I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.
“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,
is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.
This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”
“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”
Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.
Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.
But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?
Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye.
“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.