What is the State of American Intelligence?

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


We can't understand the world, Vest says, until our intelligence officers are more diverse.

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."