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The Washington Quarterly 25.1 (2002) 61-74

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The Use and Limits of U.S. Intelligence

Frank J. Cilluffo, Ronald A. Marks, and George C. Salmoiraghi

After spending nearly $30 billion annually on intelligence gathering efforts, why did the intelligence community (IC) fail to predict the September 11 terrorist attacks? How could they have prevented the attacks? How can the United States improve its ability to ensure that an event like this will not happen again?

The role of U.S. intelligence cannot be minimized; it will be Uncle Sam's lifeblood in the campaign against terrorism. Accurate and timely information is the foundation of every element of this campaign, including U.S. diplomatic, military, financial, and political operations; it also provides warning of future attacks. At present, the IC has not received sufficient funds to accomplish its tasks or sufficient political support when the inevitable failure occurs. Ironically, at the dawn of the information age, the United States has neglected its own intelligence foundation.

What exactly is "intelligence"? Classic espionage is defined as an "intelligence activity directed toward the acquisition of information through clandestine means and proscribed by the laws of the country against which it is committed." 1 Intelligence involves understanding the motivations, thoughts, and plans of one's enemies. Multidisciplinary intelligence, including insights into the cultures and mindsets of terrorist organizations, is crucial to providing indications and warnings of possible attacks and is critical to illuminating key vulnerabilities that can be exploited and leveraged to prevent, preempt, and disrupt terrorist activities before they occur. The first priority should always be to get there before the bomb goes off. [End Page 61]

The United States must now build quickly on the centers of excellence in intelligence that already exist and improve the areas in which deficiencies are found. Decisionmakers must provide the IC with the tools it needs to do its job. Energies and resources must focus on ameliorating, not degrading, current conditions and capabilities. If required at a later time, our leaders will certainly hold the responsible parties accountable during the requisite "blame game." (As a cautionary note worth repeating, successes go unheralded while failures make the headlines in the intelligence gathering business.)

Why the United States Slept

Understanding the historic relationship between the United States and the necessarily shadowy world of intelligence is important. U.S. citizens have been of two minds about the subject, vacillating between their fascination with intelligence's romanticized, James Bond-like aspects and their repugnance at its reality, in which "dirty people" engage in "dirty business."

During the Cold War, U.S. efforts to collect intelligence focused on the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the transnational hydra supplanted the Russian bear. As James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence (DCI) at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), noted, the "dragon" was gone, but "a jungle full of poisonous snakes" had replaced it. 2 Rather than facing a monolithic adversary, the United States was challenged by a worldwide range of threats--from terrorism to organized crime to narcotics trafficking--all difficult targets to pinpoint.

The mid-1990s saw the swing toward the "cleaner" intelligence method of signals intelligence (SIGINT) and away from human intelligence (HUMINT) in a manner unseen since the "rogue elephant" days of the 1970s; budget cuts and reductions-in-force followed. Paralleling the sentiments of President Jimmy Carter and former CIA director Stansfield Turner, senior advisers in the Clinton administration displayed open hostility toward the IC, particularly toward HUMINT.

This focus on "clean" SIGINT has been the hallmark of the past 10 years in intelligence collection. SIGINT continues to prove its enormous value in collecting information about such things as the location of tanks or some telephone conversations, but SIGINT was unable to provide any insight into what a particular cell was planning. That type of information requires a person.

Simultaneously, case officers have been required to make sure that their human assets were clean--free of human rights violations and able to pass a litmus test of...


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