In Print: Enemies of Intelligence

09.26.07 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In his new book “Enemies of Intelligence,” Columbia University political scientist Richard K. Betts warns that ambitious attempts to correct failures in U.S. intelligence may cause more damage than they repair.

“The awful truth is that the best of intelligence systems will have big failures,” he writes. Eliminating failure altogether is therefore not a reasonable or achievable goal.

Nor can any one component or function of intelligence be optimized without incurring damage to others. So prudent reformers, he says, will seek incremental changes, not radical ones.

Betts hedges his account with a series of paradoxes that underlie his skepticism about the feasibility of reform.

“Experts usually are better predictors than those who know less about a question, but in unusual situations the nonexpert may do better.”

“Bureaucratization is both the great weakness and the great strength of the U.S. intelligence community.”

Centralization and decentralization of intelligence each has advantages. “But because it is necessary to exploit both forms does not mean that it is possible to do so.”

And while the paramount policy recommendation following September 11 was to improve information sharing, Betts recalls that a decade earlier, after the Aldrich Ames espionage case, overseers urged new restrictions on dissemination of information relating to clandestine operations.

The new book has some significant flaws, beginning with its title and conceptual framework.

The term “Enemies of Intelligence” refers not only to those adversaries who seek to defeat intelligence, but to anything that imposes restraints on intelligence and curtails its efficacy, from laws to physiological limits on human perception and memory. Thus, the U.S. Constitution would be an “enemy of intelligence,” an absurd conclusion that nevertheless flows directly from Betts’s odd definition, which he admits is not “normal.”

Betts distances himself from a strict civil libertarian viewpoint, which is fine, but proceeds to make startling assertions like this: “Without security, few Americans would be grateful for liberty,” he writes.

This would turn Patrick Henry’s revolutionary slogan “give me liberty or give me death!” upside down into a pusillanimous “take my liberties but don’t hurt me!” After years of fearmongering by government officials, this may turn out to be an accurate reflection of American character today. But Betts offers no data to justify such an appalling claim.

Betts makes the interesting assertion that not all liberties are equally fundamental. Due process under law, he argues, is more important than personal privacy. “Having one’s phone tapped without proper cause is not as damaging as being imprisoned for years without trial.”

Consequently, he sides with those who favor increased intelligence surveillance of the private sphere and contends that liberty can best be assured by strictly limiting the use of domestic surveillance data to counterterrorism purposes, with severe penalties for any deviations.

He has no corresponding suggestions for strengthening due process and the rule of law, which he admits have been under assault. (Granting a full pardon for Jose Padilla would be one way to punctuate the end of the Bush era, and to repudiate one of its most egregious abuses.)

Betts is a stimulating writer and his new book provides plenty of food for thought about intelligence policy.

“National security strategy is not like a chess game. For diplomats it is more like poker, and for soldiers and intelligence professionals it is more like Kriegspiel — a chesslike game in which the players are unable to see their opponent’s pieces or their moves.”

See more information on “Enemies of Intelligence” by Richard K. Betts here.