Feeling sorry for the CIA

I have many good friends in U.S. intelligence. There were times in my career in the British Foreign Service when I could not have functioned so effectively without the help of these shadowy officials. And most of those times, there was no particular reason why they should have helped me. Of course, they were doing nothing against U.S. interests, yet in helping me there was often not much in it for the United States. So it was the kind of help friends give: something that does not harm me, but helps you — here, take it.

I think particularly of my service in Guatemala and in Egypt. I truly could not have done my job without the unselfish help of U.S. intelligence officers.

So I am feeling sorry for them now. Perhaps it is not a feeling you all share? There are not many votes for strengthening the authority of, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency. But you should spare it a kindly thought.

In our world, when the threat to our way of life can reach our very homes before we know it, good intelligence plays a key role in keeping us safe. Everyone says it does, from politicians to police officers, from admirals to aid workers. And you get good intelligence only if you have good-quality, well-motivated, adequately resourced, and suitably focused intelligence organizations.

Forgive me for saying so, but it seems to me that since 9/11 your leaders have done their best to undermine the performance of your intelligence services, especially the CIA.

Oh, but what about their mistakes?, I hear you say. Mistakes there, of course, were before 9/11 and over Iraq. But we should try to understand what those mistakes were and — forgive me for saying so — see if others made mistakes that have not yet been so recognized or punished.

One of the problems with intelligence is that if you want it to give you an answer (it will never give you the answer, and that is Lesson One), then you must ask the right question. And the question comes from those who use the intelligence, not those who collect it. Did your leaders ask the right questions before 9/11 or before the invasion of Iraq? Did they even know what the right questions were? That’s Lesson Two: Ask the right questions.

Lesson Three is that among the most important functions of an intelligence service is bringing bad news fearlessly to government. Once the service hesitates to bring the bad news, it is a short step to stifling that news — shading it into not-so-bad news, then into news you know government wants to hear.

“Are there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?” Instead of “We don’t know” or “We cannot be sure,” what was the unfortunate phrase used by then CIA Director George Tenet? “Slam dunk!”

To recap: Make sure that the politicians and military fulfill their responsibilities by asking the right questions; understand that at best, intelligence will give you part of the answer, not the whole answer; and do not let intelligence be bent to provide answers that you want.

And that, in my experience, is what the CIA did. And it is what it wants to do now, and it is what you need it to do.

The period since the invasion of Iraq — marked by the tenure of Porter Goss at the CIA and the creation of the Directorate of National Intelligence, under John Negroponte (a case, if ever there was one, of “What can we do to show we are doing something?”) _ has not been productive. Now, as never before, we need good-quality, well-timed, accurate and focused intelligence.

So please think carefully about how you treat the people engaged in this activity. There are not in it for the money; they are not in it as would-be James Bonds, waiting for the next martini or attractive foreign opponent. They are overwhelmingly loyal citizens trying to make a small difference — a contribution to the well-being of the United States and, by extension, its allies, such as my country.

The job can be hard, but it is rarely boring and often extremely satisfying, and it needs doing well. Sure, it can often be great fun. Long may it be so.

(David Handley, a former British diplomat, is a London-based defense-industry consultant.)