America’s Most Successful Intelligence Agency You Never Heard Of

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Compared to the likes of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) is hardly a household name.

Of the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), it is the oldest civilian member (created in 1947), yet also smallest and least imposing: it has only 300 staff, lacks satellites and spies, and does not engage in espionage or counterintelligence. INR analysts are typically in their forties and fifties and highly educated (close to three quarters have advanced degrees, of which a quarter hold PhDs). It main duties are to provide diplomats with information and analysis to help facilitate U.S. foreign policy — in other words, the sort of eggheaded, academic stuff most Americans would dismiss as globalist fluff.

Yet the INR is perhaps the most effective and reputable intelligence agency in the country. It originated in the Second World War as the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Its job was to scour all available sources of information — from academic texts to newspapers — to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the Axis power. It was made up of scholars, historians, anthropologists, political scientists and diplomats — hardly the sort of people that come to mind as militarily useful. (Indeed, its veterans included several presidents of the American Historical Association and the American Economic Association, as well as two Nobel Laureates.)

The R&A proved so pivotal to the war effort, and was held in such high esteem, that when the OSS was disbanded at the end of the war, it was one of the few components to be retained and thereafter transferred to the State Department.

In spite of its small size — a fifth of the 1,500-plus analysts at the CIA, and about a tenth of the 3,000 or so at the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency — the INR also has the best track record when it comes to the accuracy of its reports. Its bomb damage assessments during the Vietnam War were more accurate than the Pentagon’s; it was skeptical about the U.S. strategy in Vietnam; it warned that allowing the deposed Shah of Iran to enter the U.S. for medical treatment would lead to trouble (the U.S. Embassy was ultimately seized); and it cautioned that a bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia would not succeed in forcing the Serbs out of Kosovo.

Moreover, the INR was virtually the sole dissenter in the intelligence community regarding the claim that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program. It also criticized the theory that the Iraq War would bring democracy to the Middle East, warned that Turkey would not allow U.S. troops to cross into Iraq, and casted doubt on the British claim that Iraq was trying to precure uranium from Niger — all of which proved correct.  (Though the INR was still wrong, along with other intelligence agencies, in asserting that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons.)

Consequently, the agency escaped the most scathing criticism in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2004 report of the IC’s prewar intelligence on Iraq. The Committee also commended the organization as a model for its bigger and better-resourced counterparts. A New York Times piece published at the time noted the small size yet elite nature of the INR’s Iraq team:

Altogether, the team of State Department analysts most directly involved in assessing Iraq’s political structure, economy, conventional military forces and supposed illicit weapons numbered no more than 10 people, said State Department officials, but many had more than a decade of experience in the subjects on which they were focusing.

Those officials refused to identify the analyst whose dissent on Iraq’s nuclear program proved particularly prescient, but said the official had worked on the subject for more than 12 years under a supervisor who had twice as many years of expertise.

Too bad the Secretary of State at the time, Colin Powell, chose to side with the CIA’s (ultimately erroneous) position rather than that of his own bureau.

Remarkably, the INR is also one of the few federal government bureaucracies — especially in the often bloated, unaccountable military-intelligence apparatus — to have shrunk significantly since the 1960s. Its success, in spite of its small size, can be chalked up to the following observation by David Ignatius over at The Washington Post:

But INR’s success story suggests that small is sometimes beautiful. Because it is little, INR tries to maintain an elite reputation. And because it is intimately connected with State Department policymakers, it never loses sight of what the consumers of intelligence actually want: sound judgment.

[…]

What the State Department bureau lacks in numbers it makes up in expertise. The average analyst has 11 years of experience in his area of expertise, four times as long as the CIA average, according to a State Department official. Many INR veterans have several decades of experience in their areas of specialization. The Near East South Asia section chief has been analyzing that area for 25 years; the European chief has spent 24 years studying his region. And because the bureau is so small, each analyst has broad responsibility; one person covers all the German-speaking countries in Europe; another has responsibility for all the Scandinavian countries.

The reason INR has been so effective, State Department officials say, is that it has maintained a culture that supports dissent — and demands expertise. “We’d rather be right than quick,” says one State Department official. Within the intelligence community, the State Department’s analysts say they are seen as “malcontents” who demand hard evidence before they sign off on estimates. Their style is to ask: “What are the facts? How much do we know? Does the evidence all point in one direction?”

Indeed, the fact that the INR is one of the few intelligence agencies not to report directly to either the White House or the Pentagon arguably gives it a lot more freedom. As a solely analytical agency, it owes no allegiance to the powers that be, nor to any particular agents; it seeks only to provide the information it has gathered and reviewed, which, as of 2005, included up to two million reports and 3,500 written assessments annually.

Granted, as happened with the Iraq War, this means the INR can easily be ignored for its inconvenient truths. But that does not stop it from at least trying to make U.S. foreign policy an informed and sound enterprise. Plus, it does contribute to the Presidential Daily Briefings, and regularly conducts an honest (if not always heeded) review of other intelligence activities and operations to make sure they conform to U.S. foreign policy interests (such as making sure an espionage action abroad does not damage our relations or destabilize the foreign nation).

It goes to show that for all of Americans’ usual dismissiveness of “Ivory Tower” intellectuals and “globalist” diplomats, they can and do play a useful role for our national interests, and often do a better job than the tougher and “sexier” agencies like the CIA.

To be sure, the INR, like any government institution — and certainly like any member of the U.S. security apparatus — has its flaws and vested interests. Yet its record of being right — and very often ignored — shows that it is something of a freethinking rebel within the IC, willing to say the hard truths regardless of their reception. For what that is worth, more of that is needed in our military-intelligence community.

2 comments on “America’s Most Successful Intelligence Agency You Never Heard Of

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