Ironically, the more important the intelligence target, the less experience those analyzing the intelligence have. One reason US intelligence on Iraq was so dramatically wrong before the 2003 war is that the analysts had never been there and therefore had no feel for the country. Intercepts only tell you so much, but because the US government pays so much to get this information, it has a weight in policymaking that is often unwarranted.
I experienced this firsthand as US ambassador to Croatia during the Croatia and Bosnia wars. At critical junctures in these wars, the CIA misestimated Croatia’s intentions and capabilities. In making their assessments, CIA analysts relied heavily on the NSA’s electronic intercepts, as well as paid spies and other intelligence sources.
Of course, I saw this information, but I also relied on what Croatian leaders told me and on what I observed on the ground. However, because the US government paid billions for its intelligence, I had a hard time persuading Washington that the intelligence was wrong, even when it deviated from common sense.
In the field of intelligence, more is not necessarily better. To collect, analyze and use the vast quantities of data, the US government provides security clearances to hundreds of thousands of government employees and contractors. US President Barack Obama’s administration is in its current mess because Booz Allen Hamilton, a contractor doing billions of dollars of secret work for the government, gave a troubled 29-year-old high-school graduate access to a vast array of secrets.
The system is in need of reform and the smaller, more agile European services may be a model. After all, espionage is not just about collecting secrets, but also keeping them.