Tune into any radio or television discussion about foreign policy lately, and you would think you were watching reruns of Perry Mason. The issue may be a North Korean weapon of mass destruction. Or it may be Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Or even Iraqi links to al Qaeda. But whatever the question, we always seem to hear that U.S. intelligence is searching for "proof." Or "evidence." Or the ever-popular "smoking gun."
This kind of talk implies that, if we could just collect enough intelligence, we would settle these questions. The idea has even been built into the language of people on both sides of the issue. Opponents of military action say they want proof of a violation. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), for example, has demanded "convincing evidence of an imminent threat before we send troops to war with Iraq." Even President Bush, who needs no convincing about whether Iraq's potential threat is reason enough for action, has been drawn into the linguistic quagmire. Last week he cited "evidence from intelligence sources" and said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would use "information and intelligence" to make the case to the U.N. Security Council.
The assumption is that, with enough effort, we will have what people are calling an "Adlai Stevenson moment." You can almost see it in your mind — the fuzzy black-and-white TV images of October 1962. Stevenson, U.S. delegate to the United Nations, holds up aerial photos of Soviet missile launchers in Cuba taken by U-2 spy planes. Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin — who previously denied the weapons were there — declines to explain. "I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over," Stevenson says.
Powell's address to the United Nations this week might provide a similar moment — but don't count on it. In any case, such courtroom-style theater is beside the point. The idea of the presentation of a decisive piece of admissible, convincing evidence might be an appealing metaphor, but it is a misleading one. Usually intelligence does not offer crystal-clear answers, and we should not hang decisions to go to war or do anything else on its ability to do so. In my own experience, intelligence is usually full of uncertainty. In the intelligence business, foolproof, airtight evidence — the kind that changes minds and convinces the public — is, as one of my first branch chiefs at the CIA used to tell me, as "rare as hens' teeth." That's why expecting intelligence to provide "proof" in the legal sense of the word is so dangerous.
Detective work and intelligence collection may resemble each other, but they are really completely different.
Detectives aim at meeting a specific legal standard — "probable cause," for example, or "beyond a reasonable doubt" or "preponderance of evidence." It depends on whether you want to start an investigation, put a suspect in jail or win a civil suit. Intelligence, on the other hand, rarely tries to prove anything; its main purpose is to inform officials and military commanders.
The clock runs differently for detectives and intelligence analysts, too. Intelligence analysts — one hopes — go to work before a crisis; detectives usually go to work after a crime. Law enforcement agencies take their time and doggedly pursue as many leads as they can. Intelligence analysts usually operate against the clock. There is a critical point in time where officials have to "go with what they've got," ambiguous or not.
But the biggest difference — important in all the current controversies — is that intelligence agencies have to deal with opponents who take countermeasures. Indeed, usually the longer one collects information against a target, the better the target becomes at evasion. So do other potential targets, who are free to watch.
When did we start acting as though intelligence analysts were law enforcement detectives? The turning point may have been the 1970s, when monitoring arms control treaties became an important intelligence mission. The issue was whether the Soviet Union was "in violation" of an agreement. Intelligence became a political issue, mainly because it was central to the question of whether or not arms control was working — a huge point of disagreement between hawks and doves.
It got worse about a decade ago, when a new buzzword began percolating through intelligence circles. Intelligence officials began saying that their goal was to provide "actionable intelligence."
Originally this was a military term for intelligence precise enough and timely enough to tell you where to put a bomb or intercept a target. In time, though, the term mutated. Actionable intelligence these days refers to data so clear and so thorough that policymakers can, literally, base a decision to take action on it.
Alas, by transmuting this term, we inadvertently moved the burden of making policy decisions from the shoulders of officials and politicians (where it belongs) to the shoulders of case officers and analysts (where it does not). The truth is, this was convenient for senior officials. If they did not have good enough intelligence, they could be excused for not taking action — and the analysts would get the blame.
But do we really want to put these issues in the hands of career intelligence analysts? As we wonder whether to wage war against Iraq, it's worth remembering that U.S. intelligence did not detect Iraq's nuclear program until it was uncovered after Desert Storm in 1991. It did not find out about the Iraqi biological weapons program until 1995, with some help from the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam's son-in-law. Sept. 11 showed what happens if you wait too long for "actionable intelligence." American leaders kept watching while a threat developed before our eyes. We had good information about the training camps in Afghanistan, and there were strong signs that al Qaeda was behind the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 1999 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
The problem was that officials never believed that U.S. intelligence had met the threshold required to trigger action against al Qaeda networks or training camps. True, our intelligence organizations could have done a much better job in anticipating the Sept. 11 attack. But it was the search for intelligence concrete enough to be used as evidence — just the search we are engaged in today — that led to intelligence failures that were, in part, really policy failures.
Instead of waiting for actionable intelligence, we need to start thinking about how to make policy based on "inferential intelligence" — that is, by using analysis and logic.
On Iraq, that means asking: Did Hussein commit billions of dollars and thousands of technicians to building nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, then suddenly drop those programs? Or did he develop those weapons — and hide them? Intelligence cannot answer this — at least not in any way that might be described as actionable. Yet a program successfully hidden would still call just as urgently for U.S. military action.
Instead of a Stevenson moment, the model for most policy decisions should be the "John McCone moment."
Shortly after McCone became director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Kennedy, his analysts told him that they had spotted Soviet antiaircraft missiles in Cuba. The analysts believed the missiles were there only to defend Cuban ports and airbases, but McCone believed they were precursors to Soviet offensive missiles. He knew that the Soviets lagged behind the United States in nuclear weapons and that they wanted to fix the problem. The temptation to use Cuba as a base was an irresistible solution.
So McCone insisted on more U-2 flights to look for offensive missiles in Cuba, despite the lack of hard evidence, despite the risks to the pilots, and despite the doubts of his own analysts and most of the National Security Council that Soviet leaders would deploy such weapons. McCone brought logic and reason to bear where evidence was lacking, took action and took responsibility. Those flights were how Stevenson got his opportunity to corner Zorin.
So, I am looking forward to watching Secretary Powell "make his case" before the United Nations. But, in the end, intelligence shouldn't decide what we do. There may be no smoking gun. It's the nature of the intelligence business. Elected officials will have to perform the job they are paid to do: Judge. Decide. Lead.
Bruce Berkowitz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior analyst at RAND. He began his career at the Central Intelligence Agency. His book "The New Face of War" (Free Press) will be published in March.
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on February 2, 2003.