In an increasingly complicated and dangerous world, the work of U.S. intelligence agencies has never been more vital and more difficult. As it acts on the international scene, the U.S. government obtains information and analysis from myriad sources, including foreign service officers, journalists and other governments. Most of this involves information from public sources. In government-speak, it is unclassified.
There is another major stream of information and analysis, often covering the same subjects, derived from sources that someone or some government wants kept secret. This is where the CIA, the NSA and other components of the “intelligence community” come in. In the lingo of their craft, they often work in or on “denied areas” and their sources and output are classified, i.e., secret.
These agencies are large, equipped with myriad sophisticated technologies, staffed by very smart people and well supported in the national budget. Almost anyone who spends time working for or with some of these agencies will come away impressed by their capabilities and dedication. No one employed by the CIA is living in poverty, but most could be making a good deal more money in the corporate world. They are patriots — not the phony “patriots” who vandalized the Capitol on Jan. 6 — the real thing.
However, capabilities and good intentions do not guarantee successful outcomes. In recent history, U.S. intelligence has sometimes been notably wrong. Even as many outside observers could see signs of advanced decay in the Soviet Union, American intelligence was caught by surprise when Russian domination over Eastern Europe began to unravel culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. In that case, failure to anticipate a good outcome cost very little. In Afghanistan, there were real costs. The CIA and other intelligence agencies had a major presence in Afghanistan during the two-decade struggle against the Taliban. Up until the last moment, the CIA misjudged the staying power of the Afghan government. It expected the Taliban to take power after the U.S. left, but not nearly as rapidly as it happened. That misreading was partly (but only partly) responsible for the ugly disarray of the U.S. departure from Kabul.
What went wrong? Gen. James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, recently observed that one of the hardest challenges for an intelligence agency is judging “the will to fight.” There is no objective metric to measure it. We thought that will was much stronger among Afghans we had trained and equipped than it actually was. Something very similar happened at the end of the Vietnam War when we overestimated the will of the South Vietnamese army to defend their country.
For every negative example, there are positive counterexamples. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it fell to the CIA and other intelligence agencies to lead the counterattack against al-Qaida (Osama bin Laden) and later the Islamic State (ISIS). These were clandestine networks of terrorists and militants coming from unfamiliar cultures and distant locales. Dealing with such a threat required a rarified set of skills including languages and the ability to live and work in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and beyond. It required infinite patience and tenacity pursuing fragmentary clues to track clandestine killers — while utilizing some very sophisticated technical assets. In the end, the CIA tracked down bin Laden and a succession of ISIS “caliphs” — all of whom were killed by U.S. special forces.
The really consequential current case study in intelligence success or failure is not American; it is Russian. Vladimir Putin is a professionally trained intelligence officer. He began his career as an officer of the KGB. His formative training is about generating and using intelligence to support Russia’s strategic aims.
In late 2021 and early 2022, Putin launched a public campaign of threats and intimidation aimed at neighboring Ukraine — and, more broadly, at the U.S.-led security structure in Europe as a whole. The entire effort was artificial in the sense that Ukraine had done absolutely nothing to provoke Moscow. It is clear that all of this was driven by Putin’s belief that he had a moment of opportunity to fulfill burning imperial ambitions. He had invested large sums in modernizing Russia’s military. His national coffers were flush with oil money. Western governments were weak with new unimpressive leaders in Washington and Berlin. Europe was heavily dependent on Russian energy exports, and no one wanted to spend serious money on defense. The Kremlin was confident that it could intimidate and extort a flaccid West and restore Moscow’s dominant influence in Eastern Europe and more. Putin is his own analyst. He concluded that Ukraine’s army and population would not resist a Russian takeover and the Zelensky government would fold under pressure. Equally important, his own intelligence apparatus was telling him the same thing.
As a result, Putin launched his “special military operation” with a unit of paratroopers who were to seize a small airport north of Kyiv and then drive (expecting little resistance) to the capital, where they would raise the Russian flag and arrest Zelensky — if he had not fled. The whole thing might take three days at most. It constitutes the greatest intelligence failure since Hitler concluded he could conquer Russia before winter set in. [Within days Putin arrested and imprisoned his intelligence chief]. Instead of a cakewalk, Russia has encountered fierce Ukrainian resistance sustained by weapons flowing in from the West — to the point that many military experts now see a real prospect that the Russian army will be defeated.
The CIA’s performance in this drama has been remarkable. When well-connected Russian analysts declared that Putin would never actually attack Ukraine, the CIA publicly predicted that he would. Specifically, the CIA warned a skeptical Zelensky about the paratrooper assault in advance — when and where. As a result, Ukrainian soldiers were waiting and the Russian contingent died on the tarmac instead of marching to Kyiv.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.