Intelligence: November 13, 2002


Efforts to improve America's intelligence capabilities have run into a dismal fact of life in peace time espionage; fear of failing. In wartime, espionage is all about taking chances and doing whatever has to be done to accomplish the mission. But in peacetime, the biggest danger is being in charge of something that goes wrong and embarrasses your boss. Peacetime managers tend to very risk averse. This expresses itself in many ways. Most obviously, bold, risky missions are avoided. Thus over the last three decades, fewer and fewer Americans have actually gone to foreign nations to work with local agents (spies, informants or just picking up the local gossip.) Foreigners were contracted to do  this sort of thing, and spy satellites were used more extensively. But the risk aversion even extends to who you work with in the United States. Intelligence agencies, as well as anyone working with foreigners or foreign affairs, need up-to-date sources on how things are overseas. But rather than deal with recent immigrants from those nations, or even defectors from police states, they instead go to the same small crew of consultants and think tank experts. This sort of thing has caused endless problems since the 1970s (when we missed what was really going on in Iran because no one in DC would listen to Peace Corps volunteers returning with the real story, that the Shah was toast in terms of popular support.) The current feud between the Department of Defense and the CIA has a lot to do with this problem. The Army Special Forces are used to dealing with foreigners direct, and getting results. The CIA is a lot more cautious, and more likely to deal with stateside experts. The CIA is more risk averse. The Special Forces, perhaps because they carry guns when they go overseas, and know how to use them, are more sure of themselves when it comes to what foreigners tell them. 


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