American agents found Osama bin Laden, but were wrong-footed by the fall of the USSR, the Arab Spring and Iraq’s lack of WMD. What counts as success?by Gregory Treverton / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
The IRA’s mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991. Picture: NI Syndication
When I worked at America’s National Intelligence Council, overseeing the production of the National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), I took comfort from being told that you could outperform professional weather forecasters simply by assuming that current conditions would continue. If it was fine, predict fine weather until it rained, then predict rain until it turned fine. That would more often be accurate than the forecasters’ predictions, based on data, theory and history. And if they, with all their tools, could not predict the weather, how could anyone expect us to predict a complicated human event like the collapse of the Soviet Union?
The question behind this musing was “what should people expect of their intelligence agencies?” Not “what would they like?”; for policymakers would like perfect prescience, if not omniscience. They know that they can have neither.
Reasonably, expectations should differ according to the problem at hand. But start with that hoary case which has hung over the intelligence services for 20 years: should they have done better in foreseeing the end of the Soviet Union? After all, the premise of the west’s strategy was that if Soviet expansion were contained, eventually the empire would collapse from its own internal contradictions. So some monitoring of how this policy was doing would have seemed appropriate.
In retrospect, there were signs aplenty of a sick society. Emigrés arrived with tales of Soviet toasters that were as likely to catch fire as to brown bread. The demographer Murray Feshbach presented Washington with a raft of Soviet statistics in the mid-1970s, most of which, like male life expectancy, were going in the wrong direction for a rich country. These factoids were puzzling, but we rationalised the first on the grounds that while the USSR produced poor quality household goods, its defence industry was a separate and much more efficient operation. The second we dismissed with “Russians drink too much.” The political scientist Emmanuel Todd did Feshbach one better and turned the numbers into a prediction of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But he suffered the double misfortune of not only being French but also writing in French, and so was not likely to make much of a dent in official Washington.
Intelligence is about creating and adjusting stories—this view has crystallised during my career as a producer and consumer of intelligence. In the…