Intelligence experts convene

When we think about the country’s military intelligence, is the glass half empty or half full? This was just one of the many questions discussed in Saturday’s panel that gathered experts from around the country on military intelligence. Entitled “In From the Cold: Richard Betts and the Renaissance of Intelligence Studies,” the panel was based on Betts’ acclaimed 2007 book Enemies of Intelligence. Throughout the day, professors, authors and military analysts considered obstacles to intelligence reform, many of which have not been overcome despite the post-September 11 calls for restructuring.

Sponsored by the Stanley Kaplan Program in American Policy and Leadership Studies Program, the discussion was broken into three separate panels: intelligence and foreign policy, surprise attack and intelligence reform, and secrecy and democracy.

According to conference organizer and Stanley Kaplan Postdoctoral Fellow Joshua Rovner, the first panel addressed the relationship between policymakers, intelligence and public support. Questions ranged from, “What do policymakers expect from the intelligence community? What are the sources of friction between policymakers and their intelligence advisors?” to “Do policymakers use intelligence to inform their judgment or do they use intelligence to rally public support for their decisions?”

Responding directly to issues in Betts’ book, panelists on the surprise attack and intelligence reform panel considered possible reforms and preventative measures against unexpected actions. Erik Dahl, a retired Navy intelligence officer and current pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard, spoke on cases of intelligence failure and success in light of research on foiled terrorist plots. According to Dahl, the public is often unaware of the many terrorist attacks that are thwarted each year. “The sorts of intelligence often most helpful are not usually the kinds we hear,” Dahl said. He also argued that human intelligence was more important than strategic intelligence, citing the role of paid informants and tips from neighbors in bringing potential threats to the eyes of government agencies.

Other speakers discussed, questioned and sometimes criticized other aspects of intelligence, from the appropriateness of the original post-September 11 intelligence reform goals to the role that academics can play in analysis.

The day closed with a focus on the difficulty that sometimes arises in trying to reconcile intelligence with democracy. “While intelligence requires some amount of secrecy to be effective, this is always in tension with democratic norms of government openness and accountability,” Rovner said.

Some panel participants were highly critical, including Richard Russell, professor of national security affairs with the National Defense University. “Three years were wasted on inconsequential things,” Russell said. “We are no better off now than we were prior to the reforms.” He discussed the problems of the bureaucratically bloated intelligence agencies, arguing that obtaining national secrets and securing first-rate human intelligence was far more important than the current layers of processing information.

Stephen Marrin, a professor at Mercyhurst College, was slightly more optimistic. “Failures are inevitable, but the best way to look at reforms is in thinking about improving or optimizing performance, instead of just fixing problems,” he said. “Is [the glass] half full or half empty? There needs to be a meeting in the middle.”