A year ago June Congressman Curt Weldon (R. Pa.) published a book, Countdown to Terror, that included information he had obtained between 2003 and 2005 principally from an Iranian source living in Paris (“Ali”). The CIA had refused to talk with Ali and other related sources and Weldon’s book was highly critical of the Agency for that decision. The book has now become an issue in Weldon’s re-election campaign.
I read the book before publication at Weldon’s request and my comment on its cover reads in part as follows: “[it] is a case study of an intelligence failure in the process of happening, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the United States.” Events in the intervening months have made Weldon look wiser and the book’s critics less so.
For example, the book describes how Ali received information in January of 2003 about Iran’s nuclear program and in August-September of 2003 about the details and locations of its uranium enrichment. Iran’s active support of terrorist operations in Iraq against US forces, including particularly Muqtada al Sadr’s leadership and subservience to Iran, is spelled out in detail in several chapters beginning with reports from June of 2003. A number of these reports pre-dated the other information, at least as publicly reported, that was available to the United States on these points.
Several terrorist attacks that have been thwarted, such as one in Canada to hijack an aircraft and fly it into a nuclear power plant in the US and another to attack Parliament and behead the Canadian Prime Minister, are entirely consistent with Weldon’s sources’ warnings of planned terrorist attacks against Canada.
Of course not everything that Ali indicated to Weldon has come to pass or been attempted, but there is enough substance in Ali’s warnings to suggest that this is a man with whom the CIA should definitely have talked in order to obtain ideas to be explored further. Weldon wrote the book because of his frustration with the complete lack of willingness by US Intelligence, specifically the CIA, even to talk to Ali -- other than to warn him to stop communicating with Weldon.
This is not an isolated incident. As a journalist friend of mine puts it, “CIA case officers don’t do ‘ask-int’” -- in other words, just talk to a wide range of people to see what they have to say. Instead the culture is one of officers’ focusing almost exclusively on dealing with two relatively limited groups: their counterparts in friendly or semi-friendly countries (“liaison ”); and agents that they recruit, vet, and control (usually through payments).
The Director of Central Intelligence who served the longest, Allen Dulles, used to express great frustration with this propensity of his operations officers, and repeatedly told a remarkable personal story to illustrate his strong belief that if you’re in the intelligence business you should always talk to anyone who wants to communicate with you: you may discount later, but learn first. Dulles came to this view when he was serving in Switzerland as a young Foreign Service Officer during WW I. One Sunday a man came to the Embassy and asked urgently to speak with him. Dulles didn’t want to be late for a tennis date with an attractive young woman so he sent word to tell the man to come back during the week. The man never returned. After several months Dulles told his colleagues that, given subsequent events, he very much regretted his rush to the tennis date because he had now come to wonder what it had been that the man, who turned out to be Lenin, had wanted to see him about just before the Germans had put him on the train to the Finland Station.
Weldon has this CIA aversion to “ask-int” squarely pegged, and one of his major proposals for reform of the CIA’s culture quite appropriately focuses on encouraging officers to broaden their horizons and to be more willing to deal with sources that cannot be recruited and controlled – such as Lenin, and Ali. He is also right, in my view, that this sort of cultural reform is more important in improving the effectiveness of our intelligence than the reorganization focus that came out of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.
Weldon also levels heavy guns in the book at the cultural norm of intelligence analysts’ seeking unanimity in order to have an “agency position” on issues. It is this search for consensus that he believes, and I agree, is the “single greatest weakness” of the intelligence community. To be fair to intelligence professionals, they are often bombarded by demands from political leaders in both the executive and Congress that they reach such consensus. But the right response is to display honest disagreements anyway and explain them. Intelligence failures are heavily driven by the tendency for “group think”, since one is often dealing with mysteries about which judgment cannot be avoided rather than with secrets that can be stolen.
In historical terms, it was the common judgment of most Western intelligence analysts (and almost everyone else) in the late 1930’s that the different ideologies of Nazism and Communism, and the hatred, even warfare (as in the Spanish Civil War), between the two groups meant that they would never cooperate. Only a few far-sighted individuals, such as George Orwell, understood that both totalitarian groups had one greater hatred – those who defended freedom. So the Hitler-Stalin Pact of September 1939, which essentially began WW II, definitely marked an intelligence failure of the first order. Analysts often can stand as a group -- when all the intelligence signals show hatred between totalitarian movements – for the proposition that they will never cooperate. They are then surprised when totalitarians prove to be ultimately cynical, and easily surmount their doctrinal differences to work together against defenders of freedom.
One of Ali’s most troubling themes, and one that could pose the greatest of dangers to the US, is cooperation between al Qaeda and the leaders of Iran. But the group view of the analysts, like that of their predecessors in the 1930’s, stresses the doctrinal differences between Shi’ite and Sunni Islamism – the bitter mutual hatreds, the impossibility of cooperation. And yet, Ali has some very interesting things to say about such cooperation. Would not the detonation of, say, an Iranian nuclear weapon in a US city be of such stunning value to both Ahmadinejad and bin Laden that they might temporarily agree to work together and resume their struggle at a later point? Being able to divide Poland was worth it to Hitler and Stalin.
Curt Weldon stuck his neck out and tried to get the US government to listen to what an interesting man had to say – some reports that might have given us some timely leads and enhanced our security. Weldon, like Wellington, has a strategy of marching toward the sound of gunfire. Such a quality is rare, and needed, in the service of the country.
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