Over the last month, we have been talking about China. When talking about China, we usually talk about its strengths and technological developments. But there is another side to intelligence gathering illustrated by a speech given by Herbert Meyer, who served as a special assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence.
He explained, “From the end of World War II until 1982, every president’s objective had been not to lose the Cold War.” When President Ronald Reagan came into office, he wanted to change that mindset. He switched from playing defense to playing offense.
“So Reagan’s director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, asked the CIA’s Soviet Division two obvious questions: Where is the Soviet Union weak? and Where is it most vulnerable?” The surprising answer they received was “We don’t know. No one’s ever asked this before.”
Over the years, the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies were able to gather lots of information about Soviet strengths (infantry divisions, nuclear missiles, tanks, submarines) but never collected information on Soviet weaknesses.
Under Casey’s leadership, they refocused collection efforts and found all sorts of Soviet vulnerabilities. President Reagan used these weaknesses and vulnerabilities to put more pressure on the Kremlin. “Eight years later the Berlin Wall came down, and two years after that the Soviet Union ceased to exist.”
There is a lesson to be learned here. Sometimes the important information is out there but never collected because it doesn’t seem relevant to the intelligence gathering mindset the president or the bureaucracy might have.
Intelligence work is like science. You don’t collect random information and hope that something will pop up. You need an informed view of the world and know what you want to accomplish.