Intelligence for grownups

A thought experiment: Let's pretend America's intelligence problems have been fixed. While we wait for the next skirmishes in Washington's endless civil war among the official tribes who run our national intelligence apparatus, let's imagine we have what's been promised. All the dots are being connected, all the terrorists are being detected - before they strike.

To conduct this improved scan of the world, twice as many spies as we have now are out snooping, an immense umbrella of our satellites look at and listen in to every cranny of the globe, and here at home a new superchief enforces peace among the clans who staff America's gargantuan collection and analysis machine.

What is missing from these happy promises? We are - the citizen-customers of intelligence.

In a world infected with terrorists and dotted with massively lethal weapons, threats are personal, front lines local. Formerly a business where insiders whispered secrets to insiders, the world of intelligence now includes the public.

The wrangling in Washington about intelligence reform seems to ignore the fact that taxpayers aren't just targets. Citizen-voters are now, in a post-911 world, the principal consumers of intelligence - and savvy ones at that. One way to read the huge turnout in the November election is that Americans are now engaging deeply the questions of vulnerability and the strategies for safety.

Washington hasn't caught on to this. Various formulas for upgrade focus on the now obsolete insider's game. Citizens are treated like rural children sitting in a one-room school where the intelligence system serves up The One Right Answer.

Of course, both ends of this image are wrong. Intelligence will never deliver total truth, no matter how large and well-oiled the machine. More important, today's citizens are anything but passive know-nothings, waiting to be told what to think and when to be alarmed.

There is a history here. The teacher-child relationship is a habit of the cold war. In those perilous decades, intelligence usually offered the only look behind the Iron Curtain. Secret methods extracted Soviet secrets to be reported in secret only to officials assigned a "need to know." Western journalists could draw no more than the crudest outline of the Kremlin's day-to-day politicking and military decisions. More than a title and a clearance were needed to comprehend what the intelligence monopoly had on offer. Intel also needed to furnish a teacher-narrator, someone to help turn intelligence information into decisionmaker's knowledge.

Why? Intelligence collectors deliver a stream of raw, often disjointed data. "Facts" emerge only with cross-checking. Meaning comes when a skilled analyst weaves obscure details into a coherent story. A cold-war example: satellites might watch a squadron of Soviet nuclear bombers suddenly assemble at airbase X. Only a skilled analyst who had been measuring such maneuvers for years could confidently report, "No need for alarm, the annual training cycle has begun right on schedule."

Those days of intelligence as sole tutor are gone. With the exception of North Korea, scarcely a corner of the world remains undescribed by journalists and scholars. Even Osama bin Laden frequently appears to tell us his strategy. An Amazon of information, narrated by excellent reporters, flows past all of us daily, altering profoundly producer-consumer relationships within the world of intelligence.

Now that we are all standing on the front lines, what do we citizens need to know? What we need from intelligence are hard facts - critical details to help us make sense of the flood of open reporting. To its credit, the CIA now delivers a considerable amount of factual material through their unclassified website. We need more.

What we don't need are fact-free gimmicks like the color-coded terrorist threat index or the kind of immediately discredited pseudo-facts about nonexistent Iraqi weaponry that the CIA handed the secretary of State for use before the UN Security Council.

How can we citizens hold up our end of this new intelligence-consumer relationship? Most important, we can notch up the accountability of both the intelligence community and of public officials. The best kind of intelligence happens when intelligence specialists and their clients are challenging each other's thinking. The give and take of public intelligence will benefit both the public and the intelligence agencies.

Good as they are, we ought also to expect more of our news media - especially of American TV news. Some of our main outlets are happy-talk channels seemingly unable to distinguish between genocide in Sudan and a tawdry murder trial in California.

Intelligence reform isn't a spectator sport. If we aren't to be disappointed by the results of the current intelligence fix-up, we consumers need to put ourselves in the picture.

Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, for several years helped facilitate the interchange between senior Defense officials and the intelligence community.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.