Small Wars Journal

The Politics of Intelligence

Sun, 11/13/2016 - 4:06pm

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!"

About the Author(s)

The author is a former USAF Intelligence officer, Vietnam veteran, a graduate of Iona College (BA), the University of Southern California (MS), the Defense Intelligence College, and the Air War College. He is a former Senior USAF Research Fellow at RAND Corporation, Santa Monica and the former Director of Research and Russian (nee Soviet) Studies, ACS Intelligence, HQ USAF, serving under General James Clapper. Colonel Donovan has served at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Central intelligence Agency.



Mon, 11/21/2016 - 10:16am

I don't know if President Trump reads Donovan but he should!


Fri, 11/18/2016 - 11:09am

In reply to by cammo99


I am the only one who can delete comments. 99% of the comments I have deleted in a very long time are duplicate and spam posts. That said, at times the poster of a particular comment may have had second thoughts. He or she cannot delete the comment but can edit it and then just backspace through the comment and then repost it. I’ve seen that a few times of late.


I was just reading a good comment by someone who posted a response and had an analytical intel background. Then poof it was gone?
His comment was dependent on intel gathering in the 80s when experts with language skills were focused on both journals, actual newspapers etc.,. and human intel, The sort of intricate knowledge of our enemies significant military leaders high lighted in movies like Patton and Red October. The US today to support its troops in the field had to find people quickly on a grand scale to read and hear Sat intercepts and make hard decisions in real time. One was Cold War the other War. Not meaning to be diminutive. Life and death a more immediate concern in one than the other, until you reach the brink.
Outside the purview of American reach our human assets have not done well, Obama began his administration by losing all our assets in Lebanon and Syria, barely mentioned in the press. CIA then focused on human intel derived from the Muslim Brotherhood. Who's idea was that?
I wouldn't want to be known to American intel if I wanted to serve my country by spying on the bad guys without an umbrella. But there are those who do. The best video feed I have seen in media on the fighting in Iraq and Mosul is on the Soldier of Fortune website. Contractors and Ex Pats are in the mix. just like always.
There are a lot of twists and turns like the all in hunt for top tier bad guys to assassinate using high tech to locate and follow these dead men walking. It proves the intel analysts can put our operators next to the top tier bad guys or light a hellfire up their backsides. But when is the last time we heard that has happened? And is assassinating the top tier getting it done?
This author suggests to me we are fighting a War like its Cold War. And we are working under the microscope for auditors who have nothing good to say about every cost whether it saves American lives which is good by killing our enemies which has become "bad". You would think the Policies of DOD overseers is conditioning our warriors to expect to behave like psychotics because that's all war is good for.
Did you know if we make our enemies our friends they won't be our enemies anymore? puke. I am not going back to that rap group. Interrogation techniques and positions on water boarding etc.,. vary but really?
I agree with this author excepting the assassination track Obama did so well with. "He" got Osama, which helped balance out his re-election bid when he promised he had put an end to Al-Qaeda and got Benghazi instead. And Osama was got only after years of old fashioned interrogations, intuition, and technology. Only the Unabomber evaded justice longer. I wonder if an active bomber could be so evasive in the USA today? Why couldn't we have gotten Osama without all that nasty torturing we got the unabomber without but he had a brother with a conscience.
Snowden has changed perception of covert ops which was by and large accepted as long as it happened abroad. I also wonder if "walking back the cat" is as unwanted in CIA circles as it is in military AARs that begin with, "Do not put anything negative in the report. We only want ups."
I won't give myself away or the people who used me. I worked for one really great man and then one who was using his office and putting assets lives on the line to put money in his back pocket and seemed to think that was the way things are supposed to work. It gives me gas.
Trying to scope Obama's ME policies is at best something I don't care to do without a bottle of Tylenol, pepto-bismol and the Bible the actual Bible not an FM or other "God" sources.
Anyways it all seems moot since I learned this AM Clapper resigned.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/15/2016 - 5:08am

HERE is the side problem that the author does not address....In the 70s and 80s intelligence collection and analysis was not computer driven using big data clouds and tailored search software handling literally billions of data bits flowing into large centralized even bigger databases...

I was a humint field collector in those years and about once a year several key CIA/DIA "section analysts" would drop by in Berlin and bring us up to date on their work and interest turn I would drop by them once a year in DC....

If you ever had the chance to visit them..they worked in small offices piled high with paper printed out unanalyzed field reports WHICH they would read and inhale...BUT again thousands of such reports would flow in....the trick on how to get the analysts interested in your reports was in the way you wrote the title and summaries...and then you got "graded" on the report...which drove your yearly job evaluations on the collection side...

Once you had built a solid relationship with the analyst he or she would then guide your collection efforts to point in the direction of what they needed...

HERE is where the author goes astray ....the analyst was a true subject matter expert as he or she had been at the game for years and knew down to the sexual preferences of say all Soviet field commanders in the GDR or Warsaw Pact countires or who was talking with whom in Moscow and what they provided as analysis work was solid and well respected.....AND THEY physically READ every report they requested and knew it inside and outside.

JUMP to now the 2000s all computer analyzed with especially designed at high cost search engines designed to filter billions of facts and inputs and largely also produce in the end the reports....SMEs like the grey beards of old no longer exist.....AND or in Syria in the 2004/2006 timeframes largely ignored even if they were guerrilla warfare SMEs...BTW a large amount of those positions are now supplied by defense contractors with an ever revolving door of analysts they fed into the system and or contracts that came and went..

In a three month period in Iraq in 2005 I sent to national level IC a total of 21 Requests for Information (RFIs)in order to compare data I was holding that was critical to field operations....silence...crickets is what I got back from DC.....I absolutely knew more about what was ongoing in Diyala province than all of the 17 US national intel agencies...and I was just a huminter.

Take the current worldwide drone program..does anyone have any earthly idea just how many downlink feeds are being feed 24 X 7 X 365 into a centralized data collection center..MASSIVE...there is simply now information overload and all of it cannot be analyzed..plain and simple and largely ignored in the production of day to day reports for those at say the National Command level.

Couple that with the political party games played by which agency or department head is Republican and or Democrat and or what agenda games the various directors were playing for power and money as funding is in fact power these days....

So instead of beating up the messengers how about beating up on the overall failure of the current intelligence agencies ALL 17 of them..and pressure them to get back to the basics of threat identification and why it is a threat then allow the national command authority to figure it out which is what they get paid very well to do......

During the Old Cold War of yesterday, when such great nations as those of the U.S./the West played "obstructionist" to Soviet/communist "expansionist"/"world transformation"/"world revolution" designs, the Soviets/the communists then (and for seemingly obvious and intelligent reasons) did not consider the Muslim populations of the world as either (a) an existential threat or (b) their primary opponent. (That would have been a grave, fatal and indeed unexplainable mistake for the Soviets/the communist to have made back then -- and re: their "world transformation" strategic objectives.)

Likewise, in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, when such great nations as Russia, China and Iran now play "obstructionist" to U.S./Western "expansionist"/"world transformation"/"world revolution" designs, it would likewise seem (and again for seemingly obvious and intelligent reasons) to be a grave, fatal and generally unexplainable mistake for the U.S./the West to consider the Muslim populations of the world as either (a) an existential threat or (b) our primary opponent.

In this light to consider what appears to be the alternative thinking of our author, G. Murphy Donovan, above, for example:

"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."

Bottom Line Question:

Re: the Soviets/the communists' "expansionist" strategic objective of yesterday (transformation of the states and societies of the world more along communist political, economic, social and value lines), and re: the U.S./the West's similar "expansionist" strategic objective of today (in our case, transformation of the states and societies of the world more along modern western political, economic, social and values lines), should one consider:

a. The great and powerful "obstructionist" nations (for example, those with huge militaries, powerful economies and, often, nuclear weapons), and their equally powerful "obstructionist" leaders, as one's existential threat and primary opponent? Or should one, instead, consider:

b. The amazingly less-powerful, the amazingly less-organized and the amazingly less-dangerous other "obstructionist" entities (for example: the Islamists) as properly holding down both these "primary opponent" and "existential threat" roles/titles/positions?

(Re: these questions, can we agree that, cir. 1979, when the Soviets/the communists took their eye off the strategic ball, and chased after the Islamists in Afghanistan instead, this resulted in [a] certain damage to them and their position in the world and [b] a significant rise in/a significant increase in the world's Islamist problems? With this example before us, do we now -- and with our true existential threat/primary opponent [Russia?] prodding/egging us on -- want to [a] make this same mistake [but on a much grander scale?] and, thus, [b] reap similar -- or worse -- consequences?)