Political Intelligence

What happens when U.S. spies get the goods-- and the government won't listen?

In 1989, an intelligence analyst working for then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney issued a startling report. After reviewing classified information from field agents, he had determined that Pakistan, despite official denials, had built a nuclear bomb. "I was not out there alone," the analyst, Richard Barlow, recalls. "This was the same conclusion that had been reached by many people in the intelligence community."

But Barlow's conclusion was politically inconvenient. A finding that Pakistan possessed a nuclear bomb would have triggered a congressionally mandated cutoff of aid to the country, a key ally in the CIA's efforts to support Afghan rebels fighting a pro-Soviet government. It also would have killed a $1.4-billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Islamabad.

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Barlow's report was dismissed as alarmist. A few months later, a Pentagon official downplayed Pakistan's nuclear capabilities in testimony to Congress. When Barlow protested to his superiors, he was fired.

Three years later, in 1992, a high-ranking Pakistani official admitted that the country had developed the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon by 1987. In 1998, Islamabad detonated its first bomb. "This was not a failure of intelligence," says Barlow. "The intelligence was in the system."

Barlow's case points to an issue that has largely been overlooked in the post-September 11 debate about how to "fix" the nation's spy networks: Sometimes, the problem with intelligence is not a lack of information, but a failure to use it.

In the early days of the Vietnam War, a CIA analyst named Sam Adams discovered that the United States was seriously underestimating the strength of the Vietcong. The agency squelched his findings and he left in frustration. During the Reagan years, Melvin Goodman, then a top Soviet analyst at the agency, reported that the "Evil Empire" was undergoing a severe economic and military decline. Goodman was pressured to revise his findings--because, he says, then-CIA director William Casey wanted to portray a Soviet Union "that was 10 feet tall" in order to justify bigger military budgets. (Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, put it more delicately in his memoirs: Reports from Casey's CIA, he wrote, were "distorted by strong views about policy.")

At about the same time Barlow issued his warnings about Pakistan, an Energy Department analyst named Bryan Siebert was investigating Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. His report concluded that "Iraq has a major effort under way to produce nuclear weapons," and recommended that the National Security Council look into the matter. But the Bush administration--which had been supporting Iraq as a counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran--ignored the report. It was only in 1990, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, that clear-eyed intelligence reporting on Iraq came into fashion.

More recently, the Clinton administration went to great lengths to protect Boris Yeltsin, who was viewed as a critical partner in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One former intelligence analyst says that Al Gore and his national security adviser, Leon Fuerth, would "bury their heads in the sand" if presented with any derogatory report about Yeltsin. "Taking unpopular positions means that you get bad reviews and don't get promoted," he says. "Some analysts simply stop pursuing information because they know that it can get them into trouble."

A different type of political filtering takes place when the CIA relies on "liaison relationships" with foreign intelligence agencies, whose reports are often colored by the biases of the local elite. One notorious example came in Iran in the 1970s, when despite decades of cooperation with the secret police, the U.S. government failed to grasp the extent of public opposition to the Shah. Less than four months before Khomeini's revolution toppled the Iranian monarchy in early 1979, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the Shah was "expected to remain actively in power over the next 10 years."

In Pakistan, the CIA has worked closely with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) ever since the two institutions teamed up in the 1980s to fund and direct the Afghan guerrillas. After the Taliban took power in 1996, the CIA relied on the Pakistanis for help in monitoring the regime. But the agency reportedly got little support or information from its ally in Islamabad--probably because isi was also one of the Taliban's primary backers. "We have consistently misled ourselves because we don't have our own sources of information," warns Burton Hersh, author of The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA. "If we had had people working the bazaars in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, we would have seen that there is a lot of unhappiness and that even upper-middle-class people were thinking about joining up with bin Laden."

Reforms of U.S. intelligence--whether they involve bigger budgets, better recruiting, or more effective spying--won't make much of a difference, Hersh and others warn, as long as officials are unwilling to hear the bad news.