U.S. Spies After the Cold War

Loch Johnson discusses The Threat on the Horizon.

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The U.S. intelligence community has long struggled with how to understand the world. In many instances, it comes down to budgeting: how to get the best results for the money—$80 billion last year—that the country allocates to the problem. University of Georgia political science professor Loch Johnson served on the staff of the 1995-96 Aspin-Brown Commission, which considered how the CIA and the other spy agencies should adjust to the new realities that followed the end of the Cold War. He recently spoke with U.S. News about his new book, threat horizonThe Threat on the Horizon: An Inside Account of America's Search for Security After the Cold War. Excerpts:

How well did U.S. intelligence agencies adapt to a post-Cold War world?

There are lots of conflicting views. Some people have argued that the intelligence community has failed to adapt to the changed world, but I don't think that's entirely correct. The CIA, for instance, spent 85 percent of its resources on the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But by 1991, 65 percent of those resources were looking at other problems, like environmental threats, failed states, and other issues. The CIA also moved to get more people speaking different languages and so forth.

What would you have liked to see?

We wanted a national intelligence chief who could bring the agencies together and coordinate them. That was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission as well. Of course, there are many people in the Pentagon who oppose this because they fear that they'll lose control of their military intelligence budget. That was the view of the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, and they successfully fought off calls for a strong director of national intelligence [DNI] with personnel and budget authority.

When was this recognized as a problem?

The modern intelligence community was created in 1947 and it only took a few years for people to see that it was a mistake not to make the head of CIA more powerful. The military was a powerful lobby then too, and the result has been a weakened the intelligence community.

How's the current DNI faring?

James Clapper has been fairly effective in working with [Defense Secretary] Robert Gates to better coordinate between all the agencies. The problem is that that working relationship will disappear when either of them leave their jobs.

This year, the administration decided to regularly make the intelligence budget public. Is that a good step?

It's a fairly modest accomplishment, but a good start. It would be a mistake to reveal what the intelligence agencies spend on collection and so on. In general, we spend about $80 billion a year. About 85 percent of that money goes to technologies, like satellites and drones.

What does the intel community do best?

We've thrown $80 billion at the problem of trying to understand the world. The British, for instance, spend $1.6 billion on the same problem. No country has ever spent so much money trying to make sure that the president and others in the government know what is going on. We do a fairly good job of that. But you could spend twice or three times that amount and still not know exactly what is going to happen tomorrow.

Where are they weakest?

Where we've fallen short was spending money on cheaper things, like human intelligence networks, in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

Is that changing?

At the University of Georgia, where I teach, we had five people studying Arabic before 9/11. Now, it's a formal major with 186 students. That's happening across the country, and it is giving the country a huge reservoir of people who understand the cultures, languages, and customs of countries that we ignored during the Cold War.

Yet the CIA was criticized for failing to predict the fall of the Soviet Union.

I've been able to look at the documents from CIA from 1985 to 1991. There was actually pretty good reporting about how the terrible economic conditions were creating unrest. Of course, they never said: "The U.S.S.R. will fall apart next Tuesday at noon." That's frustrating.