Review: Why Secret Intelligence Fails

4 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Superb for the general audience, not for professionals,

January 30, 2005
Michael A Turner
Edit of 20 Dec 07 to add links.

On balance I like this book for the general audience–the author has a reasonable amount of experience, he has a very fine structure for discussing the subject, and it is a good alternative to my current favorite, Lowenthal’s Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy(3rd Edition) This is, and I wish to be crystal clear here, a very fine option for undergraduate students. I strongly recommend this book for purchase by those with a limited knowledge of the world of intelligence, and for use as an undergraduate text.

It fails to satisfy at the professional level for two reasons: a lack of adequate attention to professional-level publications, and a lack of discussion of nuances vital to future success.

Despite its being published in 2005 and presumably rounded out in 2004, the author has failed to consult–this is quite an extraordinary lapse–*any* of the intelligence reform books of note, from Allen “None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam to Berkowitz’ Best Truth: Intelligence in the Information Age to Johnson Bombs, Bugs, Drugs, and Thugs: Intelligence and America’s Quest for Security to Odom “Fixing Intelligence” to Treverton Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information (RAND Studies in Policy Analysis) to Zeegart Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC…and many others. As I carefully reviewed each chapter, I could only lament the fact that each chapter would have been twice as excellent had the author taken the trouble to integrate key observations from the recent literature.

I was also struck by the author’s excessive reliance on just two journals, “Studies in Intelligence” (the CIA in-house publication) and “International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence,” for most of his references that were not largely dated books. Seymour Hersh of “The New Yorker,” Jim Fallows of “The Atlantic Monthly,” even Vernon Loeb, the only really focused Washington Post journalist covering intelligence, these are not cited.

Consequently, the professional with over ten years experience, and the academic scholar with over ten years alternative reading, need not spend time with this book. It is lacking in nuance–for example, the brief section on imagery intelligence does not discuss the findings of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency Report of December 1999, and the section on open source intelligence–while dramatically superior to most publications–is seriously in error when it labels open sources “expensive” without reference to the $50 billion a year we are spending now on secret sources that fail to satisfy. The author, speaking from a limited perspective as an analyst who has never managed a major budget, does not seem to realize that open sources cost less than 1% of the total national intelligence budget while producing 40% or more of all useful information.

A future edition of the book would benefit from a chapter on different types of threats and what that implies in terms of collection and analysis challenges, and from a focus on sub-state threats, not just other governments. This is, I say again, a superb choice for undergraduate students and the public.

See my own books, especially THE SMART NATION ACT: Public Intelligence in the Public Interest, for where we need to be going while reducing the secret budget from $60 billion a year to $12 billion a year.

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