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The Politics of Intelligence
G. Murphy Donovan
Director of National intelligence, James Clapper, appeared on Public Television shortly before the presidential election for an extended interview with Charlie Rose. Mister Rose, like many of his peers these days, swings between hard news at dusk and bimbo chat at dawn. Indeed, Charlie is the very model of a Beltway double-dipper, a celebrity groupie who feeds at public and commercial troughs, PBS and CBS.
On any given day, Rose might be seen fawning over a Hollywood poseur in the morning and then playing soft ball with a political tout in the evening. To give such tete-a-tetes, like the Clapper show, the appropriate gravitas, the Council on Foreign Relations is used like an ad vericundiam blue screen.
The very fact that the Director of National Intelligence spoke publically during the televised election spin cycle says a lot about what the American Intelligence Community has become since Vietnam.
Alas, the Clapper interview, like many administration dog-and-pony shows, is not about transparency or openness or even information per se. In another day, any public chat with an Intelligence official might have been relegated to the desinformatsiya file. Today, Intelligence officials like Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan, play other, and some might say more sinister, roles. The name of the game today is more like information management. A cynic might call it spin control.
Clapper likes to suggest that the world of intelligence is binary, a world of secrets and mysteries. Secrets are the knowable unknowns and mysteries are the secrets that might never be known, or at least not until disaster strikes. The Saudi kamikaze air force takes a bow here.
Alas the “wilderness” of mirrors has other dimensions that Clapper doesn’t mention. The third dimension of Intelligence is knowns that are engineered for budget or policy reasons. The Putin bogyman or the Russian phantasm might be examples. The fourth dimension is things that are known, yet so toxic, that they are minimized, ignored, or dismissed. The Shia and Sunni Islamist threats are the premier examples of fourth dimension threats. The fifth dimension is public relations, facts or fictions which might be spun to some institutional or regime advantage. Leon Trotsky, and later Goebbels, would have called the “fifth” dimension of Intelligence indoctrination - or propaganda.
Intelligence is perennial lamb to the policy lion, indeed the Executive Branch is shepherd to the 17 agency Intelligence flock. The institutional product of Intelligence is not objective truth so much as a version of reality helpful to politicians.
Truth in analysis, especially, is an avatar of truth in politics and journalism. Candor is inversely proportionate to the discomfort or pain truth might inflict. Bad news is never good news in a political world.
Policy does not relish contradictions either. If a spook or analyst raises too many problems, he becomes the problem. The tragic case of FBI agent/analyst John O’Neill is instructive. State Department apparatchiks made short work of O’Neill (see Barbara Bodine) and any aggressive pursuit of the USS Cole malefactors. Ironically, O’Neill subsequently died at ground zero during the Saudi 9/11 suicide attack.
Yemen is still burning. Libya and Benghazi are just echoes of the Aden Harbor fiasco, humiliations when cookie pushers called the shots.
Clapper also failed to tell Charlie Rose that Intelligence is both defense and offense. Collection and analysis are defensive functions. Espionage and propaganda are offensive functions. Of the four, three are immoral if not illegal; if not at home, then somewhere. Intelligence officers, operational or analytical, are accomplished liars. It’s what they do. It’s what they get paid to do. Jim Clapper is no exception.
And propaganda, in all countries, has domestic and foreign consumers. When Jim Clapper talks about “speaking truth to power,” truth and power have very narrow definitions. Truth is usually whatever confirms that which a policymaker already believes. Power is a politician with enough juice to give an agent or analyst another line of work.
Some spooks never get to come in from the cold.
Indeed, to understand any public pronouncements from the refractive world of Intelligence, the listener must know a little about the speaker and a lot about what isn’t said.
James Clapper is an example, known to select apostles simply as “JC.” Clapper comes from the nerd cloister in the Intelligence Community. He has a technology and collection background. Unlike, John Brennan at CIA, Clapper probably cares little about operations, espionage, or analysis. Worldview matters nonetheless.
Small wonder then that the DNI believes that the “cyber” threat ranks number one among Intelligence concerns. Moscow ranks second in the threat pantheon, followed by a litany of what JC likes to call “nefarious characters;” the Chinese, North Koreans, and a host undifferentiated culprits like terrorists, extremists, and criminals. The “environment” is also big on the nefarious list according to Clapper. The DNI is happy to indict the Russians and climate; but words like Islam, Mohammed, Muslim, Islamist, or Islamofascism seldom cross his lips.
To be fair, Intelligence is not much different than much of American culture. Religious cults that chop off heads, abuse women, or molest children in the name of a “great” religion might transcend deplorable. However, when such heinous crimes are committed in the name of Islam, Mohamed becomes an unmentionable. It’s a little like discussing Hitler without mentioning Germans or discussing Quisling without mentioning Norwegians.
In any case, if the kinetic threat is to be ignored, it helps to have default or surrogate threats, especially if you’re justifying a deficit DOD budget. Vladimir Putin takes a bow here.
Of all the things that 17 intelligence agencies do, threat analysis is probably the shabbiest product. Indeed, intelligence “analysis” is a deductive, not an inductive process. Analysis seldom begins with a blank slate. The drill begins with existing policy and all the embedded assumptions that politics brings to the table. To be a successful intelligence or national security analyst today, two assumptions are etched in stone.
Russians are bad. Muslims are good.
Simplistic as it sounds, any analysis that contradicts these team Obama bedrock policy maxims today is a dead letter. Putin and the Kremlin are the tar and feathers of modern American politics for both sides of the political aisle. A casual observer only has to look at Russophobic smear tactics in the 2016 presidential campaign to appreciate these phenomena. In contrast, at least five barbaric Muslim small wars proceeded apace during the campaign season with hardly a policy tweet or a ripple above the fold.
Indeed, Clapper endorses “long war” speculations, administration euphemisms for jihad which suggest that terror and Muslim small wars will be a permanent feature of American futures.
There is some comfort to be had with Jim Clapper compared to Michael Morrel, Michael Hayden, and John Brennan. Recall that Brennan was the CIA chef who originally cooked the Islamic books while at the White House. Mike Hayden presided over 9/11, the worst Intelligence failure in American history. He was promoted after the Saudi attack on 9/11. And recall that Morrel was the acting CIA director who presided over the Lybia/Benghazi fiasco. Brennan now runs CIA. Hayden and Morrel are prominent media front runners for the political Left and “Clinton Inc.”
If Intelligence meddling in American elections and politics is a fact, it’s a Washington, not a Moscow fact.
The tone for any administration is set at the top. The president-elect needs to send an unambiguous message to the neo-con Right and the loopy Left midst the national security elites, the same message that he so successfully communicated to voters. The name of the game is change, especially, one might suggest, for Intelligence and military policy and praxsis.
Mister Trump doesn't need legislation or even a "100 days" to reorient the focus and direction of abysmal foreign/military policy vectors. He just needs to build a new and candid national security crew, a new leadership culture.
It seems that General Mike Flynn will be on the "A" team. Flynn is the kind of veteran who could make a difference in the Intelligence, military, and national security arenas.
The unofficial signal for change on any captain's halyard is a flag with a broom. The message is crystal clear.
All hands on deck for a "clean sweep!"