Lawmakers probe CIA failure in Ukraine

There are many on both the left and right who see the CIA as a monolithic, all knowing, all powerful entity. Many overseas see the agency in more apocalyptic terms - an evil force capable of mind control and other flights of fancy.

The reality is much different. The list of intelligence failures over the last 20 years belies the notion that the CIA is  very competent, much less all powerful.

They missed the Pakistani bomb. They have consistently under estimated Iranian intentions to build a nuke. They were wrong about Saddam's "massive" trove of WMD. And, of course, the biggie - they failed to smoke out much detail about the 9/11 plot. (Telling the president that al-Qaeda was targeting America is hardly actionable intelligence.)

Now, we can add to that list, Putin's move into the Ukraine. And lawmakers want to know why the CIA missed it.


“We have to better deploy our resources… because we have large resources and it should not be possible for Russia to walk in and take over the Crimea and it’s a done deal by the time we know about it,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told POLITICO as she left a closed-door briefing for committee members on Ukraine and other issues. Feinstein indicated that the intelligence community has already moved to re-focus on the region.

“We’re going to look at the priorities and talk with the administration and talk with various people in the intelligence community,” she added. “I think some changes have already been made.”

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, agreed something was missed.

“Well, I’m not sure what the issue is. I mean obviously that’s why you get briefings to try to deep dive into it to see whether it’s a lack of intelligence gathering or whether there were some signs that analysts just didn’t see. But it’s pretty clear that there was no indication that this was coming like it did,” Chambliss said Tuesday.

“I’m not pointing the finger at anything because I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “I don’t know who dropped the ball.”

A range of lawmakers and intelligence community experts are puzzled about why U.S. intelligence agencies seem to have misjudged Putin’s intentions and whether the lack of warning fits a pattern of other significant intelligence shortcomings in recent years.

The answers could affect how the huge but shrinking intelligence budget is allocated in the future, possibly focusing more attention and resources on traditional adversaries like Russia and China and a somewhat less on the overarching focus of the past decade: terrorism.

Earlier warning of Putin’s move might have given the U.S. and other allies more time to try to dissuade him and prompted more effort in doing so. But it’s unclear whether the Russian leader would have bowed to such pressure.

Other senators leaving the same briefing Tuesday afternoon described the present state of intelligence on the issue as muddled and sketchy.“There just seemed to be a lack of current intelligence, but I can’t go into details,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). She called questions about a lack of warning “very valid,” but declined to elaborate.

A valid question to be sure. The CIA has one client and one client only - the president of the United States. Their job is to give him the best possible analysis of what is going on in the world, and offer threat assessments so that a president isn't blindsided by events.

The core analysts on each desk are probably all competent and diligent in their efforts. But what of their superiors? There is a political game to be played, the goal of which is not only advancement but also getting one's views into the President's Daily Brief (PDB). A Brookings report on CIA analysts pointed to the fierce competition among senior analysts to get their nuggets of information into the PDB, which sacrifices good analysis on the altar of personal ambition.

There is also the question of the CIA telling the president what they think he wants to hear, rather than what he should know. The 9/11 Commission pointed to this failing in their extensive review of CIA actions prior to 9/11.

The CIA is an agency with thousands of dedicated patriots doing a job upon which the safety and security of the country hinges. But there appear to be regular breakdowns in the intelligence gathering and reporting process. Whether it's relying too much on National Technical Means (satellites and signals intercepts) and not enough on human intel has been a debate at the agency for many years.

Congress can help sort it all out in order to improve the CIA's performance so that surprises like the Russian move into Ukraine become less common.


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