Nearly 50 years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency learned from the Associated Press that the Soviet Union had conducted its first atomic weapons tests. Last week, CNN was the CIA's source of information for a major series of nuclear weapons tests in India.
In 1949, the CIA was operating in the dark, without satellite reconnaissance and sophisticated intercept systems. CIA analysts in those days were retired military and Office of Secret Services veterans with little training and expertise in their fields. Today, however, the CIA has access to the most sophisticated monitoring facilities in the world as well as a nonproliferation center with more than 100 analysts. Why the failure?
The Indian fiasco has exposed the three major deficiencies evident at the CIA for the past several years: politicization, bureaucratization, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper interaction between intelligence and policymaking.
Having reached its 50th year, the CIA shows signs of bureaucratic lethargy; it's too large, layered, top heavy, inflexible.
Multiple layers of review have yielded timid, homogenized reports that mix conventional wisdom with artful obscurantism - a brew Henry Kissinger once dismissed as "rationales for inaction." Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf found CIA assessments riddled with ambiguities and referred to them during Desert Storm as "mush."
There is a venerable saying at the CIA: There are old officers and bold officers, but there are no old, bold officers.
In a move that reeked of politicization, the CIA recently forced the retirement of its senior expert on nonproliferation, Gordon Oehler, because the White House had complained about his dire forecasts regarding proliferation of strategic weapons in the Middle East and South Asia.
Mr. Oehler's candid briefings before congressional committees were putting a great deal of pressure on National Security Council and State Department officials to respond to the implications of provocative Russian and Chinese arms sales to India, Iran, and Pakistan in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime.
The center is now managed by apparatchiks willing to tailor analysis to policy considerations. The CIA has also been victimized by its efforts to be "relevant" to the policy community in Washington. The Aspin-Brown Commission on Intelligence in 1996 encouraged the CIA to identify "relevant customers ... by position" and to consult them "with respect to the type of intelligence support they prefer." As a result, intelligence analysis has lost much of its objectivity and, in the case of India, CIA analysts missed numerous political and scientific signals that pointed to the likelihood of nuclear tests.
High US policymakers, like UN Ambassador Bill Richardson and Assistant Secretary of State Inderfurth, did not expect nuclear testing by India, and US intelligence officials consequently assigned a low priority to problems on the subcontinent.
It is essential for intelligence analysts to have access to policymakers in order to understand policy considerations, but policymakers cannot determine the intelligence agenda.
Another recommendation of the Aspin-Brown commission, the consolidation of all analysis of satellite imagery in the newly-created National Imagery and Mapping Agency, also contributed to the intelligence failure. By placing all analysis of imagery inside the Department of Defense, the White House insured that there would be a minimum of the critical cross-discipline analysis required for difficult regional problems such as the political and military frictions in South Asia. If the Pentagon continues to dominate the analysis of satellite photography, the nation's most important source of intelligence for verification of arms control agreements and the likelihood of military conflict, we can expect additional intelligence failures that will adversely affect US national security.
CIA Director George Tenet, a former staffer with the Senate intelligence committee, has responded to this latest intelligence fiasco by resorting to a typical congressional device, naming a retired admiral to head a team of examiners. Unfortunately, Mr. Tenet himself has set the wrong tone at the CIA. He has stressed the espionage capabilities of the agency, which are far less important in the post-cold-war world, and ignored the erosion of intelligence capabilities that are required for understanding the unpredictable and unstable global arena. Tenet and his immediate predecessors have severely limited research and the production of national intelligence estimates, transferred military intelligence to the Pentagon, and returned economic intelligence to the Commerce Department and the Department of Energy.
If Vice President Gore is serious about reinventing government, then the CIA is certainly a good place to start.
It is time to create a separate analytical agency outside the policy process in order to return to Harry Truman's raison d'tre for the CIA: producing objective and incisive intelligence reports. Critics may then stop mocking the Biblical inscription in the entryway to CIA headquarters: And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.
* Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., was formerly senior analyst for Soviet affairs at the CIA.