August 22, 2007

You, Too, Can and Should Be an "Intelligence Analyst"

[Note added August 12, 2010: Welcome to readers from Naked Capitalism. While I appreciate the link to this article, I'm certain the only reason it was noticed is that I mentioned this piece in a recent installment of my series about Wikileaks. These issues are critically related to a very significant aspect of Wikileaks' work and why I consider that work genuinely radical in a way that, in my view, far too few people appreciate.

The article on Wikileaks that discusses this earlier one appeared several days ago: "Good-bye to All That: Good-bye Consensus, Good-bye Establishment, Good-bye Mainstream." So while it's lovely to see an article from three years ago linked today -- better late than never, and so forth -- this subject is of immense importance to a major news story right now. The Wikileaks piece explains why.]

My title is not intended to be at all humorous. It is meant to convey a critically important truth, one that most Americans, almost all politicians, and the overwhelming majority of political commentators (bloggers and otherwise) still do not understand to this day.

Ray McGovern has written an article about our inexorable progress toward military confrontation with Iran. For reasons I've explained, I am not concerned with discussing that aspect of his commentary here, although I recommend you read his entire piece. But a few of McGovern's other points deserve emphasis and further discussion.

I remind you that McGovern worked as a CIA analyst. Toward the beginning of his article, he writes:
The craft of CIA analysis was designed to be an all-source operation, meaning that we analysts were responsible - and held accountable - for assimilating information from all sources and coming to judgments on what it all meant. We used data of various kinds, from the most sophisticated technical collection platforms, to spies, to - not least - open media.

Here I must reveal a trade secret and risk puncturing the mystique of intelligence analysis. Generally speaking, 80 percent of the information one needs to form judgments on key intelligence targets or issues is available in open media. It helps to have been trained - as my contemporaries and I had the good fortune to be trained - by past masters of the discipline of media analysis, which began in a structured way in targeting Japanese and German media in the 1940s. But, truth be told, anyone with a high school education can do it. It is not rocket science.
I genuinely do not intend to insult any reader by noting the following: you may think you understand what McGovern says here, but the fact is, you almost certainly do not. It took me a few years and a lot of reading and thinking to understand these issues myself.

I return once again to what I regard as the classic formulation of the most critical point, one that I excerpted in "How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself." At the conclusion of that essay, you will find links to many other articles I've written on the subject of intelligence, and the ways in which it is misunderstood and misused. Here is Barbara Tuchman, in The March of Folly, writing about the catastrophe of Vietnam:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."


The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
As I wrote about this passage in one of the first of my essays about the coming conflict with Iran, from November 2005:
This is the critical point that many commentators never grasp, especially those in our mainstream media, and that many others minimize. It may indeed be comforting to think that decisions of war and peace are made on the basis of facts, cold, clear logic, and "secret information" (information that is accurate, I hasten to add) -- but history, including our most recent history, does not support that view. We might think that is the correct method that should be utilized in pondering the fates of many thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians -- and indeed, it is the right procedure, if leaders were amenable to being directed solely by facts and what is in their nations' best long-term interests. But if leaders were ultimately moved by such factors, World War I would not have witnessed years of endless slaughter, it would not have lasted as long as it did, and it might not have begun at all. And if our own political and military leaders focused on those factors that ought to serve as their lodestar to the exclusion of all else, we would not have had the nightmare of Vietnam then -- or the nightmare of Iraq now.

The opposition conclusion -- the one Myrdal was inevitably led to after 20 years of immersion in the subject -- is that "irrational motives" impel foreign policy decisions.
As I have continued to read about and examine this subject, I have come to understand these issues more thoroughly in the last few years. I therefore want to offer a clarification that may help to dispel a particular confusion that can arise.

From one perspective and with regard to one type of analysis, it is certainly true that "irrational motives" lead to catastrophically bad decisions in the realm of foreign policy, including virtually all decisions to go to war. You can read history covering thousands of years, and you will find perhaps a handful of wars out of hundreds and, more likely, thousands that have been fought, that were genuinely necessary, i.e., that were unequivocally dictated by the demands of the very survival of a nation. Almost all wars could have been avoided -- and, in terms of this point, their results were directly opposed to what the stated aims had been. To choose the most notable example from the last century, Wilson proclaimed that he was making "the world safe for democracy" -- but the U.S. entrance into World War I and the resulting prolongation of that awful conflict led to the rise of Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, thus leading to World War II, a further 60 years of war -- and to the crisis that confronts us today. As I wrote some time ago:
Only a few scant months after winning reelection on a "peace" platform, Woodrow Wilson began a propaganda campaign to convince the American public to swallow his plans for U.S. intervention in Europe that the Bush administration can only look upon with envy. The U.S. entrance into the First World War prolonged that conflict. Among other consequences, it helped lead to the collapse of the Russian government and the rise of the Soviet Union, and it sowed the seeds for the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. In all crucial ways, the "war to end all wars" led directly to World War II. As one commentator concisely puts it:
In 1917 the U.S. government decided to embark on another overseas military adventure — entry into World War I, which involved a complex conflict between many European powers. ...

More than 100,000 American men were sacrificed in World War I. One consequence of the war was the Russian Revolution, which brought Vladimir Lenin and communism to power in the Soviet Union. Another consequence, which can be directly attributed to U.S. intervention in the war, was the chaos arising from the total defeat of Germany, which in turn gave rise to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.
The same overall dynamic is true of almost every other conflict you can name.

But from another perspective and utilizing a different analysis, the motives are not irrational at all. When one considers how these unending wars and devastations affect the primary powers that drive them -- and that benefit from them -- they tragically make all too much sense, even if that "sense" is of a kind that some of us find contemptible and entirely loathsome. Once again, I offer Robert Higgs' comments on this issue. I think the title of my earlier post admirably conveys the point, "Chaos, War, Murder and Destruction Are What They Want." Higgs:
As a general rule for understanding public policies, I insist that there are no persistent "failed" policies. Policies that do not achieve their desired outcomes for the actual powers-that-be are quickly changed. If you want to know why the U.S. policies have been what they have been for the past sixty years, you need only comply with that invaluable rule of inquiry in politics: follow the money.

When you do so, I believe you will find U.S. policies in the Middle East to have been wildly successful, so successful that the gains they have produced for the movers and shakers in the petrochemical, financial, and weapons industries (which is approximately to say, for those who have the greatest influence in determining U.S. foreign policies) must surely be counted in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

So U.S. soldiers get killed, so Palestinians get insulted, robbed, and confined to a set of squalid concentration areas, so the "peace process" never gets far from square one, etc., etc. – none of this makes the policies failures; these things are all surface froth, costs not borne by the policy makers themselves but by the cannon-fodder masses, the bovine taxpayers at large, and foreigners who count for nothing.
It is important to recognize the two perspectives and the two kinds of analysis, and to keep them separate. Almost all of our public debate is conducted on the first level of analysis: what various political leaders say their goals and objectives are. In terms of those stated goals, their decisions in foreign policy are uniformly calamitous, and they lead to results that are the opposite of what they claim they hope to achieve. No public figure will admit the truth of the second kind of analysis and, I regret to note, most Americans are not the least bit interested in hearing such unpleasant truths. Nonetheless, they are truths: a huge swath of our economy is now devoted to preparing for war, making war, and cleaning up after war. To one degree or another, most members of Congress are beholden to the economic powers that drive the obsessive concern with war, and its cornucopia of economic opportunity. Both parties are enmeshed in the War State, and the current corporatist warmaking apparatus devours almost all those who go into public service. Until this intricate and complex system is altered, nothing else will change, except in comparatively superficial ways.

To summarize this point concerning the actual role of intelligence in policymaking, I offer these earlier comments of mine:
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:
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.
There is a second way in which the true role of intelligence is unappreciated; in a sense, it is even worse than the fact that intelligence is irrelevant to major policy decisions, despite all the protestations to the contrary. And that is the fact that, on those rare occasions when intelligence is correct, it is disregarded when it conflicts with a policy that has already been decided upon. McGovern writes:
The above is in no way intended to minimize the value of intelligence collection by CIA case officers recruiting and running clandestine agents. For, though small in percentage of the whole nine yards available to be analyzed, information from such sources can often make a crucial contribution. Consider, for example, the daring recruitment in mid-2002 of Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Naji Sabri, who was successfully "turned" into working for the CIA and quickly established his credibility. Sabri told us there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

My former colleagues, perhaps a bit naively, were quite sure this would come as a welcome relief to President George W. Bush and his advisers. Instead, they were told that the White House had no further interest in reporting from Sabri; rather, that the issue was not really WMD, it was "regime change." (Don't feel embarrassed if you did not know this; although it is publicly available, our corporate- owned, war profiteering media has largely suppressed this key story.)
I have made this point on a number of occasions, often citing Gabriel Kolko, who writes:
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.
I therefore repeat my major admonition, and give it special emphasis:
It is always irrelevant to major policy decisions, and such decisions are reached for different reasons altogether. This is true whether the intelligence is correct or not, and it is almost always wrong. On those very rare occasions when intelligence is accurate, it is likely to be disregarded in any case. It will certainly be disregarded if it runs counter to a course to which policymakers are already committed.

The intelligence does not matter. It is primarily used as propaganda, to provide alleged justification to a public that still remains disturbingly gullible and pliable -- and it is used after the fact, to justify decisions that have already been made.

None of these facts and this background are all that difficult to ascertain, if one is committed to finding out the truth. It is a measure of the monolithic, deadly grip that so-called "conventional wisdom" holds on our public discourse that what ought to be regarded as noncontroversial and even obvious truths are transformed into forbidden matters never to be mentioned in "polite" company. And it is entirely remarkable that the intelligence game continues with none of its lethal force spent. As Jim Webb's recent pathetic explanation of his support for the abominable FISA legislation demonstrates, there would appear to be only one value that our politicians refuse to compromise or surrender: their wholehearted, indeed passionate devotion to abject stupidity.

But two can play this game, and the politicians and the "professionals" can be turned into fully deserving losers. As the above indicates, you too can be an "intelligence analyst" -- and you can do it with far more accuracy and insight than those with careers that will be imperiled if they deliver unwelcome news. Make your own judgments based on what is in the public record, as McGovern indicates, and resist the calls to war.

After all, it is members of the public who pay for it all -- and it is members of the public who die for it, too. Let the public decide. It's only just. And perhaps, one day in the future, we finally will have peace.