and the country had moved on.

In the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy slammed the Eisenhower administration for allowing a "missile gap" favoring the Soviet Union to emerge, basing his claims on information that turned out to be wrong. (There was indeed a gap, but it favored the United States.) Once in power, however, Kennedy had nothing to gain from calling attention to his error, and the Republican opposition no longer had to defend the Eisenhower record, so the issue died.

In the mid-1970s, investigations by the presidential Rockefeller Commission, the Church Committee in the Senate, and the Pike Committee in the House splashed CIA and FBI misdeeds across national headlines. But the main controversies then were about covert operations and government abuses of civil liberties, rather than the accuracy of intelligence information and analysis. The lurid revelations of these committees tarred several administrations of both parties. The response to the scandals was a campaign aimed more at suppressing illegal abuses than at boosting the functional effectiveness of intelligence.