August 05, 2007


In case you were still wondering if even a single member of the ruling class has learned one damned thing over the last six years -- and if you were, you have seriously failed to pay attention -- I bring you news from the inspirational Jim Webb, recently-minted Democrat, fearless leader and darling of the Netroots, defending his vote in favor of the abominable FISA legislation. Yesterday, I offered some commentary about that travesty, that little item that had sat atop the Bush criminals' wish list, that innoculation against impeachment, that sanctification of criminality, past, present and future, and that further confirmation that with regard to basic political principles, the Democrats and Republicans are essentially identical. They all work for the consolidation and expansion of the corporatist-authoritarian state, and very few Americans understand what they're doing and even fewer give a damn.

Yesterday I supported two measures to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These measures were considered against the backdrop of heightened concerns from our nation's intelligence community about the threat of international terrorism. The ramifications of the two amendments before us last night were not political. Instead they related to the urgent demands of national security. I chose to heed those warnings. We now have six months to work in earnest to bring full accountability to the process.

This distinction and the threats to national security were stated clearly by Admiral McConnell as well as four of the eight Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. These members, Senators Feinstein, Mikulski, Bayh, and Bill Nelson, have extensive experience on intelligence matters and are respected champions of civil rights and liberties. They chose to give significant weight and deference to the intelligence community on FISA reform, and so did I.

There is near uniform, bipartisan agreement on the need to reform FISA to reflect modern telecommunications and information technology. We must do so in a way that safeguards basic civil and constitutional rights. But we must also remember that the terrorist threat to the nation is extremely serious. I remain fully committed to bringing accountability to this process, and to protecting the privacy rights of all Americans.
Question: Are politicians born this stupid, or do they study it? Is there a Dumbitude Institute for Future Leaders of America somewhere that I don't know about? Do they get a degree for completing all their course work? Oh, of course they do: they get elected. Awesome!

Webb's explanation of his FISA vote is my all-time favorite excuse for decisions that individuals later come to regret (usually, only because they don't work out as well as they had hoped, not that they have moral compunctions against beginning wars of aggression -- that's just an example off the top of my head): The intelligence made me do it. Note: it is also Bush's all-time favorite excuse, as in the case of Iraq's WMD. Remember that? You probably don't. So long ago now.

I've written numerous essays about the profound misunderstandings about the actual role played by intelligence in policy decisions, and the endless ways in which alleged reliance on intelligence is used for propagandistic ends. Here's the short version:
The first error is the belief that decisions of war and peace are based on intelligence at all. To excerpt myself still one more time, because of the importance of this point:
Once again, I put the major point in bold letters all by itself:
Intelligence is completely irrelevant to major policy decisions. Such decisions are matters of judgment, and knowledgeable, ordinary citizens are just as capable of making these determinations as political leaders allegedly in possession of "secret information." Such "secret information" is almost always wrong -- and major decisions, including those pertaining to war and peace, are made entirely apart from such information in any case.
The second you start arguing about intelligence, you've given the game away once again. This is a game the government and the proponents of war will always win. By now, we all surely know that if they want the intelligence to show that Country X is a "grave" and "growing" threat, they will find it or manufacture it. So once you're debating what the intelligence shows or fails to show, the debate is over. The war will inevitably begin.

To repeat: the decision to go to war is one of policy, and the intelligence -- whatever it is alleged to show -- is irrelevant. Don't argue in terms of intelligence at all. If you do, you'll lose. The administration knows that; many of its opponents still haven't figured it out, even now.
From Gabriel Kolko:
But collective illusions have characterized the leaders of most nations since time immemorial. They have substituted their desires, ambitions, and interests for accurate estimates of what may occur from their actions. At best, intelligence organizations gather data of tactical rather than strategic utility. An infrastructure of ambitious people exists to reinforce the leaders' preconceptions, in part because they too are socialized to believe what often proves to be illusion. But bearers of bad tidings are, by and large, unwelcome and prevented from reaching the higher ranks of most political orders. It is extremely difficult for nations to behave rationally, which means accepting the limits of their power, and what is called intelligence has to confront the institutional biases and inhibitions of each social system. Thus deductive, symbolic reactions become much more likely, notwithstanding the immense risks of their being wrong. The US war in Iraq and the geopolitical folly of its larger strategy in the Persian Gulf is but one recent example of it.

It is all too rare that states overcome illusions, and the United States is no more an exception than Germany, Italy, England, or France before it. The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century. By and large, US, Soviet, and British strategic intelligence since 1945 has been inaccurate and often misleading, and although it accumulated pieces of information that were useful, the leaders of these nations failed to grasp the inherent dangers of their overall policies. When accurate, such intelligence has been ignored most of the time if there were overriding preconceptions or bureaucratic reasons for doing so.
For many further details on this subject, see my essay, "How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself," and the other articles linked there.

You might think that individuals elected to national office would know that intelligence and "secret information" is almost always incorrect. You would be wrong.

You might think that our political leaders would know at least a smattering of history, and would be aware that appeals to intelligence are almost always used to justify otherwise indefensible actions. Again, you would be wrong.

You might understandably think that, after the calamitous, incomprehensibly destructive disasters of the last six years, Washington politicians would evince just a touch of reluctance when asked to take action on the basis of "what the intelligence shows" -- especially when that action involves the obliteration of the rights and protections contained in the Fourth Amendment. Tragically, you would be wrong still one more time.

Without exception, in the past, in the present, and unto the future forevermore, all a government official needs to do is offer appeals, suitably limned with panic and desperation, to "the threat of international terrorism" and "the urgent demands of national security," and almost everyone in Washington will rush to tear up the Constitution on national television.

I just love the additional appeal to "extensive experience on intelligence matters..." I mean, that's worked out so well.

You get what you ask for, and what you deserve: a government of idiots, by idiots, and for idiots.