Yale University Professor Charles Hill has retired from a distinguished career in diplomacy to become a great teacher of politics, literature and statesmanship. Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page features his column on the 9/11 Commission. Although I quarrel with Professor Hill’s introductory description of the commission as “admirably bipartisan,” his column on the commission report may be the only one worth reading today. The Journal titles the column “Commissionism.” Here it is:
The 9/11 Commission (The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States) has been admirably bipartisan, created by congressional legislation signed by the president. It has worked swiftly and thoroughly, with widely covered public hearings; and, remarkably, it has produced unanimous conclusions. Within its mandate, the commission has performed well. But a lack of the larger international context is troubling. The commission’s performance in microcosm reveals basic fallacies that have characterized the national security discourse for years, especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001: structuralism, perfectionism, solipsism and “present-ism.”
The commission has succumbed to the temptation to react to any major governmental problem with a recommendation for structural or institutional remodeling. A new cabinet-level post is proposed for a Director of National Intelligence who would manage, coordinate, and in some cases control, all the intelligence services. But that is just what the Director of Central Intelligence is supposed to do, as set out in the National Security Act of 1947. The DCI’s agency is designed to be independent and coordinating — but not controlling — so as to permit healthy competition among the various services. Strong leadership can make that structure work.
The main point is that intelligence and policy must not be mixed. Richard Helms, the professional’s professional as CIA director, would present his intelligence estimate to the president and his team and then leave the room, to make sure not to get involved in the policy decision- making that followed. If the director does not do so, intelligence starts getting skewed toward serving a particular policy outcome. A cabinet-member director who never has to leave the room could quickly morph from a manager into an intelligence “Czar” — the last thing we need. A main cause of inadequate intelligence performance over the past three decades has been a decline in the quality of personnel, brought about by pressures for diversity. This effort has brought plenty of smart and able people into the profession, but fewer of them have possessed the broad-based historical and area-studies education needed, of the kind generally gained at “elite” colleges and universities. Yogi Berra’s maxim doesn’t apply in intelligence: You can’t “observe a lot by just looking”; you have to know a lot about what you are looking at.
The demand for near-perfect certainty is a deeply entrenched delusion. Secretary of State George Shultz was a close reader and cross-examiner of intelligence reports and briefers. Time and again Mr. Shultz would say, “That’s interesting; give me more on that,” only to find the agency officer unable to back up or elaborate on the initial assertion. The agency was not deliberately exaggerating or distorting the intelligence; it was simply straining to deliver the level of certainty that its consumers wanted. Intelligence collection and analysis is a very imperfect business. Refusal to face this reality has produced the almost laughable contradiction of the Senate Intelligence Committee criticizing the Bush administration for acting on third-rate intelligence, even as the 9/11 Commission criticizes it for not acting on third-rate intelligence.
Focusing so relentlessly on the overriding importance of intelligence about 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction has obscured the reality that we are waging this war in the Middle East because decades of dysfunctional rule across the region have produced Islamist terrorism; Saddamist-style hijacked states; and regimes fearful of subversion, such as Saudi Arabia, whose policies have inflamed the situation and increased the danger to itself. We are at war in the Middle East to prevent its takeover by a revolutionary ideology that aims to destroy the established international system, the United Nations, international law, human rights and all.
There is the old joke: “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” The Commission is a centerpiece of a larger American self-obsession, all about what did we do wrong, what we should have known, how we must do better. Necessary, without doubt — but media fixation and the 9/11 Commission’s lust for the limelight have crowded out attention to the nature of the enemy we face. Instead, it’s we who haven’t caught bin Laden; our presence in Iraq has created an “insurgency”; and if only we could change our policies (e.g., pressure Israel), all would change for the better.
While the Arab media, the European intelligentsia and the American “commission community” are transfixed by this array of U.S. failings, a platform must be found from which to explain the dimensions of the challenge. In terms of the Second World War, we are in the late 1930s. Churchill described the danger then. Today the Bush administration is understandably reluctant to talk frankly about a threat so fraught with religious, cultural and civilizational implications. To this end, we welcome with relief the renaissance, under Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl, of the Committee on the Present Danger, so vital during the Cold War years and even more urgently needed now.
Finally, there is “present-ism,” the American propensity to forget history, enhanced in this case by political fears of self-incrimination. Since the political struggles about the CIA’s role in Vietnam and in the Cold War, Congress, the executive branch and at times the intelligence services themselves have, across administrations Democrat and Republican, taken one measure after another to hedge in, “bring under control” or otherwise confuse or reduce the capacities of the intelligence services to do the kind of work the politicians continue to demand. The Church Committee, the Colby “reforms,” the decimation (more like octimation) of operations, the decline of human intelligence in favor of overreliance on technology, the numberless Boland Amendments, the “wall of separation” that impedes CIA-FBI cooperation, the 1995 PDD 35 that forced the CIA toward tactical rather than strategic analysis — all these follow a pattern familiar across U.S. foreign affairs in recent decades; increasing requirements while cutting capabilities, tamping down resources as we ramp up responsibilities.
The 9/11 Commission deserves thanks, and its recommendations deserve study. But remember that we have yet another commission on the launching pad, the independent Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, chaired by Judge Laurence Silberman and Gov. Charles Robb. As these necessary efforts go forward, the national focus needs a broader perspective. There’s more to this war than Commissionism.
The author’s tag on the column describes Professor Hill as follows: “Mr. Hill is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a lecturer at Yale University, and a former aide to Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger. He is working (with Boutros Boutros-Ghali) on a book on the United States and the U.N. in the post-Cold War period, to be published by Random House.”