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Jewish World Review August 11, 2004 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5764

Michael Ledeen

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Intelligence and Imagination: The only real 'fix' is good leadership and accountability | At the end of November, 1983, Herbert Meyer, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, wrote an eight-page memorandum to director William Casey entitled "Why is the World so Dangerous?" In it, Meyer summarized the increasing tempo of violence against "the citizens, governments, or interests of the Free World" and listed recent horrors such as the assassination of Philippine leader Benigno Aquino, the slaughter of South Korean leaders on a visit to Burma, the mass murder of American and French marines in Lebanon, and the Libyan invasion of Chad.

The litany of bad news prompted Meyer to a brilliant counterintuitive insight: Much, maybe even all of this was happening because the Soviet leaders knew they were losing. Reagan's policies had put them at grave risk, and they were desperate to make him stop. By raising the level of violence, and blaming it on the United States, they hoped either to replace Reagan, or to force him to adopt more "moderate" policies, which would give them time to recover.

"Let me concede right now," Meyer wrote, "that I cannot prove this — if your definition of proof is restricted to intercepts, photographs, and purloined documents." The professional spy craft of the intelligence community could only take one so far. "One needs to go beyond a listing of facts," he concluded, "one needs also to make a leap of imagination."

Thankfully, President Reagan made that crucial imaginative leap. Yet throughout the Reagan years, and right up to the fall of the Soviet empire, the "finished intelligence" from the CIA and the other intelligence agencies failed to detect the tectonic movement Reagan had sensed and the Meyer Memorandum described. The CIA repeatedly proclaimed the Soviet system stable, its economy steadily growing, its global influence massive. Had William Casey and President Reagan based American policy on the assessments of the intelligence community, we would never have had a policy aimed at bringing down the evil empire.

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Those leaders now being pressured to "solve" the manifest problems of the intelligence community by making structural changes should heed Herbert Meyer's words. No effort to "connect the dots" in 1983, or "fuse" multiple sources of information — themes that the 9/11 Commission members repeat ad infinitum — would have revealed the great paradox that the surge in hostile Soviet activity was good news for our side. Meyer's "imaginative leap" rested on smell and intuition, not piles of intercepts and satellite photos or reports from spies in Moscow. It was the result of independent thinking by a clear thinker who listened to and respected the professionals, but trusted his own judgment and wasn't afraid to put his name on it. Fittingly, the memorandum was unclassified.

None of the changes so energetically proposed by the 9/11 Commission — and, alas, embraced by both presidential candidates — would have improved our ability to understand the imminent fall of the Soviet Empire; nor, for that matter, would they have saved us from 9/11. Victory in both cases primarily required two things: an intelligence chief who understood what was going on and a president willing to act forcefully to advance our interests. Casey and Reagan comprehended the Soviet crisis, and acted on their understanding.

The terror war was a different matter.

If anything, the intelligence community's picture of al Qaeda was better than its assessment of the Soviet Union. That is because al Qaeda was only the most recent development in a war that had been waged against us for more than a quarter century. Every president since Jimmy Carter declared war against terrorism, because hundreds of Americans were killed by terrorists. And for 25 years, we had sufficient information to know who the terrorists were, where they trained, and which states supported them. Prior to 9/11, however, no president chose to smite them with the requisite valor and energy. And that is the crux of the matter.

There were certainly intelligence failures, above all those related to the movements of the 9/11 terrorists. But al Qaeda succeeded in 2001, as earlier, primarily because American leaders chose not to fight back. If Bill Clinton had demanded a strategic plan to demolish the terror network — like Reagan's strategy to dismantle the Soviet empire — and if he'd had the will to act on the inevitably imperfect information available — as Meyer so candidly put it to Casey — we could have delivered many blows to al Qaeda long before Osama's jihadists acted on American soil. We won the Cold War because we wanted to. We lost thousands of lives on 9/11 because we had not engaged our enemies. It wasn't so much a failure to connect dots as a failure to see the world plain.

The commission's recommendations do not address this central issue, because the only real "fix" is beyond bureaucratic stratagem: It is good leadership, and with it, the ruthless imposition of accountability on policy makers, legislators, and intelligence officials. The call for a new intelligence overseer in the executive branch is downright silly. Any CEO of a distressed firm who retained failed managers and simply added new personnel and new organizational boxes would face open rebellion from his board and shareholders. Yet that is what the commission wants to do. Its recommendations finesse or exacerbate the real problems.

Without doubt, our two greatest failures are political, not structural. The first is relentless congressional tinkering with the CIA and FBI, reaching outright caricature on the eve of 9/11 — when the FBI could not even clip newspaper articles about advocates of jihad in America, and the CIA needed special permission to contact foreign officials whose human rights violations wouldn't pass muster at the ACLU. The second is American presidents, secretaries of state, and national-security advisers who cringed from ordering the difficult and risky enterprises needed to dismantle the terror network and threaten the regimes that supported it. The long years of piously drafted guidelines that hobbled our intelligence and law-enforcement services, combined with risk-avoidance at the highest levels, inevitably created the culture of today's intelligence community: Not a single human agent in Iraq from 1998 on, and no high-level penetration of the leading terrorist organizations. The commission has nothing to say about such matters, and calls for a super-committee in Congress with lifetime tenure for its members. This is a guarantee of failure; the members of such a committee would become de facto officials of the intelligence community instead of independent analysts.

If we really want to improve intelligence, then we should fire the failures, get individuals to take responsibility for analyses, and reward independent thinking. As things stand, "groupthink" is built into the system, not one senior official has been removed, and the commission's plan will make things worse.

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JWR contributor Michael Ledeen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of, most recently, ""The War Against the Terror Masters," Comment by clicking here.


07/27/04: The Nature of the Enemy: Win first. Hearts and minds will come
07/26/04: The 9/11 Vision: Better, but not there yet
07/20/04: Are you sitting down? Iran is a terrorist state
07/13/04: The Great Intelligence Committee Report: Some mysteries remain unsolved
06/30/04: The Fears of the Terror Masters: If we want a peaceful Iraq we will have to confront the mullahs
06/29/04: The Iraqis and the Neocons: Arab democracy is a work in progress
06/23/04: Ready for $60-a-Barrel Oil?: The Iranian election strategy at work
06/15/04: Iran is making trouble, and finessing it is a dangerous strategy
06/02/04: Reagan Seen Plain: He changed the world 06/02/04: Quattrocchi's Killers: We are dealing with a truly international terror network
05/25/04: The Agency Rides Again: Angleton on Chalabi
05/24/04: Lying into the mirror: Misunderstaning the war on terror
05/18/04: Kristof’s Iran
04/19/04: The Iranian Hand: Regime change in Tehran is necessary for peace in Iraq
04/15/04: Dealing with the Libyans: Is Khaddafi about to cash out?
04/08/04: From Tyranny to Freedom: Democracy in Iraq has precedent
03/18/04: Drifting, Dangerously: We must support freedom
03/02/04: Once Upon a Spymaster, Part II: Returning to a conversation
02/24/04: The Great Iranian Election Fiasco: What actually happened; what we must do
02/20/04: Stalinist Mullahs: The Iranian regime is in open battle with its own people
02/11/04: The Jihadis' Primal Scream: Zarkawi's "Yaarrrhhh!"
02/04/04: Inelegant Lies: Making sense out of mullahs
02/03/04: Potemkin WMDs? Really?
01/27/04: The Jihad on Iraq: Bad analysis and bad policy
01/20/04: Our Moment of Vainglory: A p.c. mess
01/06/04: Aftershocks: The West must read the meter in Bam and Tehran
12/02/03: Managing Iraq: We can't continue this way
11/26/03: Back to the Angleton Files
11/25/03: The Turks, Italians & us — never again
11/06/03: Regional Struggle: Fighting narrow vision in Iraq
11/04/03: Unpunished Failure: What are we waiting for?
10/21/03: Curses: Diamonds and Naples
10/15/03: Into the Quagmire: Important days ahead for Iran
09/18/03: The Ayatollahs’ bomb: An invulnerability strategy
09/12/03: You can't make peace until the war is won
09/11/03: Ron Paul, dishonorable congressman
09/03/03: The Latest Horrors: Still organized
08/29/03: The Peace Trap: Back to the war, please
08/27/03: Angrier and Angrier: Self-deception, big-time
08/25/03: Iraq's terrorists have friends in high places
07/10/03: The Future of Iran: Armitage might want to rethink that "democracy" line
07/02/03: Looking Toward July 9: Independence Day in Iran?
06/24/03: Iran: Back the freedom fighters
06/17/03: The Iranian Revolution, 2003: Regime change in the air
06/05/03: Academic Standards: A Middle East scholar has his way with the truth.
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05/13/03: The Nuclear Axis of Evil: The people solution
05/08/03: Inside the Dark: Applebaum's ‘Gulag’
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05/01/03: Desert Shame Redux: Want a free Iran and a free Syria? We have to fight for it
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04/15/03: Political war can remove terror masters in Syria and Iran
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04/02/03: French Lies: Take the foreign minister at his word
03/31/03: Why muzzle Saddam's foes?
03/28/03: The post-war terror threat
03/26/03: All Fronts: Military war, political war, psychological war
03/24/03: More Bad News for Daschle: Taking out terror of all nationalities
03/21/03: The Killer Pneu: Virus terror from China
03/13/03: Iran: Nuclear suicide bombers?
03/11/03: A Theory: What if there's method to the Franco-German madness?
03/05/03: The Iranian-Election Revolt: The people speak. The West won't listen
02/19/03: The willful blindness of those who will not see
02/12/03: The Europeans Know More Than They Now Pretend? They choose to dawdle and obstruct
02/03/03: Monumental failure: Nelson Mandela had promise
01/30/03: Elevation: The president knows what it's all about
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01/28/03: The Axis of Evil Redux: Same place, a year later
01/27/03: The Return of the Ayatollah: Washington could afford a little more attention on Iran
01/13/03: How we could lose
01/09/03: Fish are Better than Women: Gauging U.S. priorities
01/07/03: The Shape of Things to Come: The terror masters are now waiting for us
12/20/02: A Prophecy for the New Year --- Faster, please!
12/16/02: Scud Surrender: The "W" factor
12/13/02: The Heart of Darkness: The mullahs make terror possible
12/12/02: The Real War
12/09/02: Tom Friedman's Reformation: His Iran
11/26/02: How Tyrannies Fall: Opportunity time in Iran
11/22/02: The Blind Leading the Blind: The New York Times and the Iranian crisis
11/13/02: The Temperature Rises: We should liberate Iran first --- now
11/05/02: End of the Road: Iran's Mohammed Khatami, on his way out
10/29/02: The Angleton Dialogues, Contnued: What George Tenet doesn’t know
10/24/02: The Iranian Comedy Hour: In the U.S., the silence continues
10/16/02: Sniper, Saboteur, or Sleeper? Channeling James Jesus Angleton
10/01/02: The real foe
09/27/02: The Iranian String Quartet: The mullahs get increasingly nervous
09/25/02: The Dubya Doctrine
09/23/02: Intelligence? What intelligence?
09/12/02: America's revenge: To turn tyrannies into democracies
09/10/02: Iran & Afghanistan & Us: We'll have to deal with the mullahcracy, sooner or later
09/04/02: Iran, according to the Times: All the nonsense that's fit to print
08/21/02: Life and death of Abu Nidal tells us a great deal about our enemies
08/08/02: Can You Keep a Secret?: The media silence on Iran
08/06/02: Fantasy Reporting: The latest disinformation from the Washington Post
08/02/02: Propping Up the Terror Masters: Europe's Solana on tour
07/16/02: Bush vs. the Mullahs: Getting on the side of the Iranian freedom fighters
07/12/02: The State Department Goes Mute: It's official: State has no message
07/09/02: History being made, but the West appears clueless
06/05/02: Is George Tenet endangering peace in Israel?
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05/20/02: So how come nobody's been fired yet?
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04/20/02: Iran on the Brink … and the U.S. does nothing
04/16/02: It’s the war, stupid … someone remind Colin Powell
04/08/02: Gulled: In the Middle East, Arafat doesn't matter
04/02/02: Faster, Please: The war falters
03/26/02: The Revolution Continues: What's brewing in Iran
03/18/02: Iran simmers still: Where's the press?
03/05/02: We can't lose any more ground in Iran
02/14/02: The Great Iranian Hoax
02/12/02: Unnoticed Bombshell: Key information in a new book
01/31/02: The truth behind the Powell play
01/29/02: My past with "Johnny Jihad's" lawyer
01/21/02: It's Munich, all over again
01/08/02: What's the Holdup?: It's time for the next battles in the war against terrorism
12/11/01: We must be imperious, ruthless, and relentless
12/06/01: Remembering my family friend, Walt Disney
11/28/01: The Barbara Olson Bomb: Understanding the war
11/13/01: How We're Doing: The Angleton Files, IV
11/06/01: A great revolutionary war is coming
10/25/01: How to talk to a terrorist
10/23/01: Creative Reporting: Learning to appreciate press briefings
10/19/01: Not the Emmys: A Beltway award presentation
10/15/01: Rediscovering American character
10/11/01: Somehow, I've missed Arafat's praise of the first stage of our war on terrorism
10/04/01: What do we not know?
09/28/01: Machiavelli On Our War: Some advice for our leaders
09/25/01: No Room for the U.N.: Keeping Annan & co. out of the picture
09/21/01: Creative destruction
09/14/01: Who Killed Barbara Olson?
08/22/01: How Israel will win this war
08/15/01: Bracing for war
08/09/01: More Dithering Democrats
08/02/01: Delirious Dems
07/31/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit, cont'd
07/19/01: Be careful what you wish for
07/17/01: Consulting a legendary counterspy about Chandra and Condit
07/05/01: Let Slobo Go
05/30/01: Anybody out there afraid of the Republicans?
05/09/01: The bad guys to the rescue
05/07/01: Bye-bye, Blumenthal
04/20/01: Handling China
04/11/01: EXAM TIME!
04/05/01: Chinese over-water torture
03/27/01: Fighting AIDS in Africa is a losing proposition
03/14/01: Big Bird, Oscar, and other threats
03/09/01: Time for a good, old-fashioned purge
03/06/01: Powell’s great (mis)adventure
02/26/01: The Clinton Sopranos
02/20/01: Unity Schmoonity: Sharon is defying the will of the people
01/30/01: The Rest of the Rich Story
01/22/01: Ashcroft the Jew
01/11/01: A fitting close to the Clinton years
12/26/00: Continuing Clinton's shameful legacy
12/21/00: Clinton’s gift for Bush

© 2001, Michael Ledeen