April 08, 2004 Connecting the Dots Our intelligence community needs pattern-spotters, not career bureaucrats. By Herbert E. Meyer As the 9/11 Commission's hearings play out on television, and as the new presidential commission to investigate intelligence failures relating to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction gets going, the coming weeks are sure to bring more revelations about what went wrong in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks and in the subsequent run-up to our war with Iraq. Good: We need to understand what went wrong with our intelligence on the 9/11 attacks and Iraq's WMD, and if these commissions can find some answers, we will owe them our gratitude. But enough information has already surfaced to make clear that behind the CIA's failures surrounding 9/11 and Iraq's WMD lies an intelligence failure about the war on terrorism that runs even deeper â and is of an order of magnitude that neither commission may consider within its charter to investigate. To understand this deeper failure, you need to understand something about intelligence itself that, to my knowledge, no one has ever disclosed before. For several years, during the Reagan administration, I had access to many of our intelligence services' most closely held secrets. And what I learned is this: The most vital, most actionable pieces of intelligence aren't "secret" at all. They are visible to anyone with a reasonable grasp of politics and economics â and, above all, anyone with a willingness to see the obvious and then articulate it clearly enough, and forcefully enough, so that policymakers cannot possibly ignore it. Before turning to the CIA's failure in the war on terrorism, let me explain this point by outlining the CIA's deep failure in the Cold War. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the CIA produced a stream of intelligence assessments whose key judgment was that the Soviet economy was growing at an annual rate of more than 3 percent. The implication of this steady growth was that the Soviet Union had the economic wherewithal to continue fighting the Cold War for as long as anyone could foresee. There was just one problem with the agency's key judgment: It couldn't possibly be right. If you understood how an economy works â or if you just put on a pair of comfortable shoes and walked the streets of Moscow, or Leningrad, or Minsk with your eyes open â it was obvious that the Soviet economy wasn't growing at 3 percent. It wasn't growing at all: It was starting to implode. THE VALUE OF INSIGHT This wasn't a secret, but rather something much more valuable in the intelligence business: It was an insight. And if true, the implication of this insight was extraordinary: it meant the Soviet Union could not continue to wage the Cold War; that it needed to win quickly, before its economy collapsed, which meant in turn that the Soviet Union was likely to become even more aggressive in the years ahead precisely because it was starting to collapse. Armed with this insight â which was developed by a group of "outsiders" appointed to key CIA jobs by President Reagan's remarkable director of central intelligence, William J. Casey â we ordered our clandestine service, and our analysts, to shift their focus from Soviet strengths to Soviet weaknesses; in other words, to see if they could uncover "secret" intelligence either to support the insight or prove it false. What flowed in was a stunning torrent of reports, intercepts, and photographs â about factories shutting down for lack of raw materials, about workers rioting to protest the lack of meat and soap, about Moscow planners frantically shifting allocations of steel from tanks to locomotives, the text of brutal memos from the Politburo putting more and more pressure on the various bureaucracies to find new ways of generating hard currency â all of which showed conclusively not only that the Soviet economy was imploding, but that Soviet leaders knew it. Indeed, the one "secret" that Soviet leaders were most determined to keep us from learning â the one piece of intelligence whose discovery would be for them an utter catastrophe â is that they were sitting atop an imploding economy. They were right. Armed with the intelligence that the Soviet economy was in deep trouble, President Reagan set a course to force that economy off a cliff. We launched an arms buildup the Soviets couldn't possibly match, including SDI. We got rough with our so-called allies in the Mideast and forced down the price of oil, not merely to boost our own economy, but to cripple the Soviet economy by cutting their hard-currency earnings from oil exports. And when they scrambled to build a natural-gas pipeline into Western Europe to generate the hard currency that oil exports weren't providing, we played diplomatic hardball with our European allies and got that project stopped. There was more to it, of course â including CIA operations that even now must remain secret â but the point here is that President Reagan found a way to use this intelligence to end the Cold War with a victory for the free world. Now let's fast-forward into the 1990s. The World Trade Center was nearly blown up in 1993. American soldiers were killed in Saudi Arabia when truck bombs took out the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996. In Iran the mullahs were providing more and more support to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. In Iraq Saddam Hussein tried to kill President George H.W. Bush and established at least a working relationship with al Qaeda. The Taliban took power in Afghanistan, and gave al Qaeda a secure base of operations. Al Qaeda itself began to operate beyond the Mideast, and in 1998 hit our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In 2000, al Qaeda wrecked the Navy's most advanced destroyer, the USS Cole. And through all this, literally month after month, Osama bin Laden issued one statement after another calling for the destruction of Western Civilization itself. WE WERE AT WAR Put all this together (and, in my mind, we need to take a hard look at the Oklahoma City bombing and the explosion that brought down TWA flight 800), and the not-so-secret insight hits you right between the eyes: War has been declared on the United States. It has been declared by al Qaeda, which has the support of other terrorist groups and also of rogue states including Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Attacks to date make clear that this anti-U.S. coalition of groups and states has the capacity to plan and carry out sophisticated attacks on high-value targets, and has a global reach. Most worrisome, our enemies' objective is neither political nor territorial in the traditional sense. Rather, their objective is our utter physical destruction. The implication is that attacks on U.S. targets, both overseas and in the U.S. itself, inevitably will increase both in frequency and magnitude. Of course analysts will have honest differences of opinion over which terrorist group or country carried out which attack. (Hint to all you terrorism analysts: Laurie Mylroie is right; Laurie is always right.) But push beyond these differences and you would have to be blind not to see that our country was at war, and had been for several years at least.