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How Intelligence Works (When it Does)

Herbert E. Meyer
Founder and President, Storm King Press


Herbert E. MeyerHerbert E. Meyer, founder and president of Storm King Press, served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. A recipient of the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, his articles and essays on intelligence have been published in several major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several books, including Real-World Intelligence and Hard Thinking; two eBooks, How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty; and a recent booklet, Why is the World So Dangerous.



The following is adapted from a speech delivered on February 15, 2017, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Phoenix, Arizona.

The performance of our country’s intelligence service is the latest example of an issue exploding into the headlines and becoming a shouting match, while failing to clarify anything about the issue itself. This explosion was ignited last fall by allegations that the Russians hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Donald Trump win the election. The blast radius expanded after the election, when rumors surfaced that the Russians had deployed their nasty tactic of kompromat to undermine President Trump’s credibility by spreading rumors about his private behavior while in Moscow years ago. All this, on top of failures that had already wreaked havoc at the CIA and our other intelligence agencies—the 9/11 attacks themselves, the mess over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the weird 2007 National Intelligence Estimate whose key judgment was that Iran had abandoned its nuclear bomb program, Edward Snowden’s NSA espionage activities—has kept the issue of our intelligence service in the headlines.

But before addressing the question of why these failures have occurred, we need to define clearly the role and purpose of our country’s intelligence service, with a focus on how intelligence really works when it’s working properly.

Just utter the word “intelligence” and most people conjure up images of spies, secret satellites peering down on foreign cities and terrorist camps, and rooms full of young technocrats reading private emails and listening to private conversations. These images are accurate, but they reflect the tools and techniques of our intelligence service, rather than its purpose. To understand its purpose, think of a jumbo jet flying at night through turbulent skies—thunder clouds, lightning, other airplanes streaking in all directions and at all altitudes. To navigate through this, the pilot and his crew rely on their radar—the instrument that paints a picture of their environment, enabling them to see what’s going on around them and what lies ahead so they can chart a safe course. Radar doesn’t tell the captain and his crew what to do, but it gives them the accurate information they’ll need to make good decisions.

Our intelligence service is our nation’s radar. Its purpose is to provide the president and his national security team with an accurate picture of what’s going on in the world and what’s likely to happen in the days, months, and years ahead. The assumption is that if the president and his team have this information, they can chart a safe course for our country. And if they can see the distant future soon enough and clearly enough—and if they don’t like what they see—they can take steps to change the future before it happens.

Good intelligence is a combination of information and insight. Information is the raw material, while insight is the finished product. Sometimes this insight takes the form of a top secret report that alerts the president and his team to something that’s about to happen, such as a terrorist attack or the military invasion of one country by another. At other times it is a National Intelligence Estimate, whose purpose is to provide an overall assessment of a major issue—such as North Korea’s nuclear bomb program or the rapid growth of Africa’s middle class—along with a prediction of its future course.

The key to producing good intelligence lies in getting this combination of information and insight right. Intelligence work is like science. You don’t collect information randomly and then stare at it in hopes that something important will pop up. You start with a thesis—in other words, you decide what you want to know. Then you send your collectors out to get it. This is why the key to producing good intelligence lies in asking the right question, rather than in just poring over what’s been randomly collected in hopes that somewhere in the pile of reports and intercepts on your desk you’ll spot something important.

Let me give you an example of how this worked during the Reagan administration. From the end of World War II until 1981, every president’s objective had been not to lose the Cold War. If things were no worse when a president left office than when he took office, he’d done a good job. But President Reagan didn’t want to tread water—he wanted to win the Cold War. In other words, he switched from defense to offense. So Reagan’s great director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, asked the CIA’s Soviet Division two obvious questions: Where is the Soviet Union weak? and Where is it most vulnerable? The answer he received was: We don’t know. No one’s ever asked this before. Our spies had been so focused on Soviet strengths—infantry divisions, nuclear missiles, tanks, submarines, and so forth—that we had no intelligence on Soviet weaknesses, such as its imploding economy. Under Casey’s leadership, we refocused our collection efforts and, not surprisingly, found all sorts of Soviet vulnerabilities that hadn’t been grasped because no one had bothered looking for them. President Reagan used these weaknesses and vulnerabilities to put more and more pressure on the Kremlin. Eight years later the Berlin Wall came down, and two years after that the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

In the intelligence business, just as in scientific research, a thesis sometimes turns out to be wrong. The collectors can’t find what you want, because it isn’t there. When this happens—and it happens to even the best scientists and intelligence officials—you must abandon your flawed thesis and re-think the issue. If you refuse to do this, you’re like a scientist who continues to insist that the Earth is flat—or a president who continues to insist that ISIS is like a “junior varsity” team.