Courtesy Reuters

THE LIMITS OF PREVENTION

As the dust from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was still settling, the chants began: The CIA was asleep at the switch! The intelligence system is broken! Reorganize top to bottom! The biggest intelligence system in the world, spending upward of $30 billion a year, could not prevent a group of fanatics from carrying out devastating terrorist attacks. Drastic change must be overdue. The new conventional wisdom was typified by Tim Weiner, writing in The New York Times on October 7: "What will the nation's intelligence services have to change to fight this war? The short answer is: almost everything."

Yes and no. A lot must, can, and will be done to shore up U.S. intelligence collection and analysis. Reforms that should have been made long ago will now go through. New ideas will get more attention and good ones will be adopted more readily than in normal times. There is no shortage of proposals and initiatives to shake the system up. There is, however, a shortage of perspective on the limitations that we can expect from improved performance. Some of the changes will substitute new problems for old ones. The only

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  • Richard K. Betts, Director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, was a member of the National Commission on Terrorism. He is the author of Surprise Attack. This article is adapted from his chapter in How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War, published by PublicAffairs and Foreign Affairs with the support of the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • More By Richard K. Betts