The whole idea
of intelligence failures -- how they come about, and how one properly structures an intelligence service -- has quickly become central to much of the news we're reading about the war on terrorism and the reorganization of the federal government.
I little while back I reviewed Ernest R. May's recent book Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, a study of one of the great intelligence failures of the 20th century: the French failure to predict the timing and and strategy of Hitler's devastating lightning conquest.
It's a great book. And May makes a strong argument that the Fall of France itself was principally due to this catastrophic intelligence failure.
But the book is also a crisp and clarifying exploration of how intelligence agencies can have lots of assets and lots of information but still not be able to use either effectively -- often with fatal consequences.
This, of course, is precisely what seems to have been the case with America's intelligence agencies in the lead-up to 9/11. And you can't read May's book -- written in 2000 -- without getting a very clear sense that he was quite aware of this. Here's one snippet from the introduction ...
The story is particularly well worth recalling now, for in the post-Cold War era, the United States and other seemingly victorious Western democracies exhibit many of the same characteristics that France and Britain did in 1938-40 -- arrogance, a strong disinclination to risk life in battle, heavy reliance on technology as a substitute, and governmental procedures poorly designed for anticipating or coping with ingenious challenges from the comparatively weak.
If you want to think deeply about this whole question of intelligence failures and learn a lot about how not
to organize and acculturate an intelligence service, read May's book
. It's really, really good. And it's the book to read on this subject.