WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Bill Casey, my old friend and once my lawyer, was CIA director during the Reagan administration, he often confided that his was ?the best job in Washington.? He thought he headed the finest government agency in town.
Alas, over the next decade it lost a lot of steam, as the Senate report on its ineptitude made clear last week. It is overly bureaucratized, hide-bound and lacking in the capacity for human intelligence. Some of this started in the 1970s, when liberals such as Stansfield Turner thought they could turn intelligence-gathering into a high tech operation run by geeks and lawyers. When the Clinton wiz kids arrived in the White House, the lawyers gained primacy even over the geeks. Now, partisan Washington is in full howl over the inaccuracy of intelligence vouchsafed us in the run-up to the Iraqi invasion.
Some of official Washington?s indignation is unconvincing. Critics such as Sen. Jean Pierre Kerry talk as though intelligence -- properly assembled! -- is infallible. It never is. It is always fraught with error. Even during World War II, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill had a matutinal serving of the Luftwaffe?s mail thanks to his intelligence wizards? cracking of the "Enigma? code, the intelligence stream fed to him was confusing and often inaccurate. Soon, a small bureaucracy was filtering it to him -- and that, of course, did not eliminate all errors.
Yet the British have a longstanding experience with intelligence gathering going back centuries. Washington?s experience is by comparison meager and our commitment to it is ambivalent.
?Gentlemen don?'t read other gentlemen?s mail,? is an appraisal of intelligence supposedly made by President?'s Franklin Roosevelt?s secretary of war when asked to spy on Stalin?s communications. Official Washington?s recent bickering about the CIA shows that a consensus on intelligence has yet to form here. The Brits have a sounder grasp on intelligence?s importance to national security and of its limits.
When a British scholar took me on a walk in London not long ago to show me the offices from which the decryptions of ?Enigma? were brought to Churchill, he took me to a quiet side street near Number 10 Downing St., rarely noticed by tourists or pedestrians. He pointed out two nondescript old buildings. One was in use by British naval intelligence as long ago as 1895. The other provided Churchill with his insights into the Luftwaffe. A careful inspection of the white sheer curtains in the buildings? front windows indicated they were not exactly sheer. They were bombproof. There remain spooks behind those old walls.