Last night, we did a post on an article in yesterday’s Washington Times by Bill Gertz. The Gertz article talked about a “classified intelligence report that concludes that over the last ten years, America’s intelligence agencies failed to detect China’s aggressive arms buildup.” This morning, we got the following email from a recently retired CIA intelligence analyst named Owen Johnson. It is intensely interesting, so I’m reproducing it in full despite its length:
I have two comments regarding your post: History Seems to be Continuing.
First, your comment: “government’s main “experts” on a country or region are infatuated with the people they are supposed to be evaluating critically. Thus, the “Arabists” in the State Department have long been anti-Israel Arab partisans; the CIA analysts responsible for the Soviet Union thought highly of that grotesque entity, and completely failed to notice that it was collapsing; and now, the panda-huggers apparently glossed over China’s aggressive intentions.”
I take personal exception to this. I worked with the CIA and with ONI for 20 years; I am myself an expert on both Soviet Russia and China. I am not a panda-hugger nor I do think highly of the Soviet Union. Quite the contrary. Nor do those terms apply to any of my colleagues in the Intelligence Community — I exclude of course various traitors like Aldrich Ames that have sometimes crept into our midst. On my behalf and theirs, I ask for an apology for that comment. [Ed.: I’ve apologized to Owen.]
Regarding the State Dept, the charge is more apt, but that is a mainly a consequence of the State Dept.’s function which is directly opposed to that of the Intelligence Community. [This BTW is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it does cause problems.] That however is only part of my reason for writing.
Regarding Bill Gertz’s article in the Washington Times, you acknowledge you lack of specific expertise, so there, being such an expert, perhaps I can be of some use. Until I left the Intelligence community in 2002, I was a senior analyst working for the Office of Naval Intelligence on China and a nationally recognized expert on Chinese military developments. I was one of two principal authors of the ONI study on how the Chinese Navy [the PLAN] will fight over the next 20 years. This seminal study addressed Chinese naval doctrine, strategy, tactics, operational capabilities and developments over the period of 1987 to 2000, and projected them out to 2020. I was the principle author of many highly-classified reports on specific Chinese military systems, leadership C3, and China’s intelligence and security organs; on Chinese C4ISR systems and capabilities; on Chinese satellite systems and facilities, on technology transfer to China; on Chinese logistics, Chinese IW doctrine, Chinese telecommunications, Chinese software development, Chinese intellectual property law and Internet regulation, and on a variety of other aspects of China’s military, political and social environment.
In short, I am saying that if we missed “more than a dozen Chinese military developments” I am one of the principal guys who missed them — one of the “close-knit fraternity of government China specialists”; one of the ” …’self-selected group’ of specialists who fooled the U.S. government on China for 10 years”.
And yet, every example cited in the Washington Times article I have personally written a report on, in considerable detail, and those report at have been briefed up to the NSC level. So I can say with authority that insofar as the article mentions specific “surprises” either the report or the people writing the report are badly mistaken or promulgating outright falsehoods. So far are these from being surprises that most, if not all of them, are familiar to regular readers of Jane Defense publications. [And yes, before it is suggested that Jane’s scooped us or we ignored them in our hubris, let me say we are all avid Jane’s readers and our relationship with them if one of cooperation not competition. They are a valuable resource to us, if not, like anyone, always completely reliable.]
Now, the nature of the threat posed by China was, and I sure still is, a quite contentious issue in the Intelligence Community. There was a great deal of legitimate debate on the topic; not so much on the details of what was happening but rather on how well the Chinese were learning to integrate the new technologies they were acquiring and how successful they were being at creating new doctrine to use the new capabilities they sought. Acquiring a whole bunch of new weapons does not automatically confer the ability to use them skillfully or intelligently, nor does new technology automatically improve operational capability — often the reverse since it can be quite difficult integrate it properly with existing systems. So the debate within the Intelligence Community was between those who preferred to rely on the large body of evidence that showed the Chinese were not meeting these challenges very well, and those who held that a prudent threat-conservative posture demanded that we assess the Chinese threat based on system capabilities, not what the evidence said about their skill in employing those capabilities.
But as often happens, a legitimate debate among analysts was misused by many during the 1990s to either try to inflate the Chinese threat or to downplay it or ignore it for political reasons. This latter group was lead — not by some “close-knit fraternity” of analysts out to fool the government — but by Bill Clinton himself. Clinton went so far as to declare certain collection activities against China as “off-limits” and also put certain topics off-limits as well. In practice that meant, while we knew what was going on, we were not allowed to say some things, or to officially report certain obvious conclusions. Parenthetically, I say this not to justify anything that was “missed” because nothing mentioned in the Washington Times article — and I dare say in the leaked report — falls into those categories. I say it to point out that the former U.S. official who said the report should help expose that “self-selected group” that supposedly fooled the Government by suppressing evidence out of a desire to have good relations with China must be talking about him/her/itself. The quote by this former official is a fairly apt description of Clinton’s China policy, which owed nothing to any group beyond Clinton’s own band of cronies. If anything, it was Clinton who was attempting to fool the rest of us.
Now I notice with considerable interested that the main author of this report is Robert Suettinger, “a National Security Council staff member for China during the Clinton administration and the U.S. intelligence community’s top China analyst until 1998” and I also note at least one other Clinton apparachnik was involved with this so-called “highly-classified” report. Now Mr. Suettinger may be a fine fellow but he was not the U.S. intelligence community’s “top China analyst” at any time. He was a simply a customer of the work I and others did. He is a not an analyst; he is a politician. And I suspect he is in part responsible for the Clinton Administration’s disgraceful and dangerous conduct with regard to China — conduct that continues to threaten US national security. The same might well be said of the other authors and sponsors of this report.
Based on this report’s antecedents and the fact that it was leaked, can there be any doubt that it is nothing but a political hack job, cobbled together by a minor Beltway Bandit who was directed as to what to find, rubberstamped by some disgruntled members of the former administration, and leaked to cause embarrassment and thus exact a measure of revenge on their current political opponents? Of course there isn’t. Bill Gertz is usually pretty good on these issues and I’m surprised to see him taken in like this.
I know this is quite a long email, and I don’t expect you post it. But I would appreciate if you would acquaint your readers with the fact that charges of “intelligence failures” regarding the ongoing Chinese military build-up reported in the Washington Times are simply false. I cannot of course produce the volumes classified material substantiating that claim, so it must go on record as my professional opinion as opposed to an established fact, but I will settle for that. Under the same caveat, I will state that if there have been failures in addressing China’s military build-up — and there have been — they were purely political failures taken with full and often detailed knowledge of what the Chinese have been up to these last 20 years. This does not mean that we, the analysts who did the actual work, always agreed on how to interpret China’s activities or that our assessments of how successful the Chinese were being were all the same. But if there are any genuine “surprises” from the Chinese military in the offing, they are as yet undetected.
UPDATE: Another reader writes:
I was a Chinese translator and intelligence analyst for the Army Security Agency from 1965 to 1971. While Mr. Owen and his contemporaries may not have fallen into the “panda-huggers ” category, it was my experience that many of my contemporaries did. Mr. Gertz was not completely wrong.
Obviously we are not in a position to resolve these issues, but it certainly moves the discussion forward to present information from those who have first-hand knowledge. The overall question of the Chinese arms buildup and our response to it is hugely important, and certainly under-reported.