A career intelligence officer reflects on the uses and abuses of intelligence and the agencies that gather it.
Contrary to general belief, Pillar (Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, 2003, etc.) declares that “however important the contributions of intelligence in executing policy at the tactical and operational levels have been, its contribution to major strategic decisions has been almost nil.” If only policy were made according to an ideal model under which leaders come to an issue with open minds, digest apolitical intelligence reports and decide what best serves the national interest. Instead, decisions are made by senior policy makers on the basis of untested mental images “reflecting their sense of history, their personal experiences, and the political and strategic perspectives that they had brought with them into office.” The leaders later seek justification for their policies in intelligence reports, which may first be distorted by political expectations and then used more to generate public support for a predetermined policy than to shape that policy. Pillar deplores such “politicization” of intelligence and presents examples of its deleterious effects going back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with special emphasis on the Vietnam and Iraq wars. When policies fail, the intelligence agencies then become convenient scapegoats, ripe for “reform.” The author briefly describes why Congress and the press are poorly situated to expose or counteract these problems. Finally, he offers some forlorn suggestions for effective intelligence reform, which he concedes have almost no chance of enactment, and some worthwhile recommendations for adapting our foreign policies to accept the inevitability of uncertainty. Along with this thoughtful analysis, however, much of the book is given over to two additional topics: in-depth denunciations of how intelligence was first ignored and then misused in the run-up to the Iraq war, and of the reorganization of the intelligence agencies that came out of the deliberations of the so-called “9/11 Commission.” Pillar’s disgust with the Bush administration and the Commission is palpable, and he goes into more detail than necessary to make his case in these sections; the noise of axe-grinding sometimes overpowers his generally well-supported positions.
A thoroughly documented, cogently argued work by an author with vast personal experience of his topic, but perhaps too wide-ranging to be effectively pulled together into a single volume.