From 2002-05, Mark M. Lowenthal was an assistant director of the CIA and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He has written one of the more useful books by an intelligence official: Intelligence: From Secrets To Policy. An even more significant accomplishment to my mind — one that offers outside validation of his smarts — is having become a “Grand Champion” on Jeopardy in 1988.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Lowenthal candidly admitted that the “U.S. intelligence community has failed” both as “a public institution and as a profession.” But the failure, in his eyes, does not reside in either inability to intercept the 9/11 plot or the erroneous assessment of Iraq weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

September 11, Lowenthal argues, was not something that could have been forestalled by intelligence:

No one has yet revealed the one or two or 10 things that, had they been done differently, might have prevented the attacks. In my view, and in the view of many of my colleagues, even the missed “operational opportunities” identified by the 9/11 Commission would have done little more than force al-Qaeda to send different terrorists into the United States, especially considering the legal rules in play at the time. Even if every “dot” had been connected, they would not have led to the tactical intelligence needed to stop those four planes on that Tuesday morning.

I am not fully persuaded, but, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Lowenthal the point. He makes a similar observation about the botched 2003 WMD National Intelligence Estimate. Even if the tradecraft in producing that NIE had not been so shoddy, the result, he contends, might well have been the same:

it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to envision an NIE based on good intelligence that would have come up with the correct answer. The best my fellow analysts could have done, I think, would have been to offer three analytical options: Saddam Hussein has WMD; he does not have WMD; or we simply do not know. And of course, given his track record of gassing Kurds, attacking neighbors and resisting U.N. weapons inspections, the most likely of the three still would have been that he had WMD. But analytical responses that cover the waterfront of possibilities are not seen as very useful to policymakers, for obvious reasons. Moreover, even if we had concluded that we just didn’t know what Iraq had, Bush would have probably favored going to war anyway, and Congress would have gone along, largely out of political expediency.

This is more persuasive. But if these two alleged failures were not really failures at all, why then is Lowenthal so down on U.S. intelligence? His answer:

We failed because we have not explained ourselves adequately and comprehensibly to the public — describing our role, the limits within which we work and our view of what can be reasonably expected from us. We have failed because we have allowed ourselves to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys.

This is preposterous. Lowenthal is undoubtedly right that the public is ill informed about what can reasonably be expected from intelligence in view of the insuperable challenges it continually faces. I have made a similar observation in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) in COMMENTARY. But the idea that intelligence officials have allowed themselves “to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys” does not hold up.

I would point Lowenthal to the 2005 declassified summary of the Inspector General’s report on the CIA’s counterterrorism branch,  including its al-Qaeda unit run by Michael Scheuer. Perhaps the CIA could not have stopped the 9/11 plot no matter what it did. But the managerial and analytical ineptitude on display in that critical unit is staggering.  

I would point him to the decision to put Richard Immerman, an anti-war activist professor, in charge of analytical standards and integrity in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

I would point him to the tendentious declassified summary of the December 2007 NIE on Iran.

I would point him to the endless leaks from the intelligence community designed to undercut the policies of the administration it is tasked with serving. The intelligence community has not been vilified; rather, elements in it have been villainous and the entire operation has been paying the price. One doesn’t need to be a Jeopardy grand champion to understand that.

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