Following last week’s bombings in Boston, it was just a matter of time before the following question was going to be asked: What did American intelligence services know and when did they know it? Embedded in this question is the insinuation that, because the United States had just experienced an act of terrorism, the relevant intelligence services were somehow deficient or even negligent in their duties.
While such questions are to be expected, the accusatory tone that often accompanies them should not. A single terrorist incident does not an “intelligence failure” make. Far from negligent, our respective intelligence services have gone above and beyond, with some having paid the ultimate price, in order to ensure that 9/11-style terrorism remains what it was nearly twelve years ago: a historical anomaly. Given the slew of tasks they have been given over the last twelve years, their collective successes outweigh their failures.
As stated above, the post-9/11 successes of our intelligence services have far outweighed its failures. Whether through good investigative work or by sheer luck (an under appreciated aspect of intelligence work), at least 50 terrorist plots have been foiled since 2001. The core or central network that constituted Al-Qaeda has been decimated and, while still dangerous, is no longer the same organization that was capable of orchestrating a highly sophisticated attack on the U.S. on 9/11.
What makes this track record all the more impressive is the sheer number of tasks the various intelligence services are asked to do. The tasks of the intelligence services mirror those of the Defense Department; they reflect the entirety of American foreign policy which is global in its concerns. A rough overview of these tasks include: counter terrorist operations against Al-Qaeda and other Islamist affiliates in over a dozen countries throughout Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, monitoring North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as their conventional military movements, monitoring Iran’s nuclear program as well as the activities of its Hezbollah proxy, monitoring the developments of the ongoing civil war in Syria, monitoring the defense acquisitions and build up of the Chinese army (PLA) and navy (PLAN), monitoring Russia’s various military and intelligence activities, global drug trafficking, global human trafficking, weapons proliferation, climate change, cyber-warfare, etc.
Given the sheer volume of these tasks, which is a byproduct of American foreign policy, it is a wonder that the various intelligence services can accomplish anything well at all. And much is done well. Even their most noteworthy “failures,” 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, were either not actual intelligence failures per se (9/11) or better attributed to the decisions made by our governing class (9/11 and Iraq).
Contrast this scope of activities with those of a country like Israel. Due largely to its focused and limited foreign policy objectives (i.e. defending the territory of Israel from its Arab state neighbors and like-minded Islamist militants), it has long been regarded as an intelligence power of the first order. While comparisons between the U.S. and Israel on these matters is problematic given their differences, it behooves U.S. policymakers to at least consider the correlation between Israel’s limited foreign policy objectives and its ability to gather and produce high quality intelligence.
In addition to their successes and the scope of their responsibilities, Americans also need to understand what intelligence work is before passing judgment on its respective intelligence services. Intelligence is both art and science. It is predictive in nature and its failures are inherently more quantifiable than its successes.
This latter distinction is where intelligence differs from good police work. No one would interpret crime in a city, or even a series of crimes, as being evidence of “police failure” in a systemic sense. Instead the police department’s performance would be measured according to the rate of crime over a certain period of time. If the rate of crime were to increase, voters would have the opportunity to hold their political leadership accountable for the increase in crime and their use of the police department.
The opposite is true for intelligence work. When a single act of terrorism is successful committed, the very competency of the intelligence services immediately undergoes a harsh scrutiny. Adding insult to injury, the political leadership is virtually always at the forefront of this scrutiny and is rarely, if ever, held to account. Compounding further this double standard is the fact that instances of terrorism are incredibly rare to begin with. While a zero tolerance attitude toward terrorism on the part of the public or the governing class is commendable, it isn’t remotely realistic and never will be absent a societal paradigm shift of terrific proportions.
What makes this zero tolerance attitude particularly problematic is that it is based in fear as much as it is in general public ignorance on the matter. This fear lends itself to threat inflation, which leads to increased scrutiny of the intelligence services, which leads to the demand that these same intelligence services do more, which inevitably paves the road for the societal paradigm shift the public believes it is defending against by having a zero tolerance attitude in the first place.
Last week’s terrorist bombings in Boston, while tragic, posed no threat to national security or to the freedom of Americans outside of Boston. While mistakes may have been made by certain intelligence and law enforcement units in the lead up to the event, it should be noted such mistakes are always identified in hindsight. As it now stands, it is unlikely there would have been grounds for apprehending Tamerlan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev before the bombing.
Our respective intelligence services should not be subjected to a political flogging every time a successful act of terrorism is carried out on American soil. The men and women who serve in this capacity deserve the benefit of the doubt.