Four ways to improve America's foreign intelligence
As the incoming Reagan administration plans for the future, there should be a hard look at the current situation of America's foreign intelligence analysis. Thinking about needed changes in this sector is far too vital a matter to be left solely to the deliberations of the intelligence community as it now works. Enduring problems and recent events reflect weaknesses which need to be addressed. Earlier intelligence failures, when revealing analysis was available , occurred in Vietnam in 1968, the Middle East in 1973, and Cyprus, Greece, and Portugal in 1974. These have been paralleled in more recent failures in Iran, Afghanistan, Poland, and Central America.
Foreign intelligence analysis sectors have suffered from inherited weaknesses and more recent policies which have allowed frequent turnover of personnel who had become experts or authorities in some areas only to be transferred into new areas where their expertise means less. There have been failures to communicate between analysts and policymakers who tend to be isolated by too many tiers of bureaucracy. And the knowledge available in communities of area study scholars was simply not picked up by foreign intelligence analysts and transmitted to the decisionmakers.
In some cases, expertise found in business and scholarly groups both here and abroad was ignored as analysts fashioned naive and unsophisticated reports which would please Washington bureaucrats. To cite one illustration of how the International Communications Agency can pursue fruitless projects based in part on poor foreign intelligence analysis, this writer was approached to write an article attacking a host country's tendency to move closer to the third world.
In short, a great deal of money is spent on foreign intelligence analysis, but there is room for real improvement. At least four ways could provide a foundation to begin:
* In order to encourage continuity of expertise among foreign intelligence analysts, policy should allow terms of service longer than two or three years. An "expert" on Iran, let us say, is only beginning to learn the territory after two years. Someone with five years' experience could be more valuable and have a sense of what I term "historical indicators" in current affairs. Policy concerning foreign intelligence expertise should nourish such expertise as national assets by means of improving area studies training before going to posts, retraining, and renewal of expertise by means of reassignments to areas where experience has already been carefully marshaled.
* Foreign intelligence analysts could benefit from greater contact and liaison in scholarly networks and associations with residents, businessmen, and others who have essential background in the areas under study. Institutions which train or retrain analysts could design courses of study which reflect a greater awareness of such expertise which too often is ignored or under-used.
* Centralize -- but creatively -- the much dispersed and disparate foreign intelligence analysis found in dozens of agencies. To do this there should be established a new coordinating area study institute or structure which could address the cited problems of continuity, renewal, and coordination of foreign area expertise.
* In order to encourage more young people in secondary and higher education to consider foreign intelligence analysis as an important and even noble profession, there needs to be reinforcement of lagging foreign language, foreign exchange, and foreign area study programs. There is a mighty need now to put more resources into the magnificent Fulbright exchange programs.The extent to which scores of other countries now realize the benefits of the Fulbright programs can be seen by the funds these countries now contribute -- an unprecedented situation. Incentives furnished by both private and government agencies could encourage greater student interest in foreign area and language study, a vital need for the 1980s.
Here would be a start for improving foreign intelligence analysis a crucial next assignment in our increasingly interdependent world.