Remember when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991? Nobody was more surprised than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After the fact, the CIA tried to claim that it had provided evidence of a crisis in the Kremlin. But the history of our intelligence estimates proves the contrary. Even as then General Secretary Gorbachev was spending some fifty percent of the Soviet budget on defense, the CIA was projecting much lower figures. The intelligence community remained convinced until the end that the Soviet regime could go on forever.
This is only one example of a chronic trend in the U.S. intelligence community (IC) writ large: it misses the big picture, the strategic intelligence. Over the decades of the Cold War, the IC got very good at locating and counting Soviet tanks or following the development of new weapons platforms. It was never good at tracking or predicting Soviet behavior. The IC failed to anticipate the Soviet-era invasions of its neighbors by more than a few days, when military forces began to deploy.
This problem has carried over into the post-Cold War era. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait came as a surprise. The same for India and Pakistan’s testing of nuclear weapons or North Korea’s decision to attack a South Korean warship or shell that country’s territory. When it came to the Arab Spring, the IC was clueless.
The same is true when it comes to counterterrorism. The IC did a magnificent job over five or six years stringing together bits of evidence in order to finally track down bin Laden and provide the detailed information that enabled the strike mission. At the same time, the strategic appreciation of bin Laden’s behavior and his relationship to Al Qaeda turns out to have been completely wrong. Bin Laden was not in a cave in Waziristan; he was living comfortably in close proximity to — perhaps even under the watchful eye of — the Pakistan military. Contrary to the description of bin Laden as a figurehead presiding over a decentralized organization, the wealth of information retrieved from the Abbottabad hideout indicates that he was very much in command of all the Al Qaeda affiliates. What does this say about any predictions the IC may make about the future of Al Qaeda or the evolution of events in the Af-Pak region?
This very uneven track record must leave observers in doubt when it comes to the IC’s assessments of big issues such as the likelihood that Iran will develop nuclear weapons or the prospects for political reform in China. Just to take one recent example, the IC missed China’s development of a stealth fighter by a decade, predicting that they would not develop one until around 2020. Well, the first test flight was at the beginning of 2011.
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