How Intelligence Agencies Really Work (3 min read)


Whenever there are politically motivated mass murders (like the Brussels attacks) or an impending war, there are calls for more funding for intelligence services. Yet, there is a limit to what they can achieve in their current configurations. The image of slick omniscient intelligence agencies in movies and echoed by conspiracy theorists is likely way off the mark.

Indeed, the failure of US intelligence bodies on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction allowed a rare insight into the workings of the most powerful and well-funded intelligence agency in the world.  An official commission into the failure was requested by President Bush in 2005 and led by Republican Laurence Silberman and Democrat Charles Robb. The unclassified report came to 618 pages. Its findings were sobering.

Aside from the punchline of: “the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”, it found one of the main problems with the intelligence community was its silo-mentality. The commission stated that the “Intelligence Community is also fragmented, loosely managed, and poorly coordinated; the 15 intelligence organizations are a “Community” in name only and rarely act with a unity of purpose”

Another issue was that it was reactive: “Perhaps above all, the Intelligence Community is too slow to change the way it does business. It is reluctant to use new human and technical collection methods; it is behind the curve in applying cutting-edge technologies; and it has not adapted its personnel practices and incentives structures to fit the needs of a new job market”

A related and unsurprising consequence was the challenge of bureaucracy: “The CIA and NSA may be sleek and omniscient in the movies, but in real life they and other intelligence agencies are vast government bureaucracies… Like government bodies everywhere, intelligence agencies are prone to develop self-reinforcing, risk averse cultures that take outside advice badly.”

And ominously it found: “commission after commission has identified some of the same fundamental failings we see in the Intelligence Community, usually to little effect. The Intelligence Community is a closed world, and many insiders admitted to us that it has an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations”

On the specifics of on Iraq, the commission found that the community was “crippled by its inability to collect meaningful intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.” and too readily accepted “evidence that should have been recognized at the time to be of dubious reliability… that supported their theory that Iraq had stockpiles”.

Then there was the pressure of the short-term: “the most common complaint we heard from analysts in the Intelligence Community was that the pressing demand for current intelligence “eats up everything else…Analysts cannot maintain their expertise if they cannot conduct long-term and strategic analysis. “

There was also an issue of recruitment. “Today’s most talented young people change jobs and careers frequently, are famously impatient with bureaucratic and inflexible work environments”. Performance evaluation and compensation also had to be changed. It was “too often tied to time-in-grade, rather than demonstrated achievement.”

So whatever the funding of intelligence agencies or its perceived image, they suffer the same problem as any large lumbering organisation. It would be far better to re-think their structures, and actually implement changes.


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