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What can intelligence tell us?

After the latest U.S. intelligence about-face on Iran, it is reasonable to wonder whether Americans can trust intelligence agencies to tell us what is going on in closed societies, especially when it's a question of war and peace.

The discussion is long overdue, because for too long Americans have viewed the secret gleanings of secret agents as the inner truth, especially about places with which the United States has no diplomatic relations.

Every so often, the Central Intelligence Agency has been uncannily accurate, predicting, for example, the violent breakup of Communist Yugoslavia in 1991. The CIA was the only U.S. government agency to have any contacts with the Afghan opposition after 9/11, which helped bring about a rapid defeat of the Taliban.

But the CIA also missed some big ones, including the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and it predicted weapons of mass destruction would be found in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The CIA also overlooked what at the time were thought to be more minor events -- the 1996 Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and even Osama bin Laden's effective hijacking of the Taliban regime by late 1998.

After four decades covering foreign affairs, much of it focused on closed Communist societies, my observation is that intelligence officers, however well trained, equipped and motivated they may be, are only as good as their human sources, which in dictatorial regimes are scant. They can become so closely identified with covert operations -- for example, supplying weapons for the Afghan holy war against Soviet occupiers -- that they miss the political big picture. Sometimes their political masters constrain them by deciding that some location -- for example, Afghanistan in the 1990s -- isn't worth watching.

Old-fashioned shoe-leather diplomacy, and sometimes shoe-leather journalism, can often get much closer to the pertinent facts -- and put them in the broader context -- by asking the right questions again and again until they elicit answers.

About two years before the Berlin Wall came down, a top CIA analyst on Russia laid out at a public presentation in Washington all the reasons that Communist rule was likely to last well into the 21st century in Russia.

But I learned merely by stopping by the Moscow think-tank dealing with Europe in 1988 that Mikhail Gorbachev saw no reason to continue stationing the Red Army in East Europe, nor to insist on Communist party rule there.

In June 1989, a West German radio colleague in East Berlin invited me to join him at a public debate about the East German government's clumsy attempt to tilt the results of municipal elections. This was my introduction to the East German revolution, at a time when neither the West German nor the U.S. governments saw any serious threat to Communist rule. After the Wall came down, I understood better just why.

I reported a story on a Chinese-born professor in East Berlin who had been a CIA agent as well as a double agent for the East German Stasi, and who had also been reporting as well to the Chinese state security services. The CIA later confirmed that practically every CIA agent in East Berlin was a double agent -- from 1948 onward.

Hits and misses

To its credit, the CIA predicted months before the breakup of Yugoslavia that the secessions would be violent. But it did not grasp that the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina would produce the worst atrocities Europe had seen since the Nazi Holocaust. I was the first foreign reporter to visit Banja Luka, capital of the Serbs' breakaway province, in July 1992. After checking in with Serb military authorities, I learned from Bosnian Muslim and Croat political leaders of a network of detention camps where civilians were abused, beaten and killed.

Through refugee testimony and the corroboration of humanitarian organizations, I was able to report that the Serbs had established a network of concentration camps, at least one of which the International Red Cross said could be death camps.

Years later, the deputy director for analysis told me the CIA had had many satellite photos of camps but no idea about how to interpret them until my story. The CIA had no on-the-ground intelligence. Moreover, CIA officers told me that for the first six months of the war, I knew more than they did about "ethnic cleansing." This was not reassuring.

If there is one place the CIA should have understood well, it was Afghanistan. CIA supplied the weapons used by the mujahedeen to defeat the Red Army, but it never developed close political ties with the rebels, failed to foresee the Soviet defeat and after the Russian troop withdrawal threw its support behind Pakistan's misguided effort to install a regime headed by a radical Islamist.

It was a State Department special envoy who opened the way for a moderate pro-western mujahedeen regime headed by former guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in May 1992. Four years later, as Massoud's power was waning, Osama bin Laden landed in Afghanistan and soon was giving fire-breathing interviews threatening the United States. Late that September, the CIA's station chief in Islamabad, Gary Schroen, flew into Kabul to seek Massoud's cooperation in curbing bin Laden. One week later, the Taliban overthrew Massoud.

As the Taliban gradually seized control, Clinton cut funds for CIA monitoring, putting money only into covert operations to attempt to kill or capture bin Laden as the State Department sought his extradition. By late 1998, top diplomats concluded that bin Laden couldn't be extricated peacefully. CIA did not reach that conclusion and couldn't corroborate it at the time; the news media were absent.

This brings us to Iran. The Bush administration could have deduced months ago that Iran had no active nuclear weapons program. The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reached that conclusion by talking with Iranian officials, sending in inspectors and verifying the facts.

Iran under the mullahs is a notoriously difficult country for recruiting top-level spies. True, there are phone intercepts, satellite images and walk-in defectors. But human, on-the-ground contact is best facilitated by having an embassy, full diplomatic relations and a program of exchanges and visits. The IAEA did that. While an IAEA inspection regime is not infallible, it is, when supplemented by intelligence (and journalism) the most plausible way to monitor any threat from Iran.

Proceeding with caution

Reporters and the public ought to view intelligence findings and National Intelligence Estimates as a starting point for an investigation rather than the conclusion to it. Until we can examine their sources and methods and understand the context in which they are operating, we should treat their pronouncements with caution.

True, reporters cannot operate well in places like Burma under the military dictatorship or Iran under the mullahs, Afghanistan under the Taliban nor in Bosnia under Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Serb radical leaders. But neither can the spies. So on the big issues, we should pay closer attention to the human intelligence generated by skilled diplomats, or even journalists, than to the high-tech folks.

Possibly the most questionable strategic judgment President Bush made after 9/11 was to declare an "axis of evil" that linked Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and then to develop policies aimed at the downfall of the three regimes. Bush said he decided to go to war based on intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he ignored the findings of U.N. inspectors on the ground. With North Korea, based on undocumented allegations of money landering and counterfeiting of U.S. currency, he attempted to bring the government to its knees by freezing it out of the world financial system. In each case, Bush played up a supposed threat, not to disarm the governments of any nuclear ambitions, but to change the regimes. Looking back, almost everything that occurred under the rubric of fighting the axis of evil was suspect.

The U.S. intelligence community belatedly seems to have reached the same conclusion.

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