Sunday, October 24, 2004

Interview with Stephen Cohen

Interview with Stephen Cohen: "Stephen Cohen, Ph.D., is senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program of the Brookings Institution. He has written and edited several books and has served as a consultant to the RAND Corp., the Department of State, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Department of Defense and various foundations.

Trento: 1. How do we determine if the US intelligence community is successful? They have not located bin Laden. Has this undermined the public and the President's confidence?

Cohen: I think that measures of success are difficult to come up with. Simply because something has or has not happened does not mean that they are operating successfully or unsuccessfully. Unfortunately, the people who can make that judgment are in the intelligence community itself and the policy community and they are the last people in the world who are going to talk about it publicly. For outsiders this is at best a guessing game. But there are some broader things you can say. That is that the promises and expectations that the President has raised about expectations of the war on terrorism seem to have been only partially met. It is not yet clear the depth of the problem. But he did at an early stage emphasize that this is going to be a long but difficult struggle. So in a sense he got himself off the hook there but to me the real cause of the problem was his original characterization of this as a total war. You know if it had been the war against the Nazis or the Japanese in World War II, or the civil war -- but its not that kind of war where there is going to be a victory parade of American soldiers marching down the street of some foreign capitol. I think that the criteria are fuzzy I can’t come to an accurate conclusion myself.

Trento: 2. Because the CIA had done business with bin Laden and others that later came together as Al Qaeda, should we be suspicious of the CIA's motive in the terrorism war?

Cohen: Ah, we should be suspicious about whether they are telling the President everything and whether they keeping some information back about reputation and the integrity of the institution and also what they are telling Congress. The CIA and FBI, any government agency wants to keep its secrets buried, again only they know and there is reason to be suspicious if they are coming clean with everything.

Trento: 3. President Bush has stated flatly that Saddam has connections to Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence community has failed to back him on either assertion. Did the President overreach, or are the intelligence organs being too cautious?

Cohen: It could be the first two explanations that you gave or it could be that they are right and that they are maintaining integrity in not going down the road of political analysis of the linkage. Again it is hard to form a judgment. People in the Senate and House intelligence committee should have some idea of where the reality is.

Trento: Has the war on terrorism had an effect on India and Pakistan? Has it complicated the relationship?

Cohen: It has had an ironic effect of making the Indians very wary of American policy towards Pakistan but it has also had the effect of making the Pakistanis very nervous about the solidity of American support to them. Right now the Pakistanis are running around trying to buy strategic reinsurance by reinforcing their ties to the Iranians, Chinese and to the Russians. Musaraff has just made a trip to Moscow and there was just a rally last week in Islamabad of Russian Pakistani solidarity. The mind boggles. This is a country that was so fiercely anti-Russian for so many years. The Pakistani’s don’t believe that we are going to be with them one minute after we don’t need them after the war on terrorism. They see are support for them is cynical. Where as the Indians are angry we are supporting the Pakistanis. It is an unstable situation.

Trento: Is the Pakistani’s behavior on terrorism sincere?

Cohen: The guy who marries three women is sincere. There is no question that he loves them all, perhaps at different times and different places. There was a wonderful move with Alec Guiness called Captain Verda. It is an old time movie. They are sincere in our support for us. They were sincere in the support for the Taliban, they were sincere in their support for groups that crossed the border into India and Kashmir and committed awful things that I would call terrorism. I think they are sincere in their statement they are not going to do it anymore or in the future. This is purely a matter of expediency for them. Sincerity doesn’t arise and you cannot trust what they say. There argument, to be fair, in the past was that they lied to us with their nuclear program, and I was with the administration at the time, they lied to us on the nuclear program, and we looked the other way, we accepted that, we looked the other way.

Trento: 4. Numerous articles have said that Saudi Arabia is responsible for funding Al Qaeda through various Islamic charities and front groups. Should the intelligence community have known this before 9.11 and should the administration have acted upon it?

Cohen: It is my impression that we knew about it. At first the United States was supportive of the Taliban. And the Taliban got a lot of Saudi private support and also the Saudi government intelligence services worked with the Pakistanis and we welcomed that as a change from the warlords battling over Afghanistan. When Al Qaeda entered the picture, I don’t know how much we knew about it. I suspect we were aware of it, but I don’t know.

Trento: 5. Many supporters of the CIA claimed that President Clinton handicapped the Agency with too much government oversight and political correctness in its recruiting. Did our failure to penetrate Al Qaeda and find out what bin Laden was planning have anything to do with restrains on the CIA?

Cohen: Can’t comment on it because I have no special information on that. I would say that my contacts with them over the past few years is that on the analytical side they have really hired a lot of people. There is a new generation of smart kids that want to work for the CIA. There is a regeneration of the agency.

Trento: 6. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 months and the country is not secure. Are you confident that the intelligence the government is getting about the status of the war on terrorism is reliable?

Cohen: I think it is reliable. There are good open sources there is no question about it. I am sure their sources are even better. But I think it is a policy problem. The administration does not want to put any significant assets into Afghanistan. Possibly because they are reserving them for a Gulf War, if there is a Gulf War and I think it is a policy decision not an intelligence decision. What they are doing is providing just enough assistance to keep Afghanistan from collapsing. That might work now but if there is an assassination or a serious upsurge in anti-government sentiment, say the Iraq war from spilling over from Pakistan Afghanistan -- there is some question if the Kharzi government can hold.

Trento: 7. What five things would you do to improve the intelligence community?

Cohen: I think I can draw on my experience from the State Department. I felt in a sense that it was imbalanced. There was a huge amount of people working on problems, in some ways too many people working on them. It is my understanding from other countries, especially the British, that they have few but better people and you don’t have mobs working on an issue. Then you go to the state department where you have very good people but few of them. So I think the Agency is really bloated in the numbers, perhaps because of the personnel problem. Often you get people working in an area where they are not an expert in that area, but that is a management decision.

Trento: 8. How does the public resolve the contradictions between the White House and intelligence community? For example we are told that an Al Qaeda terrorist base located in a Kurdish controlled section of Iraq demonstrates Saddam is connected to Al Qaeda and the base is producing toxins to be used against the infidels. Yet the CIA reported that the base was established with the permission of the Kurds and Saddam had nothing to do with it. Do you ever remember this kind of public fight over the meaning and accuracy of intelligence?

Cohen: Yeah, maybe in the case of the nuclear programs and what happens is that one side or the other is unhappy they often leak to the press. One peculiar thing about our system is the press is a safety valve if at a bureau or agency if their advice is not being followed or being distorted or recommendations being distorted by the executive branch somebody leaks it. I was told when I joined the State Department in 1985 -- the first thing I was told was that the ship of state leaks from the top. The public dimension of this is the manifestation is the politics between the different bureaucracies and intelligence agencies, DIA and State and others, and on balance I think that this is a strength of our system not a weakness.

Trento: One of the things that is sort of strange is that you have Bush actually citing this stuff. And, I don’t remember a president ever going to war based on intelligence before. That does seem to be a new thing. And, if this intelligence is faulty or distorted, we could be heading into pretty dangerous waters.

Cohen: It could be what he is doing is drawing on Don Rumsfelds’ new intelligence process and that raises a serious question of professionalism and rivalry between intelligence agencies. If someone is going to set up their own intelligence shop and it does not meet the highest standards of intelligence, and it is a professional, it is not an amateur job, indeed it might lead to selective discovery of facts and then you got a problem because then you got either junk and ignore what the main agencies are doing or professionalize these new agencies. That is a problem.

Trento: 9. The Administration seems to have sided with the CIA. In fact, two weeks after 9.11 President Bush went out to the CIA and gave the Agency a pep talk. Has the President's blessing of the CIA made it difficult to correct or even recognize failures and problems at the CIA?

Cohen: I don’t agree with the premise of the question. I am not sure there was a failure. We didn’t know about it, but perhaps some things can’t be known. Some things are just beyond normal human capacity no matter how many resources you throw at it. There is this sense if you throw enough money at a problem you can solve it. All of us who were following it closely were still caught be surprise.

Trento: Let me play devil’s advocate: In 1995 the CIA was told by an Al Qaeda member that planes would be used to attack buildings. Should that not have alerted the CIA?

Cohen: Now the problem gets all kinds of noise all the time and you can’t follow every one of them up. The visible failure was at home in tracking down people in the country, coordinating intelligence and following up."