DIAMOND MINER: When author John Diamond isn't digging into the history of the CIA, he takes a break in Big Sur in a moment captured by his brother, Los Gatos resident Bill Diamond.
An interview with John Diamond, author of 'The CIA and the Culture of Failure'
Is the Obama victory, in part, a mandate to change longstanding intelligence community practices?
There's no doubt. In fact, based on the events of the transition, change in the intelligence arena—specifically ending torture and rendition, closing Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons—emerges as one of the strongest mandates.
Obama's initial choice to head CIA, an insider with ties to the old policies, was unacceptable to his constituency. The executive orders the president signed on his first full day in office concerned these intelligence and interrogation policies.
That said, Obama understands that getting quality intelligence is imperative, and that intelligence remains perhaps the key defense against terrorist attack. Obama's willingness to use U.S. striking power, exemplified by the missile strike into Pakistani territory the other day, rests on solid intelligence, and, in the case of missiles fired from drone aircraft controlled by the CIA, depends directly on the intelligence community to execute.
What should be the next actions by the Obama administration on the intelligence front?
I believe the next major challenge internationally is going to be the same one we face domestically: the economy. I would urge the president to order Dennis Blair, his director of national Intelligence, and Leon Panetta, his CIA chief, to focus the attention of the intelligence community on global or regional crises that could stem from the economic meltdown.
The discomfort we face at home is magnified many times over in nations that depend heavily, if not exclusively, on the availability and flow of international credit. Some countries and regions could face catastrophic economic seizures with hard-to-predict consequences for our national security.
How will the president's inaugural declaration that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" affect the agency's ability to gather intelligence?
I agree with him in the sense that torture doesn't work. And in a broader sense, I believe that America's surest path to long-term security is as a nation that sets a strong moral example, refrains from military aggression, and that uses its power to prevent, limit, mediate or stop conflicts, not to initiate conflicts. As Obama sets about restoring our reputation around the world, that trust will increase in foreign capitals and will, in turn, yield greater cooperation from foreign intelligence services, which are a critical source of our own intelligence.
What are the benefits of decentralized, nimble, new agencies vs. a centralized clearing house for information, analysis and operations?
I would say that our intelligence structure provides some of both. The military service intelligence branches, for example, are going to be heavily focused on providing tactical intelligence to their deployed forces. The National Clandestine Service will be building intelligence sources worldwide where it can, whether or not new sources happen to come from the region or country of moment on any given day. But at the end of the day, we need that central clearing house to make sure that critical information flows through our government's central nervous system.
The selection of intelligence community outsider Leon Panetta has been controversial. Do you believe someone from the outside can improve national intelligence gathering, analysis and reporting?
Yes, I do, in general and as regards Panetta. A critical skill Panetta will bring to the equation will be asking the right questions of the intelligence community. During the run-up to war in Iraq, we saw the Bush administration asking over and over again that the intelligence community address questions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, alleged efforts to acquire uranium, and so forth. Those tasking orders themselves generated a sharp up-tick in the quantity of reporting on Iraqi WMD activity, or supposed activity, and that quantity of reporting itself became cause for suspicion about a revived Iraqi arsenal. It was, however, a feedback loop: The increasing quantity of intelligence on Iraq WMD resulted from the profusion of questions being asked, not from a profusion of new information flowing in.
The negative consequences point to the importance of asking the right questions and being open to responses from the intelligence community that don't necessarily fit the prevailing administration view on any given policy. It will be interesting, for example, if the intelligence community warns the Obama administration that a pull-out of combat troops on Obama's preferred timetable would risk a resumption of sectarian violence in Iraq, and possibly an unraveling of the situation there.
Any additional thoughts on Leon Panetta?
There are two streams of debate and discussion in the intelligence arena: One concerns the efficacy of the controversial things the intelligence community does (Bay of Pigs; Latin American coups; assassination attempts; torture; domestic surveillance); the other concerns the quality of intelligence the president gets every day. The Panetta pick was mostly about the former, about "cleaning up the CIA's act," so to speak, but in this era, I think the latter area is the more important of the two.
Panetta's job will be to ensure the president gets high-quality intelligence every day.
You point out that ironically it was the CIA itself that helped eliminate the WMD from Iraq following the Gulf War. What other important recent successes can be credited to the Agency?
I would say the willingness of the intelligence community to issue a report saying Iran has stopped its nuclear weaponization program, and another report saying that Al Qaeda has maintained its effectiveness and striking power despite the global war on terror, was a sign that the intelligence community is back in the business of "speaking truth to power"—delivery analysis that runs counter to the current administration's thinking.
You say the book's title does not refer to CIA incompetence, but to "an atmosphere of declining confidence in the abilities of U.S. intelligence to do its job." And yet your book details a number of abject failures—from the overestimation of the Soviet threat in the 1980s to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade to the missed opportunities to defuse the nascent Al Qaeda. Were you just being diplomatic?
No, I wasn't being diplomatic. My book is sharply critical of the intelligence community during this era but seeks to put the community in its political context and give a sense of the outside pressures that sometimes negatively impact what it does. I think my book demonstrates a number of areas where the magnification of intelligence failure for a variety of reasons, sometimes political, steadily eroded confidence in the ability of the intelligence community to do its job.
In the chapter on national missile defense, for example, I describe a couple of intelligence failures: the failure to predict the India/Pakistan nuclear tests, and the failure to predict North Korea's launch of a three-stage rocket the following August.
The Chinese embassy bombing was an embarrassing CIA failure. My point is that it contributed to a regrettable decision by the Clinton administration to refrain from using force against Al Qaeda when our intelligence community had succeeded in fixing Osama bin Laden's location.
Finally, and most pointedly, I show how Rumsfeld in particular developed the theory that our intelligence could not be counted upon to identify and report on all the critical threats facing the United States, that in some cases, we would have to take action to protect our security by making assumptions beyond what the available intelligence would support. This argument was based on this erosion of confidence in the intelligence community—this culture of failure—and it was the key building block of the bogus use of questionable intelligence in making the case for war in Iraq.
You received help in the project from David Brady of Stanford's Hoover Institution and your book was published as part of Stanford's Security Series. Tell us how that works.
The Hoover Institution has an active media fellows program of which I have been a grateful beneficiary. Professor Brady, in particular, has been most helpful to me in giving advice on turning an idea into a book, and the Hoover Institution staff helped me immensely. Hoover pays a generous stipend to journalists able to come and spend a week at Stanford visiting scholars, attending seminars, giving lectures and working on their own research projects.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.