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Book Review: Enemies of Intelligence

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This is the fourth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

  1. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
  2. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
  3. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
  4. Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts

Over the years, Richard Betts has written extensively on intelligence issues. Enemies of Intelligence is a restructuring and amalgamation of many of the arguments that he’s made over the years in a variety of different outlets. While some collections of this sort prove disjointed and repetitive, collecting Betts’ various argument together and refining them makes a lot of sense; the book is, on the whole, coherent and readable.

Betts’ central argument is that the TANSTAFL principle applies to intelligence. The Intelligence Community will catch some threats to the United States, and miss others; intelligence reorganization is as much about which threats will be caught as about the final batting average. Every effort to solve one intelligence problem creates a problem somewhere else. For example, there is no a priori reason to prefer a regional to a functional division of intelligence responsibilities within an organization; both approaches do some things well and leave gaps. Adding coordinative layers can help, but can also substantially slow down analysis. Demanding clear statements of probability can lead to mistakes, while overfocusing on mistakes can produce mushy intelligence estimates. Similarly, the politicization of intelligence is bad, but intelligence product must be politically savvy in order to be of relevance to policymakers. This may all seem obvious, but in the wake of a public failure of the intelligence community, almost everyone seems to forget these lessons; every failure produces calls for a reorganization (without an evaluation of what that reorganization will do), calls for an elimination of red tape (without a recognition that red tape exists for a reason), and calls for more resources (without much attention paid to just how much added value such resources will produce). This is a particularly serious problem in intelligence, because while failures are public, successes are not; if Atta and his comrades had been identified and arrested months before 9/11, a few people would have noted it as an intelligence victory, while most wouldn’t have noted it at all.

Betts does sometimes allow a bit too much “on the one hand, on the other handism” to creep into his analysis. Given his focus, this isn’t surprising; when you argue that intelligence reorganization is a zero-sum, or possibly low positive sum game, then it’s critical to recognize that different approaches inevitably have different pluses and minuses. Similarly, Betts is not a strong partisan; although he strongly opposed the Iraq War, he’s best characterized, I think, as a Cold War Democrat most comfortable with the idea that a broad consensus on foreign security policy is both possible and desirable. As such, he’s not interested in battering the Republican party and the way that its partisans think about intelligence. This leads him to be a bit too kind to ventures like Team B, which in my view (and in the view of a lot of other people) were enormously destructive endeavours without notable redeeming qualities. Then again, he does point out that the WMD fiasco was, above all, a policy failure rather than an intelligence failure; it would have been irresponsible of the intelligence community to conclude that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, and the real problem was that the presence of such weapons should not, in fact, have justified intervention. A better report would have added caveats about the circumstantial nature of the evidence and the weakness of the case, but could not have concluded that the weapons were absent, and likely would not have stopped the war.

Enemies of Intelligence doesn’t include a tremendous amount of detail about the workings of the Intelligence Community, and Betts could have illustrated his argument with more examples. The book amounts to an abstract case for an abstract caution, with some detail in order to make specific points. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling case, and a useful antidote to the entertaining-but-non-analytical arguments made in a book like See No Evil, or even Legacy of Ashes.

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