At this point, after it was caught completely unawares by ISIS’s move against Mosul and on toward Baghdad and before that was totally surprised by Russia’s move into Crimea, should we start being worried about the capabilities of the US intelligence community? That’s the question Shane Harris is asking at Foreign Policy.
The problem is that part of his premise is wrong, at least in regards to Crimea. A lot of the criticism that the IC didn’t see Crimea coming (unlike some of us *coughcough*) hails from two places: Republicans in Congress and this Daily Beast piece by Eli Lake in which “US Spies” insisted that Russia’s military maneuvers at the time were a “bluff.” Which spies? Eli never says. They were, uh, senior ones, you can be sure of that. In general, if we’re going to judge the credibility of the IC based on whether or not Eli Lake’s reporting (on, really, anything) was accurate, then, yes, the IC is going to look pretty bad.
As far as Congressional Republicans are concerned, how much of their criticisms are based on actual intel failures and how much is just them taking another opportunity to go for the political shot at Obama? We’re talking about a party whose leading national security voice in Congress is not only consistently wrong on national security (especially on Iraq!), but he also does things like popping out of classified briefings after a couple of minutes so he can park himself in front of yet another TV camera and criticize Obama. The IC, and particularly the CIA (the DIA as well), shot back at those Republican criticisms and claimed that it did brief Congress and the administration on the possibility that Russia would invade, but of course the intel community has its own credibility problems right now, doesn’t it? I think the best you can say is that it’s not clear what actually happened with Crimean intel, so it’s probably irresponsible to draw major conclusions from that event.
Now, what’s happening in Iraq might be another story, although it’s very early to start doing a “what happened” reflection like Harris is trying to do. Harris is relying on “current and former US officials,” which means “none of them went on the record,” which is the same problem Lake had with his “Russia is bluffing” piece. He gets three people on the record, one of whom is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross from the most partisan “non-partisan policy institute” around, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, whose contribution was “[w]e were caught flat-footed.” Well, no shit. Christopher Harmer criticizes the CIA’s lack of presence in the country; he’s from the Institute for the Study of War (its final conclusion? War is awesome). You might remember ISW as the place what used to employ serial fabulist Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was also taking money from a group that was doing lobbying work for the Syrian rebels at the time, who liked to make up stories about how hard-line jihadi groups, like ISIS, were only a very tiny fraction of the Syrian rebellion (oops!), and who then got fired from ISW when they found out that she liked to make up stories about her own credentials as well. There’s also David Tafuri, “Rule of Law Coordinator” in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, who insists that the Kurds were begging the US to leave a base in their autonomous part of Iraq before the 2011 pullout, but never tells us whether Kurdish autonomy gave them any legal right (which is important, right, rule of law guy?) to make that kind of offer.
So Harris has a bit of a sourcing problem here. While I have no trouble believing that the US doesn’t have great intel about what ISIS is planning to do, I’m not sure that the failure to penetrate a fairly small and tight-knit extremist insurgency that operates out of a region of Iraq that is openly hostile to its own government in Baghdad indicates any great weakness in the US intel community any more than it indicates that “this spying shit is hard.” That’s not to say that for the $70 billion or so we spend on intel every year we shouldn’t expect better, or that there shouldn’t be some important lessons learned from what’s happened. Funny story: one of the reasons offered for the intel “failure” in Crimea, if you assume there was one, is that the focus on terrorism has caused the IC to divert its attention from Russia. Which might have been kind of a bad deal, now that it seems we weren’t focusing enough on terrorism either. Maybe our analysts have been spending too much time on the ex-girlfriend beat. But the other thing to consider here is that developing human intelligence on a threat like ISIS could probably have been better managed by, I don’t know, the Iraqis themselves, so maybe they stand to take some of the responsibility here as well. They’re also at least partly responsible for the fact that there’s no US military presence in Iraq anymore, which Harris argues has really hampered intel gathering there but which doesn’t seem like a “failure” to me, for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on.
So is there a problem in the US intelligence community? Of course there is; in fact there are multiple, major problems (unchecked spying on Americans, for starters, and follow up with a baffling disinterest in big, looming catastrophes like, oh, climate change) and have been for quite a while now. But I don’t know that Crimea and Mosul suggest a particular pattern of incompetence.