How close is Iran to obtaining an atomic bomb? How likely are its leaders to use the bomb once they have obtained it?
Could the mullahs be toppled by a popular revolt? How would the people of Iran react if the United States or Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear sites? Would the reaction be different if the United States or Israel launched a decapitating strike at the government instead?
The safety of our republic depends on obtaining accurate, timely answers to questions like these. That's why "The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture," by "Ishmael Jones," now available in paperback, may be the most important book you read this year.
"Ishmael Jones" is the nom de guerre of a man who spent 15 years overseas as a covert CIA officer focusing on human sources with access to intelligence on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. So when "Ishmael" says our early warning system is badly broken, we should pay attention.
The CIA has become a bloated bureaucracy where senior bureaucrats are more interested in protecting their jobs than in gathering intelligence. A sign of how bad things are is that more than 90 percent of all CIA employees work within the United States. This is curious for an organization whose purpose is to collect foreign intelligence.
In every organization, bureaucracy boosts costs, stifles initiative, slows action. Bureaucratization is especially pernicious in an intelligence agency, because intelligence is perishable, and risk taking and out-of-the-box thinking are required to gather and interpret it.
The massive intelligence failure that led to 9/11 should have sparked reform.
"Agency employees expected the axe of accountability to fall at any moment," Ishmael recalled. "Talk at HQ was that 'the seventh floor,' where the CIA's top mandarins dwelt, would be swept clean."
But in the gravest mistake of his presidency, George W. Bush didn't clean house. He just threw money at the existing structure, which made a bad situation worse.
"In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress gave the CIA more than $3 billion to increase its deep-cover capabilities overseas," Ishmael said. "The CIA was not able to field a single additional effective deep-cover case officer overseas. The money was swallowed up into higher pay packages, expensive boondoggles, the enrichment of contracting companies run by former CIA employees and the expansion of CIA offices within the United States."
The CIA prefers to do such spying as it does from our embassies because, if caught, spies with diplomatic cover get expelled, not executed. But foreign intelligence services know who the CIA personnel in embassies are.
The most valuable human intelligence is gathered by "non-official cover" officers like Ishmael. But, says Ishmael, only a handful of NOCs remain.
"Espionage has come to be regarded as low-level work, meant for newly trained employees or the naive," Ishmael said. "It's much better to become a headquarters manager, with regular hours, low stress, plenty of time with the family and stronger promotion possibilities."
The CIA is such a mess that only chopping it up into its constituent parts and assigning them to other agencies can lead to real improvement, Ishmael thinks.
Foreign Service Officers can attend embassy cocktail parties as easily as CIA station chiefs can, and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research could handle liaison with foreign intelligence services.
The CIA's domestic operations, which are of dubious legality, should be transferred to the FBI. Human intelligence collection should be turned over to the U.S. military.
I've long advocated this third step. It's hard to find in Ivy League colleges these days people who accept the danger and physical hardships of attempting to penetrate terrorist organizations. Such people can be found in the Special Forces, the SEALs and the Marine Corps. (Ishmael was a Marine.)
Few can do deep cover work for long. The military provides a home to which agents can return and do productive work once they've burned out, or had their cover blown.
"This book should be required reading for anyone who serves in our government or is served by it," wrote Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. "But reading 'The Human Factor' will make you very, very angry."
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1476).