National Security

Interrogation Techniques

What Bob Schieffer can learn from the CIA.

So here's my bet: The next president will spend a great deal of time worrying about foreign policy issues that Bob Schieffer never mentioned and voters never considered in Monday night's foreign policy debate. And no, it's not just because shit happens. It's actually much worse than that. Looking at the past three elections, I found that presidential debate moderators did a surprisingly bad job of picking the foreign-policy issues that presidents later confronted in office. And here's the really interesting part: the U.S. intelligence community did much, much better, pinpointing serious threats in their annual threat assessments.

In the 2000 election, terrorism was completely absent from all three of the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Sure, it's tempting to put this one into the "who could have possibly known" category. That is exactly what Mitt Romney did Monday night, using this little tidbit of debate history to argue that strong militaries are necessary to defend against the unexpected.

But people did know about the growing terrorist threat before the 2000 debates and the 9/11 attacks. Not just any people. Senior people in the CIA and the FBI.

The CIA warned in both its 1999 and 2000 unclassified annual threat assessments to Congress that terrorism ranked second on the list of threats to U.S. national security. That's right. Second. Just behind the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his 1999 testimony before a public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA Director George Tenet remarked, "there is not the slightest doubt that Osama Bin Laden, his worldwide allies, and his sympathizers are planning further attacks against us. Despite progress against his networks, Bin Laden's organization has contacts virtually worldwide, including in the United States -- and he has stated unequivocally, Mr. Chairman, that all Americans are targets." In March of 2000, six months before the first Bush-Gore presidential debate, Tenet reiterated his concerns, telling Congress again in open session that bin Laden "wants to strike further blows against America" and that the CIA believed "he could still strike without additional warning."

Tenet was not alone. The FBI declared counterterrorism its number one priority in its 1998 strategic plan, three years before 9/11 and two years before the presidential debates. But the media did not notice. The Commission on Presidential Debates did not notice. Moderator Jim Lehrer did not notice. Neither did the two presidential campaigns.

The 2004 foreign policy debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush focused, understandably, on terrorism, homeland security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the candidates also spent time responding to questions about Canadian drug imports and the draft. What was left out? A little country called China. Or more specifically, China's breakneck economic and military rise and its increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. Here, too, the CIA was on it, flagging China's rise in its 2004 annual threat assessment several months before the debates began. The question of how to handle China's emergence as a rising power went on to become a major focus of President Bush's second term, it generated Obama's much ballyhooed "Asia pivot" earlier this year, and it remains one of the top foreign policy challenges of the foreseeable future.

The 2004 debates also never mentioned what turned out to be the mother of all foreign and domestic policy issues at the end of the Bush administration: The health of the global economy. To be fair, the global financial meltdown came as more of a surprise to economists and bankers than 9/11 did to intelligence officials. Whether the economic crisis should have been a surprise is another matter -- and a reminder that economists are world class at two things: exuding confidence even when wrong and predicting the past. But I digress.

The big debate miss in 2008 was cyber security. Again, intelligence officials were sounding the alarm but the debate ignored it. The 2008 threat assessment from the CIA director's successor, the director of national intelligence, noted that the threat from cyber attackers -- which included states like Russia and China, non-state organizations like criminal syndicates and terrorist groups, and lone Cheeto-eating hackers -- was large, serious, and growing fast. Yet in the three 2008 debates, John McCain and Barack Obama were never asked what they would do to protect America's military from cyber espionage or disruption; how they would defend America's critical infrastructure like dams, financial systems, and power grids from cyber attack; or how they would work with the private sector to stop billions of dollars of intellectual property theft that many fear could cripple America's competitive advantage in the global economy. Since those debates, the Obama administration has been seized with cyber concerns, creating a new Pentagon Cyber Command and feverishly trying to figure out who should do what in the cyber domain. This month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta darkly warned that the United States now faces the very real prospect of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor."

Cyber security made a cameo appearance on Monday, but only because Obama mentioned it in passing. Schieffer never asked a cyber question even though cyber security threats have vaulted to number three on this year's intelligence threat assessment. Global climate change got no mention on the debate stage at all, despite growing concerns that rising temperatures could be one of the world's worst threat multipliers, causing water and food shortages and extreme weather events that could create humanitarian disasters and turn fragile states into failed ones and perhaps terrorist havens.

What's gone wrong? Why are presidential debate moderators so bad at picking issues compared to the CIA and the DNI?

Two reasons. First, presidential debates are creatures of the news media, and the news media is obsessed with the news du jour. These are people trained to get scoops, write headlines, cover "the presidential horse race," and link everything they can to today's "pegs." In the media world, faster is better and current is king. But in the real world, foreign policy threats and opportunities take time. They gather. They simmer. They bubble up and die down, reacting to the reactions of others. In the news, the devil usually lies in the details. In foreign policy, the devil often lies in the trend, understanding what looms over the horizon and how it could affect vital national interests tomorrow. The annual intelligence threat assessment is all about horizon-gazing, assessing how current events will play out over time. Presidential debate moderators are all about the here and now, how last night's comments are playing in Ohio this morning. And that makes all the difference.

The second reason presidential debates are poor predictors of future foreign policy challenges is that our election system rewards short-term thinking. Quick wins play well with voters; longer-term strategies to fight emerging threats do not. Presidential candidates are smart people. They respond to incentives. That's why we hear a lot about what they will do "on day one" and precious little about what they hope to put in place for 2050.

It does not have to be this way. In today's presidential election system, candidates increasingly control what they say and how they say it -- running scripted ads, attending scripted events, and reciting scripted lines. But debates are different. They are golden opportunities to press candidates to think and react, to get in front of issues rather than just staying on top of them. To work well, however, the entire debate system is in dire need of an overhaul. A good start would be for moderators to check the headlines less and the intelligence threat assessments more.

CHARLES DHARAPAK/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Failing History

Why hasn’t the CIA learned anything from the Cuban missile crisis?

In September 1962, CIA Director John McCone was honeymooning in Europe but couldn't take his eyes off Cuba. Convinced the Soviets were secretly deploying nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida, McCone repeatedly cabled Washington with his concerns. Nobody believed him. McCone was operating on a hunch, without solid evidence. When the CIA issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate about the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba on September 19, it disregarded the director's views entirely. That estimate, like the previous three, concluded the Soviets would not dare put nuclear missiles in Cuba. A month later, U2 spy planes snapped photographs that confirmed McCone's worst fears and ushered in the most dangerous 13 days in history.

As the Cuban missile crisis turns 50 this month, it stands alone as the most studied event of the nuclear age. Academics have written so much about that eyeball-to-eyeball moment that there are articles about why we should stop writing articles about it. But there is at least one key lesson that still has not been learned. Generations of scholars and practitioners have insisted on calling the crisis an intelligence success when there is much more to be learned by calling it a failure.

The success narrative says the CIA discovered Soviet missiles before they became operational, enabling President Kennedy to seize the initiative and save the day. But that's the end of the story. The beginning is just as important and more often forgotten: The CIA failed to anticipate the presence of Soviet missiles despite widespread knowledge that Soviet arms shipments were escalating dramatically that summer. All four intelligence estimates on Cuba published in 1962 had a reassuring quality, highlighting evidence that the Soviets sought to defend the island with conventional arms, not deploy nuclear missiles there. Instead of inoculating the Kennedy administration against the horrors of a possible Soviet missile surprise, the intelligence estimates made the surprise even more sudden and shocking.

It is comforting to think that we avoided nuclear Armageddon through artful diplomacy, steely nerves, and timely intelligence. But the truth is we got lucky. During the height of the crisis, a previously scheduled test simulating a missile attack from Cuba was mistakenly identified as a real incoming strike, giving the North American Air Defense Command just minutes to determine what to do. In a 2002 missile crisis anniversary conference (yes, there are these things), scholars learned for the first time that one Soviet submarine captain actually did order preparations to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo off the U.S. coast on October 27. Were it not for a man named Vasili Arkhipov, who convinced the captain to wait for further instructions from Moscow even as they were being bombarded by U.S. Navy depth charges and running out of air, events could easily have taken a tragic turn. Other terrifying examples abound, showing just how close the edge of disaster really was.

Calling something a success or failure is not just an exercise in tweedy semantics. It shifts the focus from "what went right" to "what went so wrong." And what went wrong 50 years ago is still going wrong today; two lingering questions from 1962 suggest the silent but deadly effects of organizational pathologies in intelligence.

1.                  Why did analysts miss the signals of Khrushchev's true intentions?

Sherman Kent, who led the CIA's estimating shop during the crisis, argued that intelligence estimates missed the mark mostly because Khrushchev was nutty. "There is no blinking the fact that we came down on the wrong side," he admitted in 1964. But Kent added, "no estimating process can be expected to divine exactly when the enemy is about to make a dramatically wrong decision." In other words, let's blame Khrushchev and hope for more predictable adversaries in the future.

The more important and overlooked lesson here is that the structure of the U.S. intelligence system made a tough job nearly impossible. Although the CIA was created in 1947 to prevent another Pearl Harbor, the agency has never really been central. Intelligence agencies in the State, War, Navy, and Justice departments hobbled the CIA from its earliest days to protect their own turf. As a result, in 1962 intelligence reporting and analysis about Cuba was handled by half a dozen agencies with different missions, specialties, incentives, security clearance levels, access to information, and no common boss with the power to knock bureaucratic heads together short of the president. In this bureaucratic jungle, signals of Khrushchev's true intentions -- and there were several -- got dispersed and isolated instead of consolidated and amplified to sound the alarm.

Sound familiar? Before 9/11, this same fragmentation kept U.S. intelligence agencies from seizing 23 different opportunities to disrupt the terrorist plot. In each instance, someone in an intelligence agency noticed something important -- a string of jihadist flight school students in Arizona, a suspicious extremist at a Minnesota flight school, two suspected al Qaeda operatives with U.S. visas in their passports. These and other signals were not drowned out by all the noise. They were found, an incredible feat. And then, just as incredibly, each signal got lost in the bureaucratic sprawl.

2.                  Why, despite new evidence of a dramatically escalating Soviet buildup, did intelligence analysts continue to draw the same old conclusions?

In August and September 1962, intelligence showed a dramatic uptick in Soviet personnel and weapons deployments to Cuba. Nevertheless, the September 19 intelligence estimate concluded nothing had changed. The Soviets were ramping up all right, but to defend Cuba.

Sherman Kent took a lot of heat for that estimate. Nearly all of it centered on "mirror imaging," the tendency for analysts to assume an enemy will behave as they would. For psychologists, cognitive limits in the Cuban missile crisis have been the gift that keeps on giving. But I am convinced that organizational pressures were also at work and offer new, important lessons for today.

The thing to know about National Intelligence Estimates is that they are collective products. No single person or agency writes them. Instead, estimates require intense negotiation among many agencies to reach consensus, causing the entire process to tilt toward consistency. Once a judgment is made, changing it later becomes more difficult. Why? Because consistency is what policymakers expect. They don't need to be convinced the world looks the same today as it did last month. They do need to be convinced the world looks different. Consistency is a given, but inconsistency needs to be explained, justified, and defended. Changing a judgment means convincing every agency in the process that what it said or assessed or agreed to the last time should be modified or discarded this time. Generating interagency consensus on a new estimate that says "We have changed our collective minds" is invariably harder than producing a report that says "Once again, we agree with what we wrote last time."

This tilt toward consistency helps explain not only the September 19, 1962, Cuba estimate, but the now infamous 2002 Iraq WMD estimate. Both estimates reinforced earlier judgments even though the available intelligence had changed significantly over time. In Cuba, intelligence was accumulating fast, while in Iraq intelligence had been drying up for years. Yet in both cases, the past had a firm grip on the present. The Cuba estimate did nothing with more information and the Iraq estimate made more out of nothing, doubling down on prior judgments and evidence that Saddam had a hidden WMD program before. Both estimates also downplayed internal disagreements -- in the Cuba case, by not taking the CIA director's hypothesis seriously, and in the Iraq case, by relegating State and Energy Department dissents to footnotes. In the end, both estimates were dead wrong. Invisible pressures toward consistency and consensus help explain why.

The Cuban missile crisis may be over, but it is not past. Learning lessons from history starts with calling a failure a failure.

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