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Contentions

Surprise, Surprise — Kaboom!

As early as 1965, the U.S. intelligence community began reporting that India was capable of producing a nuclear weapon and would detonate one “within the next few years.” Nearly a decade later, India tested its first nuclear bomb. Despite months of preparation around the test site, the CIA missed signs of the impending blast and failed to warn policymakers in advance, depriving them of any possibility of persuading India not to go ahead.

As we learn from a top-secret CIA post-mortem released to the public earlier this month (click here to enter the CIA library, and click once again on the document dated 7/1/1974 to read the heavily redacted report), the failure to connect the dots was due to two factors: “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and “lack of adequate communications among those elements of the [intelligence] community, both collectors and producers, whose combined talents were essential to resolving the problem.

Today, Iran is also a difficult target. Will Iran one day in the not too distant future surprise us with a nuclear test? Pakistan is another difficult target. Will a Pakistan mired in chaos one day in the not too distant future surprise us with one of its weapons coming loose?

By the logic of things, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about both countries. By the same logic, it also doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its own continuing internal coordination problems. Despite massive efforts to foster better sharing of information, including especially the establishing of a new layer of bureaucracy over the intelligence community –– the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –– the possibility of communication lapses remains alive. Periodic failure is in the nature of the intelligence business, and connecting the dots is not an activity at which the U.S. in recent years has done particularly well.

The lesson for policymakers is obvious. On the one hand, they must rely on intelligence to formulate policy. On the other, they must bear in mind that intelligence can be badly flawed and formulate policies that take into account the ever-present possibility of unpleasant surprise.



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