Foreign Intelligence or Intelligence?

FILE - This June 6, 213 file photo shows the sign outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. The Na
FILE - This June 6, 213 file photo shows the sign outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. The National Security Agency declassified three secret U.S. court opinions Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, showing how it scooped up as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans with no connection to terrorism annually over three years, how it revealed the error to the court and changed how it gathered Internet communications. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The debate over the National Security Agency's cyber surveillance and collection of telephone records should lead to a better balance between rights of privacy and requirements of foreign intelligence. But whatever the outcome of that debate, it has failed to acknowledge inherent deficiencies and risks in "foreign intelligence" and the transcendent role of foreign policy in the defense of our national interests. Important fundamentals that shape our national security policy will be unaddressed and unchanged.

Based on my years of experience as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Chairman of its Subcommittee on the Collection and Production of Intelligence, I can say that effective congressional oversight and control of the military intelligence complex is something of an oxymoron. NSA and CIA directors reported to me in secret. Members of Congress don't know what they don't know, they don't know what to ask, and they can't disclose what they are told in secret. Although the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court may now have a Privacy and Civil Liberties Advocate, a potentially sound reform, that Advocate will be similarly handicapped.

Meanwhile, as a result of current policies, U.S. technology companies are damaged and forced to move operations out of the United States while indignant foreign governments take counter-measures against them. The financial costs of the military intelligence complex, including its tens if not hundreds of thousands of private contractors, are now estimated to exceed $70 billion annually. A new international commission is being organized to give the protection of privacy a multi-national dimension.

But I detect in this ferment little attention to the role and function of foreign intelligence, its inherent limitations, and the need for intelligence of a cerebral sort. Faulty intelligence contributed to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and to Colin Powell's embarrassing defense of that invasion before the UN Security Council. A rudimentary familiarity with Iraq and its region should have been enough to foretell the consequences of our invasion.

Predictions of "spectacular acts of destruction and disruption" and proposals for preventing terrorism go back to my own introduction of the Comprehensive Counter Terrorism Act of 1979, following a year-long study by the Subcommittee on the Collection and Production of Intelligence. The study was prompted by the election of the Likkud to power in Israel, its repudiation of "autonomy" for Palestinians, and the effective neutralization of Egypt at Camp David. Trailing Israeli troops into the West Bank and Golan Heights in 1967, seeing and hearing evidence of what would later become known as "ethnic cleansing" produced real intelligence for me. Some 500,000 Israeli settlers now occupy East Jerusalem and the West Bank in defiance of the 4th Geneva Convention, with even more in the Golan Heights of Syria. As long as the U.S. subsidized Israel and indirectly its settlements policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Americans would, I feared, be vulnerable to terrorism. That risk grew with the first Gulf War and with the stationing of U.S. troops -- viewed as infidels -- in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia which became principal sources of militant jihadists. Predictions of terrorism and measures to avoid it required no foreign intelligence. What they required was intelligence of a more cerebral sort.

Foreign intelligence tends to support the foreign policies of those who seek the intelligence, as illustrated in Colin Powell's position on the invasion of Iraq. Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian General, said intelligence was a "lie." Intelligence collection priorities are often determined by policy makers -- the "consumers." Often, foreign intelligence is tailored to fit the pre-conceptions of policy makers. Intelligence is often flawed. Leaks are endemic; those which compromise "sources and methods" can be fatal. The agencies of the intelligence community (including the FBI) have conflicting and overlapping missions, lack effective "central" responsibility, and are overwhelmed by masses of intelligence, much of it technical, which requires "production" and assessment, often without the necessary regional specialists and linguists.

When I was leading the investigation of the intelligence failure in Iran in the late 70's, I was told by the CIA director that the Agency had no Farsi-speaking analysts, and I learned, visiting CIA Station Chiefs in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, that their operating directives were focused on the Soviet Union -- the preoccupation of the consumers. The Shah of Iran assured me that the unrest in Iran was owing to Communists instigated by the Soviet Union. The U.S. relied on the Shah's agency, Savak, for intelligence on Iran. Foreign agencies focus on the priorities of their consumers. Our brave station chiefs were forced to neglect tremors beneath their feet.

My official report to the Senate in 1978 foresaw the fall of the Shah of Iran and the fall of President Sadat in Egypt -- the CIA did not. The U.S. relied on Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, for intelligence on Iran and Iraq. We received faulty intelligence -- or was it faulty? These agencies may have achieved their purpose, drawing the U.S. into Iran and Iraq -- quick sands of a post-World War I construct of feuding tribes, sects, ethnicities, and foreign interests carved by Europeans from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire.

Our foreign policy failures and dilemmas reflect failures of a cerebral sort of intelligence, including a lack of experience in the real world away from Washington, its arm chair polemicists, its ideological think thanks, and too little experience in military ground forces where you learn to expect the unexpected. Policy has been driven by ideologues, militarists, and amateurs, including Members of Congress who are little noted nowadays for real world experience.

Terrorism is not a phenomenon of recent origin. Gavrilo Princip, the Serb nationalist who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke in 1914, did not expect to bring down the Empire. But the Empire foolishly responded with an ultimatum to Serbia which triggered World War I and, eventually, the Empire's demise. Nineteen men armed with box cutters did not expect to bring America down. Only America can do that. Attacking America was a tactic for Osama Bin Laden. The U.S. reacted by attacking Afghanistan and Bin Laden's enemy, the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, the same regime that the U.S. had aided when it was using chemical weapons against Iran.

Cyber surveillance and meta data collection are part of the continuing reaction to 9/11, with few if any terrorists to show for it and near universal condemnation. The U.S. is widely perceived as waging war against Islam, against Shias as well as Sunnis, on the ground, with drones, and by proxy in Palestine, from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia. Germany and Brazil resent our intrusions, and what have they wrought?

The current debate will lead to much-needed reforms, but it will not change the limited and often obscuring nature of what we call foreign intelligence. There is no substitute for the pragmatic, cerebral intelligence of policy makers derived from an understanding of history and from experience in the real world -- and the courage to act on it. Foreign intelligence is no substitute for foreign policy.

The hour is late in Palestine, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan. The Taliban may be resurgent as the Americans and allies retreat in Afghanistan. In Syria, Palestine and Iran, the Obama Administration, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, is trying to give diplomacy a chance. It may not be too late. Talks with Iran on its nuclear program are proceeding. It has a new and seemingly pragmatic president. Israel and militants in Syria handicap the Geneva talks on Syria by preventing Iran's participation. But Secretary Kerry and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, are trying there also to give diplomacy a chance. Pressures mount on Israel as it isolates itself in the world. Secretary Kerry doesn't need foreign intelligence. He needs support.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place in 1918. The assassination occurred in 1914. The post also incorrectly referred to the assassin as Gavril Princip. The assassin's name was Gavrilo Princip. The post has been updated to correct these errors.