Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush.
Question: What is the state of American intelligence today?
Vest: Well intelligence is a very difficult area. And I do not feel that even after a year of looking very specifically at our intelligence around weapons of mass destruction in various areas of the world that I can consider myself an expert on intelligence, or to give you a truly trustworthy measure of the state of capabilities. But there are a few things I can say. One is that it is very important that the community . . . the intelligence community come into the modern era in terms of the diversity who works in it. I mean we all know that there was a period in history in which most of the leadership and most of the operational people and so forth in the intelligence community were fundamentally well-educated, blue-eyed, Caucasian Americans. We can’t understand the world and we can’t operate in the world until the diversity of that work force builds up. And I think they’re trying to recognize that; trying to understand that in moving forward. So what were the kind of errors made? I’m going to point at two because I feel very strongly that I learned something about them. And the first everybody here is about, which is information is not shared. And there are a whole lot of reasons – some of which were technological, the vast majority of which were simply cultural – that the CIA and the FBI didn’t share information in ways that was helpful. The underlying motivation was good. You wanna protect your sources. You don’t want people to be damaged, but there are ways of handling these problems. So the biggest thing that had to change, I believe, was increasing the ability to share information across the agencies. Second thing is that I came to be a great believer in my year of experience of the use of open source intelligence. And I was astounded when I read the newspapers the last two days, and there are numerous articles about the sort of change of understanding of the state of Iran’s nuclear weapons program or lack thereof. There was a lot of reference made to increased use of open source intelligence. That really made me feel good because I always pounded the table on this issue during Rob Sullivan Commission. That simply means that you developed a culture where if something wasn’t stamped Top Secret, or better yet compartmentalled, and you felt that this sort of knowledge was power, and that if it wasn’t classified it wasn’t really something to work with, that’s from the old days. That’s gone. That’s the core of the most important part, but there is so much to be learned out there from just observation, reading the newspapers, looking at the blogs, all these kind of things. And we really pushed in our commission for beefing up the use of open source intelligence. Those are two things that I understand. I no longer have that kind of contact, but I understand that there have been improvements in both of those issues. And I’m really going to add a third thing. It’s human nature in any organization, particularly one that has as daunting and compelling a task as the intelligence community, that the short term always pushes out the long term. And I will tell you – and it’s almost all out there in the unclassified literature now – a lot of mistakes that we made in Iraq had to do with the fact that we were so busy attempting to answer some very highly focused short term questions, get information for the people that we’re gonna send . . . potentially send troops in and so on and so forth, but you kind of forgot about the long scheme of things. You know what’s going on socially in the country? The fact is that the society had degenerated so badly toward the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign that they couldn’t have mounted an effective program if they’d wanted to. And so looking at those social trends; looking at the open things; taking a historical point of view and assigning people whose job it is in areas – whether it is a geographic area of the world or a topical area – to pull together teams from across the community and really look at the long term strategic issues. I think those are the three things that really needed improvement. And my impression, mostly as a newspaper reader, is that some good progress has been made. So I have to tell you it was very painful for me to be part of the writing of the report of the WMD Commission. It was very hard-nosed, and I was one of the members who pushed for really tough, straightforward language. I’d do it all over again, but it was sort of painful because I have to tell you even though they made some horrible mistakes in that case, this is a community of really dedicated, patriotic people trying to do the best possible job as they see it. And it didn’t feel very good to sort of beat up on them, and especially, by the way, there were some other areas of their endeavors where their performance had just been stellar.
Question: Are the errors introduced in the gathering or the interpretation of intelligence?
Vest: I believe on the basis of the huge amount of evidence, the very talented staff that was very carefully constructed not to have a particular point of view, or be pushing one agency’s interest or what have you – I believe that the story we were able to unwind on what happened in Iraq is accurate. And I do not believe that the administration was cooking the books or forcing answers that were not accurate. I believe that the intelligence community told them what they sincerely believed. They made a lot of mistakes. They’re all well known. They understand now the aluminum tubes. They understand the role of curveball and so forth and so on. But I believe that the intelligence community gave the administration a view that they deeply believed was right. And to this day if you go back to these people and say, you know, “Did you give the right answer?” they will uniformly say, “I gave them the best answer I could with what I knew and understood at the time.” Now having said that, you’ve moved into some very interesting territory. Because one of the biggest mistakes that can be made is if decision makers don’t feel that they can push back, and argue, and dialogue with what they’re hearing about. It’s a really sort of difficult (57:08) situation. So what I’m understanding from the newspapers about the most recent national intelligence estimate on Iran is that they have learned a lot of these lessons, but they’ve become much more disciplined in what their . . . what their craft is; in the way in which they use terms; that they are not pressing to have unanimous decisions within the group that sits around the table. They’re doing all the things that we thought were the lessons . . . appear to be doing the things that we thought were the lessons from what went wrong in Iraq. But I have to tell you it is a tough business. We clearly did not have enough people on the ground . . . probably still don’t. We were very lacking in so-called “human intelligence”. We’ve probably overinvested in the most complicated satellite-based systems and so forth at the expense of on the ground human agents, and paying a lot of attention to strategic issues and to open source materials. But I hope we’ve learned some lessons, but the public does have to understand it’s a very complicated business. You do not find these answers easily. You’re dealing with people who are doing everything they can imagine to keep you from understanding the truth.
Question: Were you surprised at the reassessment of the Iranian threat in 2007?
Vest: Well I certainly was not surprised at all that there . . . I mean there has to be a continuing, ongoing assessment. I’m not even sure “reassessment” is the right world, but that’s what the intelligence community’s role is. So I . . . I’ve had no classified information on Iran since the time I was on the commission. I had no idea what’s actually been going on. But it sounds like they are doing their job well, and I’m glad that they are. So no I was not surprised there was a reassessment. I was pleased that it looks like there is an open, honest approach to this, and I hope they’re right.
Recorded on: 12/5/07