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Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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September 2, 2004

The US “Intelligence Wars” and the War on Terrorism

Analysis/Opinion. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS. The United States is losing the war on terrorism despite sound policies, responsible decisionmaking, and laudable dedication of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies.

Even a cursory examination of the war is not encouraging. Iraq is going up in flames, the outcome of an escalating grassroots rebellion. A wave of terrorism engulfs Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan is falling apart because of revived fratricidal warfare. Pakistan is on the brink of civil war because of mounting grassroots opposition to Pres. Pervez Musharraf’s cooperation with the US. The Chechens escalate their terrorist war, as do other Islamist-jihadist groups in dozens of countries around the world. The size of the Islamist-jihadist terrorist forces around the world has tripled since mid-September 2001, and the active support echelons have grown tenfold.

Meanwhile, the hard core of Osama bin Laden’s loyalists have markedly improved their ability to strike out at the heart of the United States and Western Europe.

Despite the formulation of a correct polity by the Bush Administration, the war is in a dire state primarily because the US intelligence community — which is comprised of well over a dozen organizations ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), National Security Agency (NSA) and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), to smaller, obscure, but nonetheless important entities — has repeatedly failed the White House by providing scant concrete data and incorrect threat analysis.

It has been the wanting of intelligence which has made implementation of the President’s policy virtually impossible, and at times has even aggravated the problems facing the US.

The primary flaw of the US intelligence community is the intellectual isolationism and arrogance of many of the purveyors of knowledge to the White House: that is, the intelligence system of research and analysis. The current disastrous state of affairs is the outcome of more than a decade of intentional recruitment of like-minded individuals to sustain the course. Consequently, there emerged an institutional culture — much like the State Department’s culture — which taints and tilts analysis, refuses to confront the possibility of lack of knowledge or errors of judgment.

Within the intelligence community’s analytical élite there developed a symbiotic relationship with the US media élite and “politically correct” academia (which includes sensational leaks, lucrative consultancies, and cushiony post-retirement second-careers) which once again contributes to the skewing of analysis, even if unintentionally, because there is by now a very strong echo-chamber effect. And recent history is full with cases of honest analysts who dared question the party-line (through channels) being fired or forced to resign because they would not toe the line. The US intelligence community — to the detriment of the national interest — does not tolerate challenge and dissent.

The gravity of the crisis of the US intelligence community, particularly in view of the mounting quagmire in post-Saddam Iraq, is now widely acknowledged throughout official Washington. Thus, the harsh criticism of the US intelligence community by the various commissions investigating recent crises is warranted. Moreover, a crucial issue outside their mandate — namely, how is it that the intelligence community knows so little and comprehends even less — is yet to be addressed. Therefore, the recommendation by members of commissions and relevant Congressional committees that there should be a profound reorganization of the intelligence community, including the creation of a new cabinet-level position for an Intelligence Czar and the elimination of the CIA as a single agency through partitioning, is only the first step in what should be a profound revamping of the US’ intelligence community and its culture. A deep and thorough reform is urgently needed.

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However, instead of committing to lesson learning of its recent errors, the US intelligence community has embarked on an intense political fight for the protection of its own bureaucratic turf and budgetary slices.

The lines are drawn between two powerful camps: (1) the Office of the Vice-President and the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense (DoD), on the one hand; and (2) the institutional élites of the CIA (leading the rest of the intelligence community) and the Department of State on the other.

In the open, the bureaucratic fight is taking place on two “fronts”: (1) setting the record straight on the prewar intelligence perception of post-Saddam Iraq; and (2) determining the character of the “new Iraq”. But the real objective of this war is post-election Washington, especially the quintessence of a second Bush Administration (assuming Pres. George W. Bush is re-elected as the polls now predict).

The goal of the first camp is to remain the dominant institutional powerhouse on US defense policy matters and even increase its power once the US intelligence community undergoes the profound restructuring which will reduce its bureaucratic signature; while the goal of the second camp is to not only prevent such an emaciation of its bureaucratic power but to exploit the quagmire in Iraq for an institutional ascent at the expense of the Defense Department.

On the first subject, there is an ostensible upper-hand for the CIA camp. They can point out, as the media élite reminds us, to the well-publicized prewar assurances by the DoD’s civilian leadership that the newly liberated Iraqi people would be grateful to the US forces and would not constitute a security threat. “An explosion of joy will greet our soldiers,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress on the eve of the war.

There is no denying that things have gone very differently since the toppling of Saddam’s statue in early April 2003. Even Pres. Bush, who always stresses success in Iraq, finally acknowledged in a late-August 2004 interview with The New York Times that he had made a “miscalculation of what the conditions would be” in postwar Iraq. Moreover, this most glaring recent error of the intelligence community — those pertaining to the situation in post-Saddam Iraq — did not happen because of lack of pertinent data. On the contrary, the vast majority of the raw data that forewarned that the Iraqi population would not welcome the US invasion was out in the open: in the Arab media, in Friday sermons, in conversations with Iraqis, Arab officials and other frequent travelers to Iraq. That information was ignored because it was not acquired by some multi-billion-dollar national-technical-means.

However, the current depiction of pre-war events in the media is misleading.

It is not that the proponents of the “liberated Iraq” school of thought were able to overwhelm and ignore contradicting threat analyses and warnings from the intelligence community. In early 2003, the CIA-led  intelligence community had its own version of post-Saddam Iraq which was quite similar in its anticipation of virtual absence of resistance and guerilla warfare, but sought to empower in postwar Baghdad a different group of people than the DoD’s favorite candidate, Ahmad Chalabi. The CIA supported its own groups of candidates, most of them former military and intelligence senior officers, led by Gen. Nizar Khazraji (an indicted war criminal) and a former Ba’athist enforcer called Dr Iyad Allawi.

On the eve of the war, the CIA recruited several senior and mid-rank officers, many of whom were led by Gen. Maher Sufian al-Tikriti, the head of the Republican Guards in the Baghdad area. All these officers — both the veteran and the newly recruited — assured the CIA that once Saddam Hussein’s Administration was perceived by the Iraqi people to be doomed, they would be able to swiftly take control over Iraq and harness all opposition by using the Iraqi military and security forces toward that end. However, with the exception of the significant assistance by Sufian and his group in paralyzing the defense of Baghdad as US forces were entering the outskirts of the city, none of these expectations has materialized.

By Summer 2004, Iraq descended into a seemingly irreversible chaos, the outcome of popular guerilla warfare and widespread terrorism. The US-led coalition forces were strained to the limit by the demands of the deteriorating security situation, incapable of controlling the country’s densely populated centers and vast desert spaces, as well as securing the vital oil infrastructure against frequent sabotage. The Pentagon has all but given up on the suppression and defeat of the Iraqi insurgency and terrorism by force. In mid-June 2004, US Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, testified in Congress that the war in Iraq “cannot be won militarily”, and that its mere continuation was confronting the military with immense problems. The specter of spectacular terrorism in Iraq was a major concern. “You think about what a few people, with the technology available today, can do. I can’t remember a time that was more dangerous,” Schoomaker acknowledged.

Which brings one to the second “front” in the Washington bureaucratic war: the current grassroots intifada in Iraq.

It was at this juncture that CIA and State Department claimed to having a viable solution for the leadership of an ostensibly independent Iraq formally allied with, and effectively still controlled by, the largest US Embassy in the world. But these claims quickly evaporated. First to collapse were the security foundations of the new Iraqi regime. By mid-July 2004, the US military announced that US forces had arrested ex-Gen. Sufian al-Tikriti on suspicion of “planning and financing attacks on Iraqis, Iraqi security forces and multinational forces”. A week later, US “advisors” instructed the Iraqi Government to fire five senior officers including Gen. Amir Bakr al-Hashimi, the US-nominated Chief of Staff of the new Iraqi Army.

According to Iraqi defense sources, the officers were fired after US intelligence confirmed that “intelligence information has been leaked from the headquarters of the Iraqi Defense Ministry through ranking officers to active armed groups in Iraq”; that is, the Iraqi resistance. Among the information leaked were details about the movement of key senior officers loyal to the US and their eventual targeting for assassination. At least half-a-dozen senior officers were indeed assassinated. There followed a thorough purge of the entire Iraqi high command. In late August 2004, US forces arrested Maj.-Gen. Jaadan Muhammad Alwan, the police chief of the Anbar province bordering with Syria, because he has been assisting in the movement of terrorists and materiel between Syria and Iraq.

The problem of loyalty was not confined to senior and mid-rank officers. In mid-August 2004, by the time fighting peaked in Najaf, the Iraqi security forces plagued by a desertion rate exceeding 80 percent. Among the collapsing units the CIA-controlled predominantly-Kurdish 36th Commando Battalion.

Consequently, the core of the forces considered “loyal” by the CIA and the US Embassy was comprised of “recycled” and “rehabilitated” Ba’athist security and intelligence veterans. Rhetoric about the democratic character of the Administration, despite the draconian emergency regulations notwithstanding, already on the eve of the transfer of power from the US to his Government then designate-Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made sure that both the Iraqi public and the Arab world had no illusions about the real nature of his Government.

As first reported by Paul McGeough of The Sydney Morning Herald, in late June 2004, a few days before he assumed power, Allawi visited the Al-Amariyah security center in south-western Baghdad in order to inspect the interrogation of terrorist suspects. There, Allawi drew a pistol and summarily executed six prisoners who were lined in the courtyard. He told the gathered security officials that these prisoners “deserved worse than death” in view of their past killing. Interior Minister-designate Falah al-Naqib was present and congratulated Allawi. The “proof” of Allawi’s resolve and ruthlessness immediately spread throughout the power-centers of Baghdad. Allawi’s and Naqib’s offices issued denials to the Western media only after McGeough broke the story. However, with all other components of the Iraqi power structure collapsing and with the revolt escalating out of control, Washington had no option but to accept this “denial” and  keep endorsing Allawi as the only strong-enough leader capable of keeping Iraq unified.

With the US behind him, Allawi continued to consolidate his power through what Arab and Iranian senior officials termed “a quasi-coup in Iraq”. Essentially, Allawi and his three closest aides — Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan, Interior Minister Fallah al-Naqib, and Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zarfi — exploited, if not provoked, the latest cycle of clashes in Najaf in order to enable them to further consolidate their hold over authoritarian power, as well as suppress and isolate the country’s Shiite majority, an undemocratic maneuver which has always been the tacit objective of the CIA and State Department Arabists.

Moreover, the Allawi group manipulated the handling of the Najaf crisis in order to perpetuate long-term instability and violence which would provide the justification for the continued hold over authoritarian power irrespective of the US commitment to democratization and the January 2005 national elections. Allawi’s security forces aggravated tension by engaging in a series of provocations, including the mortar shelling of Moqtada al-Sadr’s own mosque in Kufa which caused close to 100 fatalities, and several RPG attacks on Ayatollah Sistani’s convoy on the road between Basra and Najaf which narrowly missed his SUV. Furthermore, Allawi’s three confidants directly intervened in, and eventually scuttled, the cease-fire negotiations between al-Sadr’s representatives and the delegation of the National Conference. Fearing a politically embarrassing setback in Iraq on the eve of the US elections, Washington chose to endorse and support the “quasi-coup” of Allawi.

Tehran, however, did not fall into Allawi’s trap. Instead, Tehran capitalized on Washington’s desperation for any agreement to cease hostilities without highlighting the US failure to defeat the Shi’ite militias militarily despite the heavy civilian casualties and excessive damage caused by the ceaseless US air and artillery strikes. The real deal for the cessation of hostilities in Najaf was negotiated under the auspices of the two Grand Ayatollahs — Sadr’s patron Al-Sayyid Kadhem al-Haeri and Al-Sayyid Ali al-Sistani — and the mechanism itself gave Haeri and the Qom-based Tehran-controlled Shi’ite court formal and legal standing in Najaf and the Iraqi Shiite religious-judicial establishment.

Since the US endorsed the agreement ostensibly brokered by Sistani, the US in effect accepted the Iranian formal foothold in Iraq’s Shi’ite affairs. Now, to remain relevant in the Shi’ite power structure, Allawi had get into the Haeri-Sistani deal. This was achieved through a secret agreement reached between Allawi and his three confidants and Sadr and his close aides, including representatives of Iranian intelligence and the HizbAllah, according to which the Moqtada al-Sadr “Mahdi Army” would not be disbanded, the Shi’ite mujahedin would be permitted to keep their weapons, and Sadr and his commanders would enjoy blanket immunity.

Essentially, the Shi’ite forces were left intact and permitted to regroup and prepare to fight another day, which was fine by Allawi as long as they would fight against the US forces and not his Administration. Moreover, Sadr’s people remained in the Najaf Grand Mosque, albeit as “agents of Sistani’s court”. To ensure compliance, in late August 2004, Allawi reached out to Tehran and offered a rapprochement. In a series of meetings in Tehran, Allawi’s official and clandestine emissaries assured the Iranian leaders that the guerilla warfare against the US would continue, albeit without endangering Allawi and his inner circle. Moreover, Allawi’s Baghdad said that they would recognize the Iranian legitimate vital interests in Iraq (which, needless to say, cannot co-exist with a US presence in Iraq). The Iranians stressed that Tehran was adamant on realizing its strategic objectives, and that Allawi’s remaining in power would depend on his “performance”.

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And it was in this regional context, that the foci of power in Washington began taking stock of their posture and prospects.

After the debacle of the fighting in and around Najaf, the US overt policy at this stage is minimalist and passive. All that the Bush White House can really do is pray that Iraq does not implode in an orgy of fratricidal carnage before the first Tuesday of November 2004: US election day. Indeed, by late August 2004, there was a growing sense of dejection and a realization of an unwinnable quagmire at the White House. Late night on August 30, 2004, these internal self-doubts transformed into a brewing political crisis over unguarded remarks which Pres. Bush made in his convention interview with the NBC-TV Today show. After going through the usual rhetoric about the importance of the war on terrorism, the President was asked “Can we win?”  In response, President Bush dropped a bombshell: “I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that the [terrorists] — those who use terror as a tool — are less acceptable in parts of the world.”

There are already whispers among Washington Republicans that Pres. Bush and the White House élite are succumbing to the “Iraq Syndrome”: an institutional reluctance to initiate any action, particularly a unilateral undertaking, against any terrorism-sponsoring state or a major terrorist entity for fear of another Iraq-style quagmire.

For political and election-year reasons, the Washington Republicans add, it is imperative for the Bush White House to go beyond the obvious acknowledgment that the pre-war assurances that the Iraqis would see the US forces as “liberators” and greet them with “rose petals and rice” were wrong. After all, these assurances about the Iraqis’ yearning for liberation — that is, of the no need for staying forces and debilitating protracted counter-insurgency warfare — were crucial to the Administration’s gaining the support of Congress for the war in Iraq. As well, the Administration’s pre-war assurances that there was an effectively pro-US Iraqi people yearning to be liberated by the US convinced Congress to support the Administration’s arm-twisting of Israel to stay out of the war and endure waves of Palestinian terrorism without viable retaliation; crucial, the White House said, to create conducive environment for the ascent of a pro-US oil-rich Arab World. Now, “somebody” — not the Bush White House — has to not only pay for these glaring errors, but also demonstrate that there is a way out of the quagmire and that some success can still be wrestled out of Iraq.

The intelligence community has escalated the Washington power struggle by exploiting these circumstances.

The Arabists of the CIA have both an explanation why the US has found itself in such a quagmire, and a “solution” — a way out of the Iraqi quagmire — both of which, they are convinced, will secure their triumph. The CIA argues that by securing their “strong man” — Allawi — in power, it would be possible to consolidate a stable enough regime in Baghdad, thus permitting an honorable withdrawal and continued access to the Iraqi oil and markets.

To ensure Allawi’s endurance in power, the CIA is now bribing a large number of Iraqi leaders and “wannabes” to manipulate and truncate the elections of January 2005.  The Arabists insist that they are saving the Administration’s posture by pursuing “realpolitique”, namely, the empowerment of an authoritarian administration led by CIA assets. The emergence of such a government in Baghdad, they argue, is neither a perfect solution, nor a defeat. Given the escalating guerilla warfare, this is the best exit strategy which the US can realistically hope for. (Although this Arabists’ approach sounds pragmatic and practical, it is factually wrong. The CIA does not really control Allawi. Determined to survive in power, Allawi has just completed his deal with Tehran fully cognizant that the mullahs are adamant on winning a decisive historic triumph in Iraq, Allawi or no Allawi.)

To ensure that their policy recommendations are adopted, which means that their institutional power rises, the intelligence community must soundly defeat the civilian élite of the Department of Defense. The formal excuse for removing the DoD’s leadership  from the center of power and policy formulation is the claim that they got the US into the Iraqi mess by promising the US would be welcomed with open arms. While the DoD élite acknowledges past mistakes and reiterates their conviction that Iraq will ultimately become a genuinely free state provided the US stays the course and does not abandon Iraq, the intelligence community has an explanation for the debacle in Iraq that absolves them from any wrongdoing in Iraq. They now attribute the absence of Arab support for the US in Iraq — which they’d promised on the eve of the war — not to their errors of analysis and judgment, but to impact of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis on the situation in Iraq.

The Arabs cannot help the US in Iraq and endorse a new government in Baghdad, the argument goes, for as long as the US remains associated with support for Israel in its “occupation” of the Palestinians.

This approach has been a fundamental misconception which official Washington has traditionally failed to grasp.

“There are deeper furies that grip Arab society; we take up a false trail when we fall for the claim that our troubles in that world spring from our policy on Israel and Palestinians. This is the trail our interlocutors in those lands would have us follow. But they are shrewd men, the rulers who hold sway in those Arab lands. It is a cultural norm of the Arab world that strangers are never exposed to family demons. We are strangers in that world, and the Palestine story is all we shall be given, for it is the most convenient of tales,” said Fouad Ajami in a May 26, 2003, article in the US News & World Report.

Moreover, Arab intellectuals continue stressing this point. In a June 8, 2004, interview with Jordanian TV, Dr Saad bin Tefla argued this point. He lamented that the Arab world is rife with “slaughter, destructive abuse, anarchy, and bloodshed [that] in no way resemble jihad according to sharia and resistance. These are anarchy and terrorism” which evolve from a new “culture of collective suicide” prevailing throughout the Arab world. “I maintain that we are all responsible for this culture, and that Zionism and imperialism have nothing to do with it,” Tefla stressed. “It is wrong to say that violence is the result of occupation.”

Tefla specifically addressed the violence in Iraq in this context. “This violence has cultural roots, and is unconnected to the [Israeli] occupation,” he explained, and warned that “this logic [now serves] as justification for what is taking place in Iraq and in other places”. However, although the “blame Israel” might be a factually wrong argument, it is a politically mighty argument for the intelligence community because of the close association of the DoD’s civilian élite with Israel.

In late August 2004, the intelligence community delivered an audacious gambit — a preemptive strike in the institutional power struggle in Washington — aimed to soundly defeat the DoD’s civilian élite in the bureaucratic power struggle. The CIA “smelled success” after Bush granted added powers to acting CIA chief in order to expedite the war on terrorism. On the night of August 27, 2004, on the eve of the Republican convention, the intelligence community went for the “kill”, leaking to CBS News that the FBI was in the midst of an investigation of an “Israeli mole” at the heart of the Pentagon and the DoD civilian élite seemed to be directly involved in that spy scandal.

It took more than 48 hours for the media frenzy to subside and for the facts to come out. By then it became clear that all that the Israeli “mole” actually did was to leak information to a Washington entity which he was confident would be able to use this information to further a policy he cared about. As such, he was engaged in the time-honored leaking game which keeps Washington alive and active. The entire US Government thrives on such leaks, and even the "officials" which originally disclosed the investigation into the “Israeli mole” issue and then kept frenzy feeding the media were committing the very same crime they accused the “spy” of. Furthermore, by the time the “Israeli mole” met either the AIPAC (America-Israel Political Action Committee) individuals or the Israeli diplomat, the draft memo was already a public knowledge because, adamant on scuttling the idea of taking a hard line toward Iran, State Department officials had already leaked the draft directive to The Washington Post which ran a comprehensive story about it on June 15, 2003.

But by Monday, August 30, 2004, the damage was already done. Accusatory and derogative fingers have already been pointed at senior officials of the Department of Defense and their public reputation was tarnished. Moreover, the anti-Semitic castigation of  “dual loyalty” was whispered again, getting media attention because many of the “accused” senior official are Jewish. Ultimately, what really mattered was the fact that neither Pres. Bush, nor Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, came to the defense of the falsely accused officials. Since both, as well as the leadership of the US intelligence community, know that Israel has not broken its commitment not to engage in espionage in and against the US since the Pollard fiasco of the mid-1980s (and then DCI George Tenet even apologized in writing to the Chief of Israel’s Mossad after making a similar accusation in the late-1990s), the President’s and the Secretary’s avoidance of defending their senior officials sent a huge political signal: these senior DoD officials were fair game. 

Veteran Washington observers were quick to note that the primary reason the Bush White House did not rally to the defense of the DoD senior civilian officials was that the unfolding crisis ultimately served the Administration’s political self-interest in three main fields (which are not mutually exclusive):

(1) As the US approaches the 1,000 fatalities since “the end of fighting” and with Iraq going up in flames, then somebody, other than Pres. Bush, ought to be responsible for the quagmire. With the predominantly Jewish senior DoD officials at the forefront, it was easy to shift blame to them.

(2) It is accepted in Washington that if Bush wins, there will be major changes at the top and many of those identified with the Bush Doctrine will be promoted (to “prove” that there's success in the war). There are a lot of other “wannabes” who yearn for positions at the top, and tarnishing the neo-cons makes them unacceptable for further service, thus opening the door for the contenders.

(3) The Bush campaign (directly, or in the grey areas, 527s etc.) is in dire need for infusion of large sums of cash. Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry's attacks on Pres. Bush's record and the Iraq war must be drowned. In past elections, the big oil and construction companies (mostly the Houston-based friends of Bush Sr) were the purveyors of such contributions (essentially the laundering and recycling of Saudi-origin cash). But this year, the sheikhs are angry with Washington for attacking Iraq and unleashing the ensuing wave of terrorism which engulfs Saudi Arabia itself. They also dread the US-Israeli strategic relations (imperfect and problematic as they are) as symbolized by the prominence of the pro-Israel and Jewish officials at the top. Thus, bringing down the DoD’s senior civilian officials in a scandal involving Israel will signal the sheikhs that the old relations are still viable, and that they should resume helping their Houston-based friends.

Ignored, of course, throughout this political and media festivities was the continued deterioration of the situation in Iraq despite the leeway given to Allawi, as well as the intense fighting by, and growing losses among, the US forces.

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Ultimately, this Washington power wars cannot conceal the lingering dire state of the US intelligence community.

Even after acknowledging its failures on September 11, 2001, and in Iraq, the US intelligence community has not changed its profound disdain toward open source intelligence (OSINT), particularly from the developing world, as a viable resource for knowledge. Back in early Spring 2004, for example, at the very same time the intelligence community was bitterly complaining about the inability to comprehend Moqtada al-Sadr and the radical Shi’ite leadership, the US occupation authorities in Baghdad closed down the Hawza — Sadr’s weekly — because of its virulent anti-US incitement. But, Hawza was also the most authoritative source for understanding the political thought of the Shi’ite élite. The intelligence community did not object to the closure of the Hawza because it did not feel the need for its unique articles. And then the US was surprised by the outbreak of the Shi’ite intifada a few days later.

This sorry state of affairs cannot continue.

If the US is to persevere and prevail in the war on terrorism — and it must ultimately triumph if Western civilization is to survive — it ought to comprehend its foes.

Intelligence is the key to fighting terrorism and subversion. The present US intelligence community has not only failed to meet the challenge, but is failing to learn from its own recent mistakes, to adapt and correct its ways of doing business. Increasing the intelligence budget and reorganizing existing institutions no longer suffices. Urgently needed are changes of priorities and methods: the revamping of the US  intelligence culture. The intelligence community’s analysts must be freed from the current institutional stifling, must have greater exposure to the real world, must interact with outside expertise even if dissenting, must increase their reliance on open source material, at least until other viable sources are acquired and developed.

Without such profound intelligence reforms, the United States will keep losing the war on terrorism: an unthinkable prospect for the US and the West.