When we hear the sound of hoofbeats, should we think horses or zebras? The question is a classic problem of intelligence analysis. Too often in recent years the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security have got it wrong—most recently with the Christmas Day underwear bomber, who was able to board a U.S.-bound flight despite plenty of early warning signs. Political scientist Robert Jervis wants to know the reason for such error.
In “Why Intelligence Fails,” Mr. Jervis examines two important U.S. intelligence lapses and tries to account for what went awry. After both, the CIA hired Mr. Jervis—a longtime student of international affairs—to help the agency sort out its mistakes. He thus brings an invaluable perspective as a smart outsider with sufficient inside access to appraise the agency's blind spots.
The first of his two cases is the CIA's failure to grasp the weakness of the Iranian monarchy on the cusp of the Iranian revolution in 1979. “An island of stability” is what President Jimmy Carter called Iran just before the Islamic volcano erupted. No doubt the CIA estimates that Mr. Carter saw were not quite so ludicrously sanguine, but they were still dangerously inaccurate.