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.