Decades ago, pundits highlighted the U.S. love affair with technology. Certainly this has been true in the intelligence realm. We've long witnessed an ever-increasing focus on `technical' means of collection, partly at the expense of age-old `human' intelligence (`HUMINT') gathering via spies and agents.
Results often have been spectacular. But while its contribution will remain extremely important, the heyday of technical intelligence may have passed. During the 1980s, and with the Iraqi war, those advocates of a higher priority for human intelligence collection gained momentum.
Continuance of the overwhelming priority accorded technical collection has been undermined by a number of factors. These include increased awareness and countermeasures within target countries and groups; the pro-HUMINT-orientation of Republican administrations; discovery of sweeping Soviet intelligence coups based on HUMINT; communications innovations that help keep messages secure; congressional advocacy for HUMINT; uncontrolled inflation in the technical system costs; and worldwide political liberalization allowing better access to foreign lands and people.
As Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf noted, intelligence performance in the Iraqi war was outstanding over all. Specifically, he said: `We had very, very good intelligence support. We had terrific people. We had a lot of capabilities. However, gaps in prewar and postdeployment intelligence resulted from Iraq's fear of and countermeasures to communications, electronic and photo intelligence collection methods and from the limited availability of expensive satellite assets, which in turn facilitated deception. The most striking aspect of the Iraq experience may have been its proof that even a Third World country could implement highly successful denial and deception programs to foil technical intelligence collection. Many U.S. intelligence officials had rejected this possibility.
The allied victors' on-site inspection rights have given us a rare, detailed retrospective on our intelligence failures. There have been eye-opening relevations about assessment problems in areas such as Iraqi Scuds, chemical weapons and, most importantly, the Iraqi nuclear program. These demonstrate the folly of relying too heavily on technical collection. Serious underestimation of the Iraqi nuclear program meant that, had we opted only for an embargo, foregoing offensive action, Iraq might have acquired nuclear weapons allowing it to deter or retaliate against belated military pressure.
The nuclear issue dramatized the advantages of human intelligence. Several postwar defectors tipped off inspectors to previously unknown plant locations, equipment and documents. That provided concrete evidence about the broad scope and advanced status of Iraq's program. Defector-derived information also demonstrated that even when the purpose and location of a large military complex is known, wartime targeting of dispersed buildings can be guesswork if we lack an inside source.
Unfortunately, this bounteous HUMINT was largely unsolicited, provided after the war rather than before, at somebody else's initiative rather than our own. Deficiencies in clandestine HUMINT on Iraq typify those we have experienced with many other `difficult' targets. For example, almost all our recruited Cuban and East German `agents' were found to be `doubles,' actually working for the other side. A lack of strong quality control and vigorous counterintelligence scrutiny has often proven the bane of U.S. clandestine human intelligence.
While well-publicized failures have dogged existing human intelligence efforts, in the past year we have begun improving the quality of our activities. Programs have been instituted to test more rigorously our spies and agents, to scrutinize clandestine HUMINT collection operations and hold program managers accountable. Analytical and technical experts are developing strategic targeting and new techniques that, it is hoped, will produce the necessary high-quality intelligence. These improvements have resulted, in part, from increased intelligence funding. Some believe that we could make greater strides by throwing more money at the problem. Many other deserving intelligence programs, however, are competing fiercely for limited funding that likely will decrease considerably in the future.
In sum, despite past fiascoes, there has been progress. Continuing efforts to improve clandestine HUMINT collection deserve strong support. The question is how can we most wisely effect needed reforms. Even in tough times, it is much easier for Congress to increase a funding line than successfully demand more elusive qualitative improvements. We should adopt the Missouri slogan: `Show me.' Show me that these improvements are part of serious and ongoing effort. Once we are convinced that the money is being well spent, we can justify giving more. It is the means, rather than the end, that now should be debated.