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November 1, 2001 NATIONAL SECURITY

Intelligence Crisis

By Gregory F. Treverton

Old sources and methods must be reshaped to deal with a host of new threats, especially a new kind of terrorism.

he old and new worlds of intelligence met on Sept. 11 when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The old world was dominated by a single target, the Soviet Union, and a few consumers, most of them political and military officials of the U.S. government. Information was in short supply, and most of what the intelligence community had, it owned, having produced it with its own special sources—espionage or spy satellites. The intelligence world regarded that information as reliable. In the new world, intelligence has many targets, not one; many consumers, not just a few; and vast amounts of information, much of which is neither owned by intelligence nor regarded as reliable—for example, that stew of fact, fiction and disinformation known as the Web.

Sept. 11 drove home the fact that terrorism is an old world problem but in new world circumstances. The new world is much more open than the old, but terrorists are not part of that openness. They do not advertise their plans, so intelligence’s special sources are still important—espionage, or human intelligence (HUMINT), intercepted communications or other signals (SIGINT), and photos or other images (IMINT). Yet even to grapple with old world terrorism, methods from the old world need to be reshaped by the circumstances of the new. The CIA needs to conduct espionage, for instance, in a very new way—outside the official cover of embassies, more patiently and in a more targeted fashion. Even then, it will be hard-pressed to penetrate terrorist cells in South Asia or the Middle East. It will need friends or allies, not all of which will be states, and it will need to share with them in ways that do not have much precedent. Those sharers will be partners and sources and customers of the intelligence community.

We still have no words to describe the “post-Cold War world.” The terrorist attacks are a too-vivid reminder that dangerous threats remain. But those threats are not in a class with the Soviet Union. They are snakes, not the Soviet dragon, to use the phrase of former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey. In military terms, the United States is indeed the sole superpower; only it has the whole panoply of military instruments and the capacity both to combine arms in complex joint operations and to project those operations over long distances. It will remain so for the foreseeable future; indeed, in some terms its lead is lengthening.

American military predominance gives rise to a paradox: Because the United States is so predominant in conventional war, it is not likely to fight another one. Only a fool, or a desperate man, would repeat Saddam Hussein’s mistake by taking on the United States where it is strong. Future foes will try to find where the United States is weak. They will not confront American power symmetrically. Rather, they will reach for asymmetric strategies and tactics, in which weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical and biological weapons, will loom large. Future regional conflicts will be fought under the shadow of such weapons, and thus must be planned under that shadow. Would-be foes will train such weapons on U.S. forces where they mass, or against the long lines of communication over which the United States must move forces, or against vulnerable allies or bases the United States needs.

In contrast to military might, political and economic power will be more dispersed.

Most of the major powers of the future will be large, rich and relatively homogenous. The list is almost certain to include the United States, Japan and Europe; Russia or China may be on it as well.

At a third level, global processes are undermining the hegemony of the nation-state, which has been the dominant fact of international politics since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Those processes include:

Economic globalization. Economic trends both integrate and disintegrate. They integrate in that national borders and distances matter less. At the same time, though, in a world where people’s skills are really the only national endowment that matters, countries that opt out of the global economy and people with fewer skills are left behind. Economics integrates only those who can be integrated. Thus, the gap between the haves and have-nots—a disintegrating force—is growing, not just between rich and poor nations but also within nations, including the rich ones. Communications revolution. The information revolution is the key enabler of economic globalization. It was the information revolution that undid the Soviet Union; planning and brute force could produce roads and dams but could not induce innovation in computer chips. It is continuing to undermine the ability of governments to control information. A generation ago it was feared that computers would abet dictators; Big Brother seemed closer at hand. Now, the opposite seems true. Rising belief in the nonmaterial. People seek to differentiate “us” from “them” in religion, ethnicity or other ways. In that sense, what drove the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and the revival of Islam that is visible around the world—horribly in the case of the terrorists —look like two sides of the same coin, and what motivates the American militias does not seem very different. Perhaps partly in alienation from processes of global integration, peoples seek some form of transcendental association. Changing demographics. Over time, enormous disparities in growth rates between the Northern and Southern hemispheres will sharpen emigration pressures. They will also create youth “bulges”—that is, cohorts, especially of young men, much too large to be integrated into the job force. Those bulges may be sources of dissatisfaction, and so of instability, in such key developing countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, and they can be sources of recruits for terrorism as well. Environmental concerns. Like demographic shifts, these are chronic, not acute: From one year to the next an environmental indicator may simply worsen gradually, almost imperceptibly, then come to a sharp crisis once some tipping-point is reached. Imagine what two nuclear meltdowns—two Chernobyls—within a year would do to the international agenda. ‘New’ Old Threats

For some developments that emerge from these global processes, the old-fashioned language of threat is appropriate. That is plainly the case for terrorism. Americans learned of their vulnerability from a gruesome string of bombings—the World Trade Center in 1993, the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, Khobar towers Air Force housing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000. What was shocking about Sept. 11 was not that terrorists could do it, but that they could do it four times, simultaneously, in a coordinated campaign.

There was and remains concern that nuclear bombs, materials or know-how might spill into the hands of terrorists. The Tokyo subway gassings by the mysterious Aum Shinrikyo group demonstrated that lethal biological weapons have been—and are—within reach of almost any terrorist group. If terrorists seek killing on a vast scale, they have no reason to go to all the trouble of building atomic or radiation weapons. They could use biological ones instead. If terrorists have not used atomic or biological terror thus far, that has been because “conventional” explosives have been lethal enough for their purposes.

For downing airplanes or otherwise killing large numbers of people at once, conventional explosives are more than sufficient. Indeed, the truck bomb that destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 was, at the time, the largest nonnuclear explosion the FBI had ever seen. The suicide-bomber who drove into the barracks didn’t have to meet his maker to accomplish his mission; he could have achieved nearly the same result by parking the truck several hundred yards from the barracks and exploding it by remote control. And the terrorists of Sept. 11 found an elegantly horrible solution. By turning fuel-laden airplanes into flying Molotov cocktails, they saved themselves the trouble of building any bomb.

Moreover, the new terrorism seems to differ from the old in motivation. That change was hinted at with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The new terrorists, unlike previous ones, are not rational in our terms. Previous terrorists could be frightful but were rational. They used terror in pursuit of political objectives. They wanted something. Thus, they had to reveal their role, opening the possibility of retaliation against them or their state sponsors. By contrast, these enemies seem to have no political objectives we can satisfy or spurn. They want revenge for acts of ours they cannot describe and that we would not recognize. They are apocalyptic. Most previous terrorists have been rational, if extreme; they have sought specific political ends. While few places are strangers to terrorism, and while yesterday’s sponsors of terror may be tomorrow’s targets, the United States will continue to be the target of choice for these avengers. Its sheer size and dominance of the international system will continue to make it the “Great Satan.” The domestication of threats such as terrorism and crime will blur the line between intelligence and law enforcement. In one sense it is only natural that as traditional threats wane, pure intelligence should turn to new purposes, such as catching criminals. Yet that turns intelligence to purposes for which it was expressly not designed: Not only has domestic practice separated intelligence and law enforcement, lest the two together become “Big Brother,” but intelligence is avowedly national, its purpose to get a leg up on other nations, while future law enforcement will be inherently cooperative. Law enforcement also blurs the other distinctions, on which American intelligence has been based, between public and private and between foreign and domestic.

The cultures of intelligence and law enforcement are worlds apart. For intelligence, the purpose is policy, and the standard is good enough to serve as a basis for making that policy. For law enforcement, the purpose is convicting criminals, and the standard is that of a court of law. Intelligence takes pains to protect sources, and so stays out of the line of evidence. Law enforcement has to trade off protecting sources with convicting criminals, and its officers need to be prepared to testify publicly. This clash of perspectives and the challenge of finding new missions will be a primary shaper of U.S. intelligence in the years ahead; the disagreements will be sharper because the history of the two main organizations, the CIA and the FBI, is one of ragged cooperation at best.


-- Martin Thompson (, October 23, 2001

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