by | Jan 11, 2017 | Gayle Lynds | 7 comments

Gayle Lynds: These days, perhaps the more relevant question is — how can U.S. intelligence matter if we can’t trust it?  Whoa!  That’s like asking a guy being investigated for a white collar crime how long he’s been beating his wife.  It’s a fallacy of relevance.

For all the detective knows, the guy has never so much as flicked the gravy from her ear.  And it’s irrelevant to the crime — but the accusation will likely rattle the guy, maybe make him mad, which might be the detective’s purpose all along.

So let’s try this question — why is U.S. intelligence such a failure?  Curses!  Arrrgh!  That’s an ad hominem attack, aiming a nuclear missile at all of the intelligence agencies.  Are they really “such a failure” — because right now that’s being hotly debated.  Or is the question actually about the quality of their information gathering and analyses and missions?

Spies have always been with us.  The first recorded instance of espionage occurs in the Old Testament, when Moses sent out spies to scout Canaan.  Queen Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and George Washington all used spies extensively.  In some respects, at least for thriller writers who prefer clear-cut issues of black and white, good and evil, the Cold War was the modern heyday of spies and their spymasters. 

Since then, our intelligence community (IC) has been through many changes.  In the early ’90s, Congress debated whether we really needed the CIA, and the CIA considered focusing on economic espionage.  Technology seemed a cheaper and better way to go than human intelligence — “humint.” Some prescient social scientists predicted that not Communists but religious fanatics would be our next threat, our next great danger. 

And then 9/11 happened, and the world changed again. 
Yes, sometimes the IC gets it wrong.  We hear a lot about that when it happens, and the price can be heavy.  But what we seldom hear about are the times they get it right.  That’s because not only is it critical they keep secret the networks, the assets and agents and fronts and operations, it’s also critical that they selflessly fall on their swords in order to keep those secrets.  And that’s what they do.

Curious, I googled “CIA successes.”  The result was 462,000 hits. 

Then I googled “U.S. intelligence successes” and got 105 million hits.

So if you’re also curious and would like to see a few wide-ranging articles that discuss IC hits and misses, here are four:

In finding Osama bin Laden, CIA soars from distress to success
“The first CIA officers who rushed to Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of 2001 had to buy field gear at an REI camping goods store in Virginia. Some flew in on rickety, former Soviet helicopters. A few rode horses….”

Five intelligence successes that changed the course of war
“A recent Associated Press article detailed a US Intelligence failure to recognize that an informant was also involved in planning terror attacks in 2008. This got me thinking and, for a change, I decided to research some military intelligence successes from modern history. Below are five historic intelligence coups that changed the tide of war and, in some cases, the world’s balance of power.”
39 Terror Plots Foiled Since 9/11: Examining Counterterrorism’s Success Stories
“Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, at least 39 terror plots against the United States have been foiled thanks to domestic and international cooperation, as well as efforts to track down terror leads in local communities.”

Operation CEDAR FALLS: an Intelligence Success Story
“It basically comes down to the idea that when intelligence is right and organizations react and stave off disaster, then [outsiders may think] that the intelligence was wrong because nothing happened.”

Let’s be grateful for the women and men who work hard for us in the intelligence community.  They’re people like us, sometimes better than us.  They get up in the morning, put on their clothes, and go into work to help the country — our country. 

Do you have a favorite story about the IC and those who work there?  Please share!

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. S. Lee Manning

    Thank you for this great post summarizing all the important work done by intelligence. Yes, intelligence matters. Sadly, it's neither seen nor appreciated when it works.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Gayle, you are SO right about how our intelligence agencies cannot "announce" their successes lest they jeopardize agents embedded inside terrorist groups, outside informants or perhaps electronic surveillance used to uncover their plots and then foil them. The "bad guys" only have to be "right" once to pull off an attack whereas our dedicated intelligence officers have to be "right" 100% of the time. We should be super grateful for their dedication and perseverance in the face of the many threats facing our nation. Thanks so much for posting!

  3. Gayle Lynds

    Thanks, S. Lee & Karna. I appreciate your comments. Remembering who is actually doing the work is so critical. Not thinking of them as monolithic is far more useful than dismissing the institution. There's a wealth of knowledge, intellect, expertise, and dedication that we must never forget … and pray that their leaders recognize it.

  4. Francine

    Deeply disturbed to hear PEOTUS characterize Intel Community as using the tactics of Nazi Germany at his press conference today. He doesn't care how much damage he does to the service that is mandated to support him.

  5. Anonymous

    Sorry to say, I do have a couple of IC stories that for safety reason cannot be shared. But thanks for this post. I do honor those people who work to keep us safe.


  6. John Sheldon

    I've always wondered if the CIA got it right about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

  7. Sonja Stone

    Gayle, you make such a great point about the successful missions: we often don't hear about what went right when disaster is averted. Thanks!