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Commentary: Difference Between A Secret And A Mystery When It Comes To Intelligence Failures

All Things Considered: September 18, 2002

Secrets and Mysteries


The key to understand, if not unlock, most so-called intelligence failures is the fundamental distinction between a secret and a mystery.


Commentator Ken Adelman.

ADELMAN: Secret is something knowable, but something known to only a few insiders. Shakespeare shows this the clearest. His hunchback, Richard III, concocted a plan to become king. He was evil enough to murder all those in his path. This secret was shared with his henchmen. In contrast, a mystery is something simply unknowable. Macbeth could become king by murdering Duncan, but whether this would happen was uncertain to Lady Macbeth and even to Macbeth himself since he didn't know if he was capable of murder.

Intelligence agencies--the CIA, FBI and whomever in the alphabet soup bureaucracy--can sometimes be blamed for not uncovering secrets, but they should never be blamed for failing to unlock mysteries. Take what have been deemed two of the biggest intelligence failures of the last quarter-century. Right after the fall of the shah of Iran in 1979, President Carter dashed off a handwritten memo to his CIA director complaining of this grave intelligence failure. There was no secret to uncover. The Ayatollah Khomeini's agitating for the shah's overthrow was all done in plain sight, but it was a mystery how Iranians would react to Khomeini's sermons. Neither the ayatollah nor the shah could know it, so the CIA couldn't know it either.

A decade later came the startling collapse of the Soviet Union. How could so momentous an event surprise our $20 billion-a-year intelligence empire? Mikhail Gorbachev shaking up the Communist system through perestroika and glasnost was out there for everyone to see, but it was a mystery how it would all play out. Gorbachev himself and even his KGB didn't know, so how could the CIA?

Take the most crucial intelligence issue of today: Saddam Hussein's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and how close he is to getting his squalid hands on nuclear weapons. These are secrets. These are knowable. We'll soon see if the UN inspectors just invited back into Iraq can unlock the secret. That would take three essential elements: heavily armed inspectors able to go anywhere at any time, and able to take Iraqi informers out of the country with their families to reveal where the weapons facilities are hidden. Absent these three procedures, the secret will remain with Saddam Hussein and a few of his hooligans. What Saddam will do with his vast arsenal is a mystery. It's impossible for UN inspectors or the CIA to predict the actions of someone who hasn't made up his own mind.

Likewise the plan of the 9/11 atrocities was a secret, known to Osama bin Laden and a few top lieutenants. But the members of Congress now investigating the so-called intelligence failure from behind closed doors will find many aspects of 9/11 which are mysteries. So let's at long last lay off dedicated intelligence officers for not knowing unknowable mysteries.

YDSTIE: Ken Adelman is a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board.

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