Our Unintelligent Intelligence “Services”

Credit: Chip Bok, Akron Beacon Journal
Credit: Chip Bok, Akron Beacon Journal

Recent security breaches at the White House have focused attention on the failures of our security and intelligence services. The poor performance of these organizations is not new. And while opposition politicians act as if these failures just started under the Obama administration, I can remember a number of them from years past in my own lifetime. The examples that follow vary in importance, but they all point to the inability of our intelligence services (CIA, FBI, NSA, and who knows which others) to accurately predict events, even really big events that change the direction of history. Here is an illustrative list of events and situations that caught our intelligence services flat-footed.

    • The Bay of Pigs Invasion, April 1961. CIA analysts predicted that the invading Cuban refugees would be welcomed by the Cuban population and would join them in overthrowing the Castro government. Nothing of the sort happened. The invaders were easily defeated. Some were executed. Others were confined to long prison terms.
    • The Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. After the fall of the Shah of Iran, the secular and western friendly regime collapsed. The Ayatollah Khomeni returned to Iran from exile in Paris and established an anti-western theocracy that continues to this day. For some reason, U.S. intelligence analysts did not see this coming.
    • The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caught U.S. intelligence services by surprise. The U.S. then supplied arms surreptitiously to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, many of the mujahideen who had been aided by the U.S. then regrouped to form Al-Qaeda.
    • The Attack on Marine Barracks in Lebanon, October 23, 1983, killing 241 U.S. servicemen. A truck bomber parked outside the barracks detonated the explosion. The response of the Reagan administration was to withdraw the marines from Lebanon.
    • Fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Built in 1961 to prevent the escape of East Berliners to the West, this event was a genuine surprise to me. Apparently, it was also a surprise to U.S. intelligence services.
    • The Collapse of the Soviet Union, December 26, 1991. Overnight the “evil-empire” vanished, or so it seemed. So called Soviet experts and the intelligence establishment did not see the collapse as imminent.
    • The Attack on World Trade Center February 26, 1993, killing six people and injuring more than one thousand. The attack took place under the north tower of the World Trade Center. The terrorists had hoped to topple it into the path of the south tower, thereby bringing down both buildings.
    • The Attack on U.S. Cole, October 12, 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors. Al-Qaeda claimed credit for the attack.
    • The Attack on World Trade Center and the Pentagon,9/11/2001, killing almost 3000 people. Less than one year after the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, Al-Qaeda launched the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. The intelligence failures here were enormous and are well-known.
    • The Invasion of Iraq and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, March 2003. Ostensibly, the reason for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to oust Saddam Hussein and get rid of his weapons of mass destruction. George Tenet, Director of the CIA told the president, George W. Bush, that the evidence for the WMD’s was a “slam dunk.” Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations and claimed that the existence of Saddam’s WMD’s was based on solid evidence. It is now over eleven years later and to this date not one of those weapons has been found.
    • The Secret Documents Leak by Edward Snowden, beginning June 2013. Snowden’s release of secret documents constitute evidence of faulty security procedures within the National Security Agency. Snowden, a contractor for the NSA, pilfered thousands of security documents and released them to the press in a piece-meal fashion. Thanks to Snowden we, and the rest of the world, now know the extent of the U.S. government’s snooping on security threats, foreign governments, and ordinary citizens.
    • The Gross Underestimation of ISIS strength, June 2014. This colossal failure of intelligence has undermined this administration’s foreign policy goals and has committed the United States to war in the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

This brief list should give pause to anyone before proclaiming faith in our intelligence and security agencies. This list is not intended to be exhaustive. I am sure there are other events and situations the intelligence agencies have failed to accurately assess. Thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that the U.S. government spends billions monitoring our email and phone calls. This egregious violation of our privacy is justified as a necessary price for our continued security. Given the historical record, however, trading privacy for security is not a good bargain.

One thought on “Our Unintelligent Intelligence “Services”

  1. Thanks for this reminder, Charles. Sometimes we get consumed by “presentism,” especially those who intensely dislike the current administration and its chief.


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