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New Book Questions Use, Reform of American Intelligence

Paul Pillar


September 20, 2011 Intelligence and foreign policy scholar Paul Pillar explores the misguided use of intelligence and ineffective reform of the nation’s intelligence community in his new book, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (Columbia University Press, 2011). The professor of security studies focuses on what he sees as intelligence “failures” and myths in the United States in the book. Pillar, who spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. intelligence field, worked for the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations as well as the Clinton administration. He says the decision to invade Iraq wasn’t based on intelligence at all and that reforms recommended by the 9/11 Commission have merely resulted in “rearranged boxes.”

What role did intelligence play in the decision to go to war in Iraq?

The Iraq War is an example of the irrelevance intelligence plays in making major U.S. foreign policy. The war was launched not because of, but in spite of the U.S. intelligence community.

Misguided reform stems from how foreign and security policy are “supposed” to work. The model is that the policy process involves decision makers dispassionately reflecting on information and analysis available to them from an equally dispassionate intelligence service.

That didn’t happen in this case. Decisions were made largely based  agendas that policymakers brought to office.

When President George W. Bush launched the war in Iraq, there was absence of any apparent procedure for determining whether the war was a good idea.

Do you think former CIA director Leon Panetta's appointment could bridge the kind of divide that occurred when making the decision to go to war in Iraq?

The non-use of intelligence was specifically the case with the Bush administration’s launching of the Iraq War in 2003. Panetta will be focused on his current responsibilities as secretary of defense, just as his predecessor Robert Gates was. So the short answer to that question is no.

Were Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq catalysts for reform in the intelligence community?

There was a fixation on intelligence reform that also was misguided. The current reform fails to recognize the large amount of uncertainty that is an unavoidable part of policymaking no matter how effectively an intelligence service may be performing.

In 2004 the 9/11 Commission recommended several changes, such as the establishment of a National Counterterrorism Center for joint operational planning and joint intelligence. They also recommended replacing the Director of Central Intelligence with a national intelligence director to oversee national intelligence centers across the federal government – including the CIA, FBI, the National Security Agency and several other entities.

It’s been more than six years under this system with four different directors, and all of them have faced frustration within the reorganization.

Ten years after Sept. 11, the thought has been that if we rearrange boxes, we have made America safer. We have not. If you look at the underwear bomber accused of attempting to kill nearly 300 passengers on a 2009 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, I think that illustrates how the fixes didn’t really change anything.

What’s the answer to effectively using the intelligence we do have?

It means focusing on practical steps that can be taken to maximize gains or minimize losses if the unexpected should occur.

Take Pearl Harbor for example. Having the fleet concentrated in December 1941 probably was not the best decision, not because of tactical details of a Japanese attack, but because such details are unpredictable, and you don’t put all your eggs into one basket.

It’s natural to assume that if the United States could win world wars, put a man on the moon and achieve other marvelous and difficult things that, it should be able to determine what’s going on in other countries. We have hoped we won’t be surprised, but surprises will always occur. We can only try to increase the odds in our favor through good intelligence gathering.

What is the likelihood of another terrorist attack here or abroad?

[We will have] upsurges in violence, this will not reverse. The United States can’t solve this. What we can do is reduce attacks to a degree through intelligence, but we cannot eliminate them.

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