Obsessing Too Much on ‘Terror’

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. intelligence community threw extraordinary resources into the hunt for al-Qaeda terrorists, so much so that some experts fear a possible new blindness to other threats, a dilemma addressed by ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A common current piece of advice to U.S. intelligence agencies, coming from many places including reportedly from official advisory panels, is that those agencies ought to de-emphasize whacking terrorists and redirect some of that effort to traditional functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, lest the United States be blind-sided by something in China or the Middle East or elsewhere.

Just about everyone who comments on what U.S. intelligence agencies ought to be doing seems to be saying something along that line; we don’t need to turn to any official panels with privileged access to hear that. The message has an appealing, back-to-basics ring to it, as well as having the appeal of sounding forward-looking. And the message is substantively sound; intelligence agencies ought indeed to focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing information about the world outside the United States.

Hijacked plane about to strike the second of New York City’s Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sound though this particular message is, it is another illustration of publicly expressed conventional wisdom about intelligence that exists as a sort of parallel universe, separate from what the intelligence agencies are actually doing — of which, given the classified nature of that activity, the public commentators know little.

Without access to the real thing, purveyors of conventional wisdom feed on each other’s output until the conventional wisdom gets treated as if it were hard fact. When the conventional wisdom says something about how the intelligence community has been devoting too much attention to one topic and ought to shift attention to something else, this is really much more a reflection of where the public commentary itself has been devoting attention.

The same is true of what counts as a “surprise”; this often has less to do with what intelligence agencies were or were not telling their official customers behind closed doors than with what the public had or had not been conditioned to expect, based on public statements and discussion. Amid pronouncements coming from the parallel universe, several realities about the actual world of intelligence ought to be noted.

One is that disproportionate public attention to certain subjects or activities does not reflect the actual allocation within the agencies of resources and priorities. What is controversial or receives much public attention does necessarily seize the attention of senior managers who have to deal with Congress. But that is not true of the large majority of the work force, most of which has always been focused on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence, or directly supporting those who do.

Another reality is that the swing of the pendulum of attention from one topic to another in the actual world of intelligence is not nearly as exaggerated as swings in the parallel universe. This gives rise to myths, such as that during the Cold War the intelligence community devoted nearly all of its attention to matters involving the Soviet Union.

Yet another reality is that the intelligence community devotes much effort on its own to keeping its priorities well-grounded and up-to-date, applying the dual criteria of what is of long-term importance to the country and what the policy-makers of the day most want to hear about. Here the mistaken myth is that it takes kicks in the pants from outsiders such as advisory panels to make priorities up to date.

It is true — and here is where the two otherwise parallel universes intersect — that some of what the intelligence agencies do in reallocating resources is in response to shifting public demands. The agencies certainly expanded work on terrorism greatly after 9/11.

This was not because the nature of the terrorist threat had suddenly changed (it didn’t) or because before 9/11 the intelligence community did not understand that threat (it did). It was because with the sudden and enormous change in the public mood and public concerns, intelligence managers had to show Congress and others on the outside that they were beefing up work in this area.

What does not get nearly as much public attention in such circumstances is what trade-offs are involved in any such reallocation. With resources always limited, responding to public demands on one thing may increase the chance of genuine surprise in the future on something else — something that inhabitants of the parallel universe probably are paying scant attention to today.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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One comment on “Obsessing Too Much on ‘Terror’

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    We have met the enemy, and he is…us? How about all those overlooked threats! Gee whiz! Do you think any of them might be dual-citizenship politicians who publicly or privately owe fealty to foreign governments? Or…have any of them ever served in a foreign military service? That wouldn’t be a disqualifier, now, would it? Or, let’s say fifteen hijackers from Saudi Arabia attack the USA, and one of those dual-loyalty political appointees happens to be running the investigation, and he redacts all the information about the Saudi connection, and has it classified until 2035. That wouldn’t be suspicious, would it? Or that the ex-President was having lunch with a Saudi dignitary the day it happened, that wouldn’t necessarily raise any eyebrows either. Nor would the fact that there might have been any business dealings between the “First Family” and the bin Laden family at some point. Hell, no we could write all that stuff off as coincidence. Some obstreperous, obnoxious head of state could never come to this country and insult our President, then get twenty nine standing ovations in a joint session of Congress, could he? And that same country couldn’t get our highest technology defense gizmos as part of an aid package, then turn around and sell it to China, could they? Or, how about if they had a spy working in our most secret facilities and he stole our most sensitive cryptological information, they wouldn’t dare turn around and sell that information to the Soviet Union, would they? They wouldn’t leave us with egg on our faces by launching cyber attacks which have “Made in USA” stamped all over them either, now, would they. And if seventy six of our cornflakes for brains Senators introduced a bill vowing to support that obnoxious, obstreperous war-monger no matter what he did, we would be too smart to go along. Wouldn’t we…or would we? I’m sure our leaders recognize the real threat: it’s that beady-eyed fat kid with the funny haircut in North Korea, right? Oh, yeah, and the old guy with the white beard who looks more like Santa Claus than Burl Ives. Yep, America is right on top of the real threats to our National Security.