Intelligence . . . and lack thereof

I have been an avid student of military history since I was in high school. As a result of that avocation, I came to have a high regard for the role of the intelligence branch of warfare–information gathering, analysis, and covert/asymmetric warfare operations. That admiration was supplemented by the efforts of intelligence practitioners and their camp followers, who created a narrative of intrigue and accomplishment. It is certainly true that some of the narrative has basis in fact. British code breaking, knowledge of Japanese naval deployments prior to Midway, and elaborate deception prior to the Normandy landings all contributed to Allied success in World War II.

Subsequent study and experience have dimmed my regard for intelligence work as it has been performed in Western societies.

The process began when I was a graduate student. Recruiters for the National Security Agency showed up on the University of Chicago campus. I signed up and took their test. Some months later, I transferred to Cal Berkeley. One day, walking from my parking spot to a class, I noticed that I was being followed. Not because I was good at spotting a “tail”, but because the follower was wearing a seersucker suit and Panama hat. Berkeley males in those days generally fell into three sartorial categories–frat rat casual, free speech hippie, or engineer with slide rule dangling from belt. No seersucker in the lot. Subsequent days introduced me to more seersucker. I decided that NSA was not too effective. Hard to imagine they were going to detect me doing something nefarious with such obvious surveillance. Their vetting sucked!

My second major encounter was during my tenure as Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer for the First Marine Regiment. We got a flood of intelligence every day from the First Division G3. Most of it was useless. Occasionally, there was a warning that proved prescient, but I regarded that as the stopped clock phenomenon. If you issue enough warnings, a few are bound to be right.

Then there was Iraq. “Bush lied; people died” was the mantra of those opposed to the second Gulf war (or those who became opposed when the political winds shifted). Horsebleep! Bush told the truth as he understood it. The CIA told him Saddam had WMD. British Intelligence believed it. French, German and Israeli services believed it. Saddam’s neighbors believed it. Saddam’ generals believed it. There is a possibility that some biological and chemical munitions were shipped from Iraq to Syria just as the war was getting underway, but the most probable truth is that Saddam was running a number on the world, which went totally undetected. A massive intelligence failure.

I thought the high point of my dissolution had come when I read Legacy of Ashes. It is a history of the CIA from inception to the recent past. A sophisticated friend of mine (those of you who think I couldn’t possibly have a sophisticated friend are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG) explained how the process works. An author of stature announces that he/she is planning a book on a controversial subject. Soon, some folks with an axe to grind get in touch to tell their stories. Those whose axe is being ground come forth to tell their side. Eventually, a full-blown tale emerges. In the case of history, the older the material, the more interesting. Recent information is hard to come by, because the axe grinders are still on the payroll and bucking for promotion.

The legacy under scrutiny is a pathetic tale of serial seduction of presidents from Eisenhower to Bush II by the CIA. A litany of shoddy research, amateur analysis, flawed forecasting, and botched covert operations. The sum of unintended consequences is staggering, many of which we are living with today. The Castro brothers have not forgotten that we tried very hard to assassinate them. Politicians on the right in Chile still suffer from the memory of our coup.

But . . . I hadn’t reached bottom. I am now listening to The Art of Betrayal. A history of MI-6 (British Intelligence) in the late 40s, 50s and 60s. It might go on to later fiascos; I am only half way through. The cascade of wilful blindness, terminal snobbery, alcohol abuse, and botched operations is stunning. They were systematically penetrated at the highest levels, and their close relationship with the CIA meant that the penetration extended into the highest reaches of our government. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of patriotic souls were tortured/killed because the KGB was in receipt of timely warnings down to the smallest detail. MI-6 had no serious insight into the KGB until a defector showed up on their doorstep (after numerous attempts of his to defect were rebuffed). For at least 20 years, the KGB pitched a shutout against British and American intelligence services, and scored scores of runs.

Is there any lesson here? At least two that occur to me. First, take narratives with a grain of salt. Whenever I read about a leak from the spooks, I now apply a 25 pound sack of salt to my analysis. Second, the ability to classify means creates the ability to bury/successfully rationalize mistakes. We all tend to cover up and rationalize our blunders. Transparency renders that process less effective. We need to make mistakes and learn from them if progress is to be made. Success is mostly useless as a teacher. The best teacher around is an astutely analyzed mistake. We should strive to limit classification solely to very sensitive matters. Hang the rest out to dry. We should declassify material as soon as possible, so it can be analyzed by folks who were not involved, and who may have a more objective view. We need to encourage ruthless review of culture and methods by our intelligence organizations. Hard to do without letting in some fresh air.

We live in an age of asymmetric warfare. We face a determined enemy. Lots of Islamic cultures (including Islamic enclaves in Europe) have high birth rates and low employment rates. Lots of frustrated and marginalized young males. Lots of preachers who have to live on donations, which tend to increase when the message is radical. A large pool of recruits. If we don’t have effective intelligence, lots of us will die before our bodies wear out. It is a field of endeavor we need to improve.

A Different View