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Steve Coll is President & CEO of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Previously he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior[…]

Steve Coll weighs in on the current state of American Intelligence.

Question: Has American intelligence improved since 9/11?

Steve Coll: Some of the changes since 9/11 have been positive. An enormous amount of money has been thrown at the intelligence community so you went from a period in the ‘90s where the peace dividend after the Cold War was in many cases taken at the expense of the intelligence community and there wasn’t much hiring going on and a lot of early retirements were being forced and there weren’t very many investments and the place had really kind of hollowed out. After 9/11, massive amounts of money were thrown in. Everybody went on huge hiring sprees and what you--  I don’t live inside the community but touring it and bumping up against it what I- my impression is that immediately after 9/11 you had an extraordinarily talented group of young people volunteer to go in to the intelligence community, probably the best generation of public servants who went in to the government since the ‘60s. People were motivated, they were smart, they were well educated and they were committed after 9/11, and then they- but they went in to the system--  The system really didn’t know how to absorb them and a lot of them bounced out. A lot of people became disillusioned. There weren’t good senior programs or officers available to mentor them. And so I think that sort of wave of young people has been atrophied and maybe not sort of brought up to the way you would win. In the meanwhile, one of their experiences when all these really great people went in was that the whole system kept being reorganized and then reorganized again and the agencies were all moving around. And so I think the sense you have from inside is that there’s still a lot of confusion about what is a career in intelligence. How do you actually have a useful and successful and interesting career as an operative?  Analysts--  There’s millions of analysts running around but as to the actual collection of intelligence, which was what the problem seemed to be running up to 9/11, I don’t think the system is fixed at all. I think it’s still a mess.

Question: Has privatization of security practices gone too far?

Steve Coll:  Yes, I do think too much is coming from private firms. I think that’s plain. I think it’s--  I don’t think that private contractors ought to be acting on the battlefield as sort of proxies for or allies of the U.S. military. I think private contracting for logistics and for support and for technology and maybe for some analysis can be part of a governmental system, but to have private contractors in the field carrying out the sort of state craft of war or shadowy intelligence, warlike activity, paramilitary or collection activity, I think is a mistake.

Question: How do you rate Michael Hayden’s tenure at the CIA?

Steve Coll:  Hard to tell. He’s a professional who I think was welcomed there when he was appointed because the turmoil of the previous regime had been pretty considerable. He was a known quantity. He was known to be sort of a friend of the CIA. He wasn’t there to tear it down or kind of reinvent it the way some other directors had come in wanting to do, but the basic problem that he faces and that the agency faces is that they’ve basically been reorganized out of their prestige and to some extent reorganized out of their- parts of their mission and they’ve lost their place at the table. Their place at the table with the White House is now taken by the director of national intelligence, the new sort of czar of all of the intelligence agencies, and that means the CIA is adjusting to a completely different world in which it does no- it no longer has direct contact with the President of the United States every morning. That’s what made the CIA the source of all this mystique in our political culture was that every morning first thing, 6:30 or 7 a.m., the President of the United States sits down with the director of the CIA or his designated briefer and they talk about the world. And when the President wants something done off the books he turns to the CIA and he says directly, “I want to raid Cuba or I want to foment dissent in this country or that,” and that relationship of the President and the CIA is broken. It just doesn’t exist anymore. The CIA is now more like the FBI. It works at one step removed. It has a mission to go out in to the world and steal secrets and occasionally go out in the world and blow up bridges, but it’s doing that almost as a kind of separate- like a federal reserve that does monetary policy that they’re divorced from policy and decision making where there’s an intermediary in the DA and DNI. And I think Hayden has not been able to quite resolve how this reorganization will play out in the life of the institution.

Question: Is the American military strong enough for continued warfare?

Steve Coll:  Well, there’s a very heated debate within the U.S. Army and the military continuing now and I’m still- I’m doing some work on this now, and the strain--  Everyone agrees there is an enormous strain. The question is- that are--  The questions that are debated are what are the strategic consequences of this strain?  And on the one hand you have those like K.C. or certain colonels and others who would emphasize the loss of combat capability, the potential for a surprise elsewhere in the world that the United States can’t respond to, and the general sort of inability of the United States to say pivot from Iraq where things may be going better to Afghanistan where things are clearly going worse because there just is no- there’s no elasticity in the system anymore. The resources are all on the- in the field so that’s one side. The other side emphasizes, as Gates did in the speech a couple of weeks ago:  Look. We have armies to win the wars that we’re in and I would rather break an army winning the war that we have to win than worry about some future scenario. Nobody--  Somebody was arguing with me the other day. He said, “Nobody worried during World War II that we were going to break the army and overemphasize figuring out how to beat Nazi Germany and then we were going to miss Viet Nam because we hadn’t prepared for counterinsurgency.”  Well, you- that’s what you have armies for is to go all out to achieve the objectives you need to achieve. Now--  So then that depends on whether you believe finishing in Iraq with every brigade available is really in the national interest and so in the end these arguments about strain and breaking the army they’re a kind of coded argument about whether Iraq is still worthwhile.

Question: Should getting bin Laden be the military’s top priority?

Steve Coll:  The hunt’s still important for a lot of reasons starting with justice, the fact that he is at large and has more or less accepted responsibility for the attacks and no one’s ever bothered to chase him down, but more sort of relevant to the current scene this--  We talked before about the 20 years of continuous leadership, the ability to deliver messages to followers, to define the narrative of the war that he believes he’s leading, to identify targets, to name countries. He still matters. He doesn’t matter the way he did in 1999 but taking him off the airwaves and forcing al-Qaeda to deal for the first time in 20 years with the succession crisis probably from the point of view of al-Qaeda’s adversaries would be a good objective. So I think there are lots of reasons why the hunt for him still matters. As to what al-Qaeda’s capability is, this year I think all you can really do is look at what the system is reporting by way of kind of threat reporting on the one hand and then what all of the open source evidence from the last three or four years tells you about their capability. And I think that in summary what it tells you is that they still have the intent to carry out what you might think of as sort of medium-sized attacks against airplanes, against subway systems, against embassies, military bases. They have the capability to plan sort of six-to-nine-month, fairly complicated, fairly ambitious plans like the one that’s on trial in London involving the attempt to blow up planes over the Atlantic in August of 2006, the one that led to us not being able to carry our toothpaste aboard airplanes. That was their most ambitious plot since 9/11. It was meant to be the fifth anniversary plot. It was meant to take down five to ten planes. If it had succeeded, you’d have- we’d be living in a different world. There’d be 600 or more dead Americans and Brits lying in the Atlantic Ocean and we’d probably be occupying the federally administered tribal areas and engaged in a very vicious counterinsurgency campaign, but that’s been their most ambitious plot since and it’s a couple of orders of magnitude short of 9/11. Al Qaeda keeps an eye on the calendar. They know this is an election season. I think he’ll probably want to do something. In 2004, what we can see in retrospect is that he didn’t have the capability to do anything other than a media event but he appeared like an apparition on the weekend before the election and delivered this
message to the American people. John Kerry still believes to this day it was a factor in his defeat in a close election so at a minimum I expect them to attempt media events but if they have capability they’ll probably use it during the fall season.

Recorded on: 07/10/2008