63. Memorandum From Paul Henze of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Significant Political Intelligence—Why Isn’t There More?

Your observation2 that the U.S. Government benefits from an extraordinary quantity of high-quality technical intelligence but is undersupplied with political intelligence is valid. This has been true for a long time. Recently the imbalance has been worsening, not improving. Achieving a fundamental improvement entails much more than asking for it. Your recent calls for better political intelligence have fallen on sympathetic ears among CIA officers specializing in human source collection overseas, but they are also a bit vexed because they feel that only a few of the shortcomings in this field are in their power to correct. Wider action based on better understanding of the problem is needed.

The acute imbalance between intelligence community performance in the political and technical fields is the outgrowth of a number of factors which have become accentuated during the past 25 years. Americans naturally find it easier to think technically than to think politically. It has always been easy to gather large quantities of technical data; less easy to devise quick means of processing and analyzing it but, with the enormous surge in developments in electronics in recent years, processing and analysis have become remarkably sophisticated and rapid. Given the strong military orientation of our national security effort plus the fact that most technical intelligence has ended up being collected and processed by elements of the Department of Defense, money has not been a serious obstacle. Our military establishment is an insatiable consumer of technical data. The system feeds upon itself. Thus, though technical intelligence collecting and processing are far more expensive than human intelligence collection, we have continued to allocate more and more money to technical intelligence while funds spent on human collection have stayed steady or, in many areas of the world, declined.

The result is that while we now enjoy nearly real-time photography from satellites [less than 1 line not declassified] we are not much closer [Page 322] than we were thirty years ago to knowing what goes on in the minds of the top men in Moscow or Madrid, Peking, Algeria or Brasilia, what Arab leaders say to each other when they get together or how French elections are going to come out.

Would more money for political intelligence collection help? Undoubtedly, but other aspects of the problem need to be addressed first. Our governmental system does not value or use political intelligence as readily as it utilizes technical intelligence. The bureaucracies which process what is collected operate in rather old-fashioned, traditional ways. Political intelligence is not massaged, dissected, stored and accumulated the way technical intelligence is. Much of our bureaucracy routinely feels little day-to-day need for incisive political intelligence and therefore rates it as relatively unimportant. While the accumulation of a large data base from which deviations can be gauged is taken for granted among technical analysts, those who analyze and interpret political data normally work much more impressionistically. This is particularly true of the central consumer of political intelligence, the State Department and related elements of the overt foreign affairs establishment, both at home and abroad.

Embassies abroad should be major information reporting instruments, just as CIA stations. Occasionally they are, but embassy political reporting performance is notoriously spotty and frequently inadequate. The State Department has never evolved a structured system of reporting, a disciplined standard reporting format or a system of relating an officer’s reporting performance to his efficiency ratings. Embassies are chronically hampered by tight budgets that prevent officers from being reimbursed for luncheons and dinners where knowledgeable foreign contacts can be cultivated and induced to share confidences. I have yet to hear of an embassy that had enough travel money to permit its officers to move around the country, get to know it and develop the kinds of regional contacts that are essential to understanding any complex country in depth. To make these criticisms is not to say that embassies do nothing well—some officers do develop contacts, some do travel and some spend their own money to do their jobs better. But the system is weak and it is not all the fault of the State Department except that it has for much too long acquiesced in too tight budgets and the notion of can’t-do has become rather deeply ingrained.

The result is that many State Department officers do not aspire to perform to a very high level of proficiency as political reporters or analysts of their country. They keep themselves busy with courtesy calls, diplomatic cocktail parties and routine paper-shuffling. In fairness to some, it must be admitted that not all diplomatic posts justify a high output of political reporting; some are primarily representational or entail service functions, such as catering to the needs of American [Page 323] businessmen and tourists. The State Department must take responsibility for a bewildering array of service functions that other agencies in the foreign affairs establishment are largely spared—CIA, for example.

The CIA station system abroad has evolved to compensate for most of the shortcomings of the State system. CIA stations work within a flexible system of operational directives which set productivity goals and requirements for reporting. Officer performance ratings and promotions reflect agent recruitment and field reporting performance. CIA does not spend large amounts of money in the field but funds for operational entertainment and travel have always been available. In addition, CIA officers are able to pay foreigners who collaborate with them for the information they provide. Recruited CIA agents are passed from officer to officer, as rotations occur, according to established procedures that emphasize mutual responsibility and the special nature of the relationship. CIA officers usually function with less status than their State colleagues, but they are generally less burdened by extraneous and lower-priority demands on their time. During the last few years, however, the CIA system, in spite of the features which make it easier for CIA to handle human sources and produce more incisive political intelligence than State Department officers do, has suffered increasing degradation.

CIA is responsible for some of the degradation itself. Financially, it has short-changed its human source operations at the expense of more glamorous technical operations. The Operations Directorate has stressed “hard targets,” i.e. cultivation of Soviets and East Europeans, Chinese and officials of other Communist-controlled countries, to the point where many field stations have almost ceased to work on other objectives and gathering of political intelligence about local situations and developments in important countries has declined. (The CIA Station [less than 1 line not declassified] was scheduled to be closed in 1973 and during the same period the CIA Station [less than 1 line not declassified] practically abandoned internal reporting to concentrate on cultivating Soviets, though no recruitments ever took place.) Considering the enormous amount of effort devoted to “hard-target” human source development for many years now, CIA has had very few real recruitments and even fewer agents in place [less than 1 line not declassified]. Furthermore, concentration on hard-targets has been interpreted only as developing relationships with people who can eventually serve as agents [less than 1 line not declassified] and elsewhere in the Communist world. It has not included learning about the activities and impact of Communist representatives in countries where they are assigned. The Intelligence Community’s data base on this subject is seriously deficient.

During the past few years, almost all CIA field stations have suffered personnel cuts. Recently, Admiral Turner has announced an 800-[Page 324]man reduction in CIA’s Directorate of Operations over the next two years.3 He has said that the reduction will not affect personnel abroad, but such a large reduction is bound to have (and is already having) traumatic effect on the DDO as a whole. Cover and administration problems are increasingly limiting efficiency of DDO personnel abroad. Nevertheless, man for man, the quality of CIA personnel in field stations is still superior to those the State Department assigns abroad.

There are other problems over which CIA has little or no direct or immediate control. The terrorist threat, the Agee problem,4 KGB exposures and the criticism and adverse publicity to which CIA has been subjected in the Western press for several years have taken a toll on morale and drive. New regulations and restrictions, more elaborate operational and administrative reporting procedures, concern in Langley about having everything documented, cross-checked, approved in advance to meet legal requirements, along with a tendency to play safe in the field, have not only discouraged initiative but have resulted in a situation where even the most motivated field personnel put a great deal of time into unproductive tasks. Chiefs of Station have to exert themselves [less than 1 line not declassified] to ensure that their officers give real priority to getting out intelligence reporting rather than getting bogged down in the endless stream of administrative and procedural correspondence that keeps coming out from Washington.

More relevant to the immediate problem of increased intelligence reporting is the fact that CIA field operations over the past several years have been subjected to many specific restrictions. Justified as many of these may be, they have reduced productivity and operational momentum. Several categories of agent sources can no longer be used or used only with special dispensations and limitations. Many kinds of organizational contacts are prohibited. Our ambassadors have been increasingly sensitive about CIA field operations and have been encouraged—both by specific directives and general advice from Washington—to limit CIA contacts in host country governments. One can debate the pros and cons of each individual case and relationship, of each set of restrictions, and there are arguments on all sides. The net result is much less dynamic field operations.

Another problem is harder to measure but it can be documented in many individual cases. As more and more revelations have occurred, [Page 325] long-standing collaborators abroad have become increasingly uneasy about their relationships with CIA. In (fortunately) most cases, this unease has merely taken the form of expression of worry and increased attention to security of contacts. In some cases we know that sources have been reporting less fully than they formerly did; they withhold information they fear the U.S. Government may not be able to protect. In a few cases, long-standing agents have dropped CIA contact. Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there are the potential new contacts who might have been developed and recruited if they had not decided in advance to avoid an American intelligence relationship out of fear of exposure. We never know how many of these there have been, though some cases can be documented.

Liaison with foreign intelligence services is one of CIA’s basic responsibilities abroad. Liaison relationships have sometimes been significant channels for acquiring important information, especially in countries where the relationship includes contact with [1 line not declassified] intelligence chiefs who are important figures in their own government. Liaison relationships have been adversely affected, as a CIA survey done last February demonstrated,5 by continuing leaks and publicity about CIA operations and there has been a reduction in the frankness with which such people discuss sensitive and important matters with Chiefs of Station.

If Dick Helms is indicted and prosecuted,6 the publicity such a celebrated trial is bound to receive, as well as the spirited defense Helms must be expected to put up, will severely compound the problems the Agency already has in maintaining agent and liaison relationships abroad.

All these factors, sometimes interacting and having a cumulative effect, have reduced CIA’s capability to collect high-quality intelligence from agent sources abroad. Both time and effort are needed to overcome these difficulties. Intelligence comes not only from agents, however, but from the perceptions of experienced, senior CIA officers abroad reported from time to time as the sum total of their knowledge and judgment about the local situation. This kind of reporting is an established tradition in CIA and has often provided the U.S. Government an unusual dimension of insight into complex foreign situations less colored by “localitis” than embassy estimates. The formal rules for coordinating these field estimates with ambassadors have been codified and, where everybody is rational, the system still works well, though when a COS is extremely [Page 326] busy, going through the coordination process can sometimes be so time-consuming that it discourages reporting. We need more of this kind of reporting, but it is not being encouraged at the present time and recent revised rules on COS-Ambassador relationships,7 which tilt in the direction of the Ambassador, will have the effect of subtly discouraging COS’s from taking initiative in this area.

CIA is the central element in intelligence reporting overseas but by no means the only one. In most major countries, several U.S. military intelligence elements (DIA, NSA, OSI, CIC, etc) usually outnumber the CIA Station in manpower. With some exceptions they are not particularly relevant to the problem of increasing high-level political intelligence reporting. Embassies are.

With the State Department representation at their core, embassies usually [less than 1 line not declassified] USIA, AID, DEA, FAS, Peace Corps and sometimes representatives of several other U.S. Government agencies. A tolerable working relationship between the COS and Ambassador is crucial for productive political intelligence operations. Horror stories of earlier years notwithstanding (many are exaggerated), no one in CIA in recent years has challenged the principle that the Ambassador must be briefed on all essentials of intelligence activities in his country.

But what is essential for the ambassador to know and what is not? The trend over the past several years has been toward telling the ambassador more and more operational detail, identifying sources, explaining methods and describing relationships. Telling the ambassador usually results in knowledge spreading to others in the embassy (DCM, counsellors, political officers) so a process of erosion of security sets in. Once identity of an agent is revealed in an embassy, knowledge of the identity is almost inevitably passed on from one FSO to another through the years. Sources and methods are compromised. This issue is too complex and specialized to permit detailed discussion here, but let me mention a couple of tendencies that are particularly germane to the topic of this memorandum. Ambassadors are characteristically apprehensive about CIA penetrations of the host government; the higher the level the greater the concern. Sometimes the concern revolves crassly around the fact that the agent will tell CIA more and be more influenced by the COS than he will by the Ambassador; more frequently the ambassador honestly fears that compromise of the agent will embarrass the embassy and does not want to take any chances. So pressures build up to drop sources, especially those whose information or current position does not have obvious high priority at a given time. COS’s, [Page 327] knowing the difficulty of recruiting and retaining good agents, tend to take a much longer-term view of the problem of tiding agents over lean periods than ambassadors do. The revelations and accusations of recent years have tended to make all ambassadors more cautious. So, as they learn more and more about CIA operations, the general tendency among ambassadors and State Department officers in general has been to be more and more conservative about risks and to attempt to restrict CIA field operations. This kind of atmosphere does not encourage production of more high-level political intelligence.

This aspect of the issue can perhaps be summed up by saying that most ambassadors have looked upon the opportunity—and to some degree the enjoinder—to know more about what CIA is doing as an exhortation to be more restrictive. Presidential letters and State Department and CIA directives defining and asserting ambassadors’ authority over intelligence operations have not caused most ambassadors to feel responsibility or pressure for improving intelligence reporting from their missions. We went through a long effort this spring and summer to develop a Presidential letter on COS-Ambassadorial relationships8 that would not be perceived primarily as cautionary and restrictive. I am not sure we succeeded too well. Neither CIA nor State—caught up in their own petty bureaucratic concerns—was very helpful in getting any sense of real dynamism into the letter in the form in which it finally went out.

The most characteristic attitude in embassies toward intelligence reporting is “let CIA do it.” While State Department officers always feel responsible for doing at least a minimal degree of routine political and economic reporting, most other country team elements (USIA, MAAG, AID, etc) make a minimal contribution to a mission’s reporting output. The Peace Corps, where it is still active, usually has access to levels of society with which the rest of a U.S. diplomatic mission will have little or no contact. Nevertheless, it has always been a tradition in the Peace Corps to avoid anything that could be remotely considered political reporting. If we are really interested in improved political reporting from U.S. missions abroad we must look not only to CIA and help it do better but more importantly perhaps, find ways of encouraging ambassadors to mobilize the full resources of their country team for systematic reporting.

A final word on the impact of Admiral Turner on the Agency and in particular if Admiral Turner’s 800-man cut on the DDO is necessary, because this may be the most important problem of all. CIA greeted the Carter Administration with a keen expectation that with new leadership [Page 328] it would leave behind a period of strain and controversy and be able to rebuild its own capabilities and redirect its energies to real USG priorities. No one in CIA expected to return to the free-wheeling days of earlier years and everyone respected the need for intelligent adjustment to new restrictions and legal requirements. But there was an enormous desire to take advantage of the opportunity to be creative and energetic in pursuit of agreed objectives and new challenges. Eight months later all this sense of excitement and optimism has dissipated. The prevailing mood of CIA, both on the operational and analytical sides of the agency is apprehension, depression, frustration. Admiral Turner is separating the DDI from the DDO—something no intelligent, experienced officer on either side of the house wants or recognizes as advantageous.

For the DDO, news of the 800-man cut had a devastating effect. Not that there may not be 800 people who can be dispensed with in the directorate. This is not the problem. The problem derives from the fact that the Admiral has handled the cut as a vindictive operation. He has announced that the upper ranks are to be cleaned out: the experienced people are to be gotten rid of. Meanwhile promotions, which have steadily slowed in recent years in the DDO, have almost come to a halt. The people most affected by this are the younger and medium-level officers. Senior DDO officers long ago became accustomed to being promoted at a much slower rate than State or USIA or most of the other civilian departments of the government. To read much of the American press, one would still think the CIA and the DDO in particular were overstaffed with officers thirsting and throbbing to go out and take on dangerous duties in the far reaches of the world. This is an utterly false image. Gradually, most of the drive and imagination and willingness to sacrifice that has been characteristic of CIA at its best ever since OSS days is disappearing. If matters go on as they have been in recent months, we will not have a clandestine intelligence service worthy of the name by the time the first Carter Administration reaches its term. And the problem of improved political intelligence, let alone a real breakthrough in this field analogous to the scientific intelligence breakthrough we have experienced since the late 1950’s, will be a totally academic consideration.


• There are intrinsic, historical and bureaucratic reasons for the disparity between technical and political intelligence performance in the U.S. Government.

• There is a case for allocating more money to political intelligence collection, but it will be effectively spent only if certain preconditions are met.

[Page 329]

• A more dynamic, creative, positive approach to human source collection is needed. This must be the responsibility of both CIA and the State Department.

CIA should give heightened priority to political intelligence collection within a broadened set of objectives and more creative management procedures.

• The State Department should modernize and systematize its approach to political reporting and make this function the central responsibility of most embassies.

• Measures should be taken to mitigate the effect of breaches of security, excess publicity, cover erosion and other factors which have adversely affected intelligence operations abroad during the last few years.

• More comprehensive CIA field analytical reporting should be required and regulations governing it should be simplified.

• The principle of ambassadorial control of overseas missions should not be enforced in such fashion as to restrict and discourage creative intelligence operations.

• If any of these measures is to have any effect as far as CIA is concerned, current and accelerating negative trends in Agency morale must be reversed.

  1. Source: National Security Council, Carter Intelligence Files, Political Intelligence, Miscellaneous 1977–79. Secret. Sent for information. Printed from an unsigned copy.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. A September 22 memorandum from Aaron to Mondale provides an overview of the CIA internal reorganization, including a plan for six Presidentially-appointed deputies to work in the Office of the DCI. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 95, Subject Chron, Intelligence 9/77)
  4. A reference to Philip Agee, a former CIA officer who in 1975 exposed CIA operatives overseas.
  5. Not found.
  6. Helms served as DCI from 1966 to 1973 and was prosecuted in 1977 for lying to a Senate committee in 1973 regarding covert operations in Chile.
  7. See Document 62.
  8. See Document 65.