A Judgment on Intelligence

Editor’s note: This article first appeared at American Thinker.

Despite everything you’ve gleaned from spy novels and movies, the most important
raw material for a successful intelligence service isn’t information; it’s
judgment. If you don’t know what information is worth collecting, and if you
cannot figure out what this information means soon enough and clearly enough for
policymakers to use it — you lose.

The latest case in point is the fuss over allegations in the German press that
our country’s intelligence service has been listening in to Angela Merkel’s cell
phone conversations. From the moment these allegations began to surface,
American commentators and television talking heads — a few of whom have actually
served in U.S. intelligence, most of whom claim to be intelligence experts
because they once, perhaps, were allowed to read a classified document — have
been pooh-poohing these allegations as much ado about nothing. "Everyone does
it," they pronounce, usually with a shrug and a wink. "So what’s the big

Yes, it’s true that from time to time allies do spy on one another. France, for
example, is infamous for running industrial espionage operations against
America’s leading high-tech companies. (It doesn’t seem to have done the French
much good; their economy is a basket case.) But just because our allies put
more effort into spying on one another than spying on their real enemies, that
doesn’t mean we should too.

In the real world of intelligence, it isn’t possible to know everything about
everything. You can never have enough spies, enough satellites, or even enough
bandwidth to monitor all humanity. And even if you had an unlimited supply of
spies, satellites and bandwidth, there aren’t enough analysts in the world, let
alone in Washington, D.C., to make sense of what’s been collected. If you try
to know everything about everything, you wind up knowing nothing about
anything. An effective intelligence service must pick and choose its targets
very carefully. And that’s a matter of judgment.

What could we possibly hope to learn from Angela Merkel’s cellphone
conversations that’s worth the risk of offending one of our country’s most
important allies? Is she likely to be calling China’s president to coordinate
an invasion of Russia? Is she on the phone with the head of Pakistan’s army to
secretly purchase one of that country’s nuclear bombs for the Luftwaffe? Are
you kidding?

This is Angela Merkel, one of the world’s most capable, serious,
head-screwed-on-straight leaders. There isn’t a chance she would do something
to start a world war or fracture the Western alliance. It’s more than likely
the most interesting call we’d pick up from the German chancellor is a
conversation with her husband saying she’ll be home late for supper because a
delegation of Greek bankers has unexpectedly arrived in Berlin to beg for yet
another Euro loan. And you don’t need spies or wiretaps to have predicted this
— or to predict Merkel’s response to their pleas.

Meanwhile, it seems that none of our country’s senior intelligence officials
thought it worth the time and effort to keep an eye on the Tsarnaev brothers in
Boston before they exploded two bombs at the Boston Marathon — even though both
brothers were growing more radical by the week, had set up a terrorist-type
website, and one of them had traveled to Dagestan, and after returning to the
U.S. was the subject of a tip from Russian intelligence. And before that, our
intelligence service completely missed all the warning signs flashing red from
Maj. Nidal Hassan in Texas — emails to and from al Qaeda operatives, overseas
phone calls to known terrorists, personal outbursts that would have alerted your
average high school guidance counselor, even calling cards with Soldier-of-Allah
imprinted after his name — before the army psychiatrist killed 13 people and
wounded 31 others at Fort Hood back in 2009.

No intelligence service can be perfect, and even the most brilliant, hard
working spy chiefs will suffer the occasional failure. But as the Angela Merkel
dust-up and the other failures make clear, the problem with American
intelligence today isn’t a shortage of resources needed to keep us safe, but a
lack of judgment at the top.

— Herbert E. Meyer served as special assistant to CIA Director Bill Casey from
1981-87. He was Casey’s right-hand man at the CIA in the 1980s, where he joined
Casey and Ronald Reagan as a central player in the take-down of the Soviet
Union. He is the author of "How to Analyze Information" and "The Cure for

© 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views &
expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City

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