The panel discussion "Collecting and Understanding US Intelligence on the Middle East" took place at the 59th annual conference in November, 2005.
Wayne White, Frank Anderson, Rand Beers, John Moore
With over a century’s worth of combined experience in the intelligence community, panelists discussed the challenges of collecting adequate and accurate information amidst calls for organizational reform, violent unrest in Afghanistan and Iraq, and denunciation and controversy over the use of torture as a strategy.
Moderator Wayne White began by addressing the role of modern technology in intelligence collection. While many assumed that the so-called “information revolution” would provide analysts with a comprehensive picture, White cautioned that the advent of the internet has mostly led to an impractical increase in daily reading material. Many analysts, he argued, have taken to “scanning and not reading” the flood of information in an effort to keep up - which he believed to be a dangerous trend.
Former National Security Council Director for Counter-Terrorism Rand Beers focused on the difficulties of collecting intelligence in unpredictable and unstable locales. Beers touched on American involvement in Haiti and Somalia and explored in depth the intelligence community’s commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq. He emphasized that security can become the biggest hindrance to collecting accurate information. Because of recent turmoil, assignments to Afghanistan and Iraq have been kept relatively short - typically between three and six months - and many agents lack extensive background knowledge of either country. Read moreover, in an effort to protect American troops, the intelligence community’s objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq center almost exclusively on neutralizing remnants of the Taliban and Ba’ath parties to the detriment of wider data collection. Beers believed American intelligence is still in the beginning stages of understanding societies that are defined largely by clan family structures. He referenced an American bombing of a wedding party as a possible example of the manipulation of US intelligence by Iraqis hoping to propagate existing family disputes.
Retired DIA senior Middle East expert John Moore also addressed the challenges posed by the insurgency in Kabul and Baghdad, but focused more broadly on the need for accountability in the case of intelligence failure. According to Moore, major breakdowns in intelligence before 9/11 meant probable job removal; since then accountability has been less consistent. Moore alluded to the case of “Curveball,” the now-infamous Iraqi expatriate whose false information eventually found its way into then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech before the United Nations on February 5, 2003. Moore warned that if the principal threat to America is indeed Islamic extremism, the intelligence community will require major changes. He reasoned that the current information collection systems still reflect a bygone Cold War reality.
Frank Anderson, former chief of the CIA’s Near East and South East Asia division, talked about reform but reminded the audience that “reformers are no smarter than the people who need to be reformed.” He believed that there is a natural tendency for organizations to resist change. Discussing the use of torture as an intelligence strategy, Anderson said, “[the] problem with torture is what it does to us… I will rebel against anyone who wants my son to torture — those are wounds that never heal.” He voiced support for Senator John McCain’s proposal that would ban the use of inhumane treatment against anyone in US government custody. With such reassurance, Anderson believed America can regain some of its lost global legitimacy and the intelligence community can concentrate on more effective means of obtaining information.
Spencer Witte, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote this Summary.