Commentary

Intelligence Services Are Not “Intelligent”

By Leon T. Hadar
August 21, 2004

The 9/11 Commission report on U.S. intelligence failures subscribes to the notion that there is a way in which the government can “fix” the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other information-gathering agencies. The authors assume that if only a competent group of CIA analysts had been able to gain access before 9/11 to the available information on Islamic terrorist groups, the Bush administration would have been able to thwart the attacks on New York and Washington.

In a way, those who prepared the commission’s report imagine that the U.S. intelligence agencies can be transformed into something akin to efficient information-gathering and analysis systems. Sophisticated technology and skilled spies will retrieve every piece of data on terrorism that is out there. Highly educated researchers, fluent in the many dialects of Arabic and Urdu languages, will examine the facts and figures and super intelligent analysts will draw the right conclusions. And based on that flow of information and analysis, a group of dedicated public servants and honorable statesmen, led by an independent and impartial “intelligence czar” will recommend the correct policies to the White House and ensure that 9/11-like catastrophes never happen again.

It’s that kind of belief in the possibility of individuals and organizations knowing enough to predict human behavior and to alter its outcome that was criticized by the renowned economist Friedrich Hayek as “hubris”— that is, the pride which challenges the gods.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in economics and one of the leading intellectual forces behind free market economics in the late 20th century didn’t focus much attention on national security policy, and he never studied the operations of government intelligence agencies. But Hayek, throughout his life, attacked what he called “scientism” — the imitation in the social sciences, including economics and political science, of the methods of the physical sciences. It was the limitations of human knowledge that in Hayek’s view, made the market so important because it created, conveyed, and revealed information in a way no other human institution, and certainly no government agency, could ever emulate.

The free market model presumes that the flow of data, knowledge, and ideas can permit consumers to gain access to complete and accurate information on the basis of which they can make the reasonable choices. As Hayek argued, a market of information and ideas, free from the control of government and other centralized powers, results in a competitive discovery process that cannot be predicted in advance. His ideal model was based on cooperative and competitive behavior among individuals, households, and enterprises that appears haphazard and anarchic but that helps produce accurate information and efficient results.

The government’s intelligence agencies are the ultimate antithesis to this model of a free market of information and ideas. If anything, they represent the ideal of “scientism” and social engineering that was disparaged by Hayek. By definition, these institutions are public monopolies that collect and manipulate information. They represent the most secretive, restrictive, and a tightly controlled bureaucracy in a government that abhors the notion of a “spontaneous order” that results from the competition of ideas.

That is the nature of the beast, of the intelligence agency that operates in a confined and elusive sphere of public policy called “national security,” under the strict control of government officials that are driven not by the search for the truth but rather by bureaucratic and political interests. It is a system that is bound to create a “group think” mentality and to downplay and dismiss information that doesn’t fit the agenda of policymakers.

Even under the best of circumstances in which the CIA is able to recruit the best and the brightest, it will never be able to predict the outcomes of global political and economic phenomena. If anything, as the case of Iraq’s alleged WMD demonstrates, the monopoly over information and political authority that the intelligence agency has could end up distorting the free flow of information and ideas. And that will make it less likely that the public and the government will arrive at decisions that reflect the interests and values of a majority of Americans.

Proposing that we can “fix” this system to make it an open, objective, and independent information-processing system, is not very different than arguing that we can make a centralized economy more efficient, or that we can liberalize a communist government. Boys will be boys — and intelligence agencies will continue to be politicized, incompetent, and wasteful government bureaucracies. And, occasionally, they will even get lucky. As a result of sophisticated technology, the courage of an American agent, or a defection by an enemy spy, they may end up providing a marginal advantage to the U.S. government during time of crisis and war.

Instead of trying to “fix” the CIA, Americans would be better off by electing hubris-free presidents and lawmakers who don’t go to war, invade other countries, and try to change the world based on the kind of incomplete information and distorted analysis that this government agency provides.

Leon Hadar, a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of Quagmire: America in the Middle East (1992).