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Undernews: The Triumph Of Hope Over Experience

Failures Of Intelligence
The Triumph Of Hope Over Experience

By Sam Smith

News that President Bush and Governor Pataki had personally captured the western New York branch of Al Queda (or so it seemed watching TV) was not all that comforting for it brought back memories of major drug sweeps right before an election or the arrest of minor mules just in time for a budget vote. And then, a few days after the arrests, the LA Times reported that the State Department had a list of 70,000 terrorists which, if the figures are true, leaves the bulk of the work unfinished.

Further, based on the government's own description, the Lackawanna group appears to be out of the same minimalist school of terrorism as John Walker Lindh in which ill-formed ideological infatuation finds itself up against reality when it's too late to do anything about it. At least some of the New York crowd apparently ended up at a summer camp run by Al Queda, heard a guest lecture by Osama Bin Laden, and thought better of the whole deal. One defense attorney, according to the New York Times, said his client "had tried desperately to leave the terrorist camp virtually from the moment he arrived, weeping on one occasion and faking an injury on another." Even if they had stuck it out - and remember this was a time when even Dick Cheney had a more favorable view of the Taliban - it would have amounted to two weeks of small arms training, a thin reed on which to hang a global conspiracy or a code orange alert.

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But the folks in charge of ending terrorism have to go with what they've got, which hasn't been much so far and has, in fact, included some predictable dry holes such as carefully searched grandmothers at airports.

This shouldn't really surprise anyone because, "intelligence," despite its name, isn't all that good a way to go about finding things out. At least, that is, the covert sort of intelligence - the part that makes good movies and bad history. There are plenty of well informed people at the CIA, but they tend to rely on available information, working on I. F. Stone's principle that 80% of what a government does wrong it does in the open.

On the other hand, the record of covert intelligence in the post-WWII history of America is fairly dismal. It includes not knowing the Soviets were building an atomic bomb, not predicting the Communist takeover of China or the invasion of South Korea, not understanding even now what really happened in the Kennedy assassination, helping to send Nelson Mandela to prison for 28 years, and grossly miscalculating the Soviet economy during the Cold War.

It is useful as well to remember that not only is Osama Bin Laden still at large after a $35 billion dollar down payment on a war against terrorism, but that the one guerilla who was near certain and proximate mischief - trying to light a bomb in his shoe - was prevented from doing so not by the "intelligence community" but the intelligence of those near him on the plane.

So when one hears the cable clatchers speaking somberly about post-September 11 "intelligence failures' one should bear in mind that they are not really telling you anything new. Intelligence failure is not the exception but the rule. And to pin one's expectations for national security upon intelligence is, to borrow from Dr. Johnson thoughts on second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience.

What the "intelligence community" has been good at, at least over the short run, is (a) keeping secrets from its own people and (b) using spies and accompanying paraphernalia to control and suppress the citizenry in its own country.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to find things out, but rather that you should not pin your whole future on the success of a small group of operatives who for both personal and practical reasons may not be up to the job.

On the practical side, if one were to have the same level of penetration of operatives around the world as the Metropolitan Police Department has cops in Washington, one would need about 6 million spies on the payroll. And you'd probably want more than that given that the MPD closure rate on burglaries is only 7%, for robberies 11% and for rape cases 27%.

Even the national closure rate for bank robberies - by tradition the FBI's métier - is only 50%. And these figures are, of course, all for action after the fact, a bit late in the case of a nuclear or biological attack.

Then there is the problem that the other side is up to the same thing and so an inordinate amount of time must be spent on finding out what they are doing, preventing them from doing it, and making sure some of your own operatives aren't helping them on the side.

And we're not just talking about our enemies, either. Among the most successful spies in our midst come from Israel, which - by some accounts, including the president's own intimations - may have known about the Monica Lewinsky affair before American investigators or the media. Earlier this year, Jane's Intelligence Digest reported:

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been quick to dismiss a 4 March report by Intelligence Online, a French web site that specializes in security matters (and expanded on by French daily Le Monde the following day) that US authorities had arrested or deported some 120 Israelis since February 2001 and that the investigation was still continuing. . . Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden dismissed the espionage allegations as 'an urban myth that's been circulating for months...' If the reports from Paris are correct, it would be the largest known Israeli espionage operation mounted in the USA, the Jewish state's closest ally and one on which it depends for its survival.

"Israel's intelligence organizations have been spying on the USA and running clandestine operations on US soil since the Jewish state was established. This has included smuggling an estimated 200 pounds of weapons-grade uranium for its secret nuclear arms program in the 1960s to wide-scale industrial espionage, much of it conducted by the highly secret Scientific Liaison Bureau, known by its Hebrew acronym Lakam, which was run by the Israeli Defense Ministry and its equally little-known successor Malmab. Indeed, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, reported in April 1996 that Israel 'conducts the most aggressive espionage operation against the United States of any US ally.'. . . US officials admitted to reporters that the entire investigation had become 'too hot to handle,' but declined to give further details. However, some FBI officials did confirm at the time that the Israelis were running a major eavesdropping operation that had penetrated into the highest echelons of the US administration."

It is not unreasonable to speculate that Clinton, Bush or other American politicians have been, or are being, blackmailed by Israel using its intelligence trove. And if that's what one of your allies is up to, think what your enemies may be about.

Of course, there is also the problem of determining who your friends and enemies are. Again, we have done a pretty poor job of this, such as paying Noriega more out of our intelligence budget than we were paying our president in salary, helping Saddam Hussein get started, helping future Al-Queda terrorists fight the Russians, and a decades-long subsidization of major drug operations - all in the name of democracy.

Then there are the institutional problems. One of the striking things about contemporary spy scandals, for example, is how much of the betrayal involves not the transmittal of real, first-class secrets like how to build an atom bomb but secrets about secrets or about secret-keeping - in other words, the office business of espionage.

Taught by fiction, the media, and the intelligence community itself to regard the subject romantically, we tend to forget that the intelligence agencies are, among other things, just more government bureaucracies. Because we forget this, it is possible for our president, despite the intelligence miasma revealed since September 11, to propose as his prime goal the creation of yet another bureaucracy, this one second only to the Pentagon.

Finally, there is a matter that is seldom discussed: the character of those in the spy business and the effect this has on what they do. Read a reasonable number of true tales from the crypts and it may slowly dawn that covert operatives are not ordinary people. These are people who may possess any or all of the following traits: an ability to deceive others; freedom from moral strictures; an inability to function well in the open world; greed; egomania; a perpetual adolescence in which the world becomes an arcade game on a grander scale; an ability to place the requirements of a specific situation ahead of any broader consideration; unresolved problems of maturity, self-respect and manhood; a willingness to sacrifice others, including one's own colleagues, for personal achievement or a specific goal, and a generally murderous inclination. Ironically, their very sense of exemption from normal cultural restraints may lead them to discount the dangers involved in blackmailable behavior, and the next thing you know you have a double agent on your hands.

While these individuals may indeed discover things that you and I will never know, it is also true that they may miss things right before their eyes. CIA historian Joseph Trento, writing of the failure of the agency to understand East Germany's economic problems during the Cold War, quotes an operative as saying, "Running whores was more interesting for a case officer than finding out how much a loaf of bread costs. But generally the price of bread is more important to people than the price of a woman." Lyndon Johnson was less gentle, once telling an aide to bear in mind that the CIA was filled with boys from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn't let them into the brokerage firm.

These are the folks we have selected as our first line of defense - with an enthusiasm borne not by reality but by myths learned from novels, films, and media groupies. It is a dangerous delusion for, in the end, intelligence findings are no substitute for intelligent leaders and sound policies.


Sep 25, 2002 - From the Progressive Review:
Inside the Beltway, Out of the Loop, Ahead of the Curve
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