Cooking the Intelligence Books

March 23, 2015

“Love is whatever you can still betray.” – John Le Carre

There was a time that intelligence estimates were cloaked in secrecy. Peer review, such that it was, was limited to a few analysts with security clearances, analysts that were not necessarily substantive experts. The iconic Intelligence report is the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a document that is supposed to represent an Intelligence Community consensus. In practice, a recurring NIE might be dusted off once a year and circulated to up to 17 agencies for “coordination” where “happy” might be changed to “glad.” With the exception of statistics, estimates were seldom changed substantially before being filed away for another year.

Any agency within the IC that might have a factual or analytical disagreement is allowed to take a “footnote” to an NIE which will contain the specifics of any disagreement.

An NIE footnote is as likely to be read as the body of an NIE itself is read. Recurring intelligence reports are read with the same relish as congressional bills are read by congressmen. As long as estimates contain enough threat data to justify departmental budgets, as with domestic spending bills, few politicians care much about analytical effectiveness or any correspondence with the real world. Spending, not truth, reflection or restraint, is the sine qua non of American politics and governance.

The link between Intelligence and defense spending is fairly explicit. The circuit between Intelligence and Intelligence spending is even more direct. With the IC, the folks who define the threat get to write their own meal tickets. Take the Islamist threat since 9/11. Any agency that can work “terror” into their mission statement is likely to enjoy a funding windfall.

Alas, were funding tied to performance, the IC and the DOD might have to have to raise funds like Public Television or the Girl Scouts.

Nonetheless, the national security business has changed in significant ways since the advent of an Intelligence czar in 2004, the so-called Director of National Intelligence. Heretofore, Intelligence estimates were classified. Now big reports also have a redacted version available to the Press. All the while, the specifics of threat might be obfuscated.

Unlike German Nazis, Japanese Imperialists, and Russian Communists of yore, the Arab/Persian/Muslim threat does not have any official cognates where the shooters, bombers, or throat cutters might be named or tied to race, religion, country, or ideology. Words like Arab, Persian, terrorist, Islam, Islamism, Muhammadanism, Islamofascism or the like are prohibited by fiat.

Unlike previous global threats, contemporary Intelligence reports would have you believe that the last fifty years of terror and small wars are without a common thread, without an ideology. Ninety or more nations might be sending religiously motivated jihadists to Sunni Arab ISIS, yet that statistic is of little consequence. Terror victim statistics might have reached an apogee but that fact is of little moment either. You might speak of radicals, militants, extremists, and criminals, but none of these are to be paired with religion, ideology, or Islamic culture.

Thus a national security assessment today is at once officially transparent and functionally opaque at the same time – for the political hustler, the best of both worlds. Alas, transparency, or should we say propaganda, cuts two ways. The 2015 DNI Worldwide Threat Assessment for Congress compared to the 2014 edition is an example. The deus ex machina has now been added to the DNI’s bag of tricks.

Shia Hezb’allah, and Shia Iran disappeared from the threat index in 2015. This is the same Hezb’allah that is the Shia equivalent of Sunni ISIS. Clearly, the latest DNI unclassified threat assessment was written with Shia readers in mind.

The elevation of Cuba to BFF is negligible because Havana hasn’t been a threat to Miami Beach since Khrushchev went shoeless at the United Nations. Any diminution of the Hezb’allah (literally, the party of God) and the Nuclear Persian threats is another matter. A nuclear/terrorist Shia theocracy in the Middle East changes every strategic dynamic; with Israel, with Arabia, with the larger Sunni world, and with NATO.

The motives for cooking the Shia threat are a grab bag of possibilities. Foremost is the specter of concessions to Iran designed to prime the pump for team Obama legacy, in short, a nuclear deal with Tehran at any price. A weak and/or failing American President is an easy mark for Shia ayatollahs with unlimited tenure.

Like the Cuba rapprochement, a lame duck American administration would like to put a Persian “peace” paper in the plus column. Never mind that the Persian priests are unlikely to sacrifice their parity ace to the numerically superior Sunni. At the moment, the Islam bomb is a Sunni monopoly. Only a Shia bomb balances the Sunni/Shia sectarian equation. Nuclear parity for apocalyptic Muslim sectarians would be the strategic equivalent of certain Armageddon for Israel.

Then there is the Syria/Iraq conundrum, two pariah regimes, fast friends of Shia Tehran. Sunni ISIS has made a caliphate of Syria and Iran, a budding empire that aspires to devour what remains of two failing pro-Iranian basket cases. ISIS is also making more than a bit of a splash in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya.

Washington and Brussels are unwilling to confront Iran or ISIS in the flesh. Such dilemmas make for strange bedfellows. Thus America and Europe now find themselves shagging Syrian Assad, the Iranian ayatollahs, Hezb’allah, and a veritable host of unsavory anti-Sunni mercenaries and miscreants. The Levant is starting to look like a necrotic Abbott and Costello routine. Who’s on first?

And last, but not least, there is the possibility that the dangerous liaison with Shia priests is designed to punish or poke Israel, especially Bibi Netanyahu. In every Arab or Persian political stew, anti-Semitism is sure to be one of the ingredients.

Given the number of times that America has changed sides in the Middle East, only one thing is certain. Neither Sunni nor Shia can trust Washington today, especially an erratic if not incoherent team Obama. Israel especially, with existential skin in the game, has every reason to be wary of motives in Brussels and Washington too, lest Israel become so much collateral damage like the women, children, and Christians of North Africa the Levant.

Withal, one other conclusion is now possible. The American Intelligence Community just might be another Beltway hooker, similar in many respects to the academic and think tank camp followers that surround Washington.  As long as the funding is unlimited, the Intelligence Community seems willing to provide any service or any answer that pays.

Alas, truth is a candid bitch, she can’t be bought. The American Intelligence Community, in contrast, has become just another Washington DC streetwalker.


This essay appeared in the 3/23/2015 edition of American Thinker.


Brian Williams and NBC: No honor, No shame. No future

February 9, 2015

“I became a journalist because I didn’t want to rely on newspapers for information. “ – Chris Hitchens

Brian Williams has been the face of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and now he seems to be the face of shameless too. Williams has regaled his gullible Media colleagues for a decade or more about a brush with death in Iraq that never happened. The Stars and Stripes, not the NY Times or the Washington Post, busted Mr. Williams. According to the chronology revealed in the Stars and Stripes, the false tale of near death in combat was embellished over time, becoming more heroic with each telling to audiences like David Letterman and Alec Baldwin.

Blowing a fairytale past Deborah Turness, Baldwin, or Letterman is no surprise, but hockey fans are another matter. Seems that somewhere out in flyover country, some 3rd Infantry Division veterans saw Brian’s fatal, and hopefully final, version of stolen valor – and dropped a dime to the newspaper of record for American GI’s.

Williams was at the Ranger’s game in New York burnishing his “I support the troops” facade by posing with a disabled veteran and spinning another “combat” yarn about himself at the same time. The William’s ego spot at Madison Square Garden was never about the sacrifices of real veterans.

The cameo was about hubris, worse still, stollen valor.  Real veterans, real heroes, and real combat casualties languish in the parking lots of an inept Veterans Administration, while poseurs like Brian Williams try to bask in reflected glory. The charade continued for more than a decade, abetted by the silence of network colleagues. Williams was not alone on that trip to Afghanistan. Who checks the fact checker?

NBC and Williams were exposed by ordinary soldiers in a GI newspaper.  Such   duplicity says everything about federal standards and the national Press today. Williams was not outed by the White House.  A President that consistently apologizes for terror culture is unlikely to criticize an ally like NBC. Williams was not outed by other Media regulars like network crew members and colleagues at Public Television, ABC, or CBS. Williams was not exposed by the brass at the Department of Defense either, the institution with the true record of aircraft movements and combat incidents. Williams was outed by the very grunts he pretends to support. In short, the most popular network anchor in America was exposed by his antithesis – real soldiers telling the truth.

According to eyewitnesses, Williams and his entourage did not arrive at the scene of the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) assault until an hour after the shooting stopped. Williams apparently seized an opportunity to exploit their grace under fire. The helicopters and troops involved were then stranded for two days by a sandstorm. The worst of William’s experience was a weather delay, an event more common in Chicago than Iraq. Chicago might be more dangerous too.

Hilary Clinton spun a similar “combat” fiction in Bosnia when her husband was dismantling Yugoslavia. Yet, with professional politicians, nobody expects the truth. A better comparison would be with Dan Rather, another celebrity anchor formerly over at CBS. Recall that Rather used forged documents to try to discredit George Bush’s Air Guard service. Like Williams, Rather tried to spin his fraud with “the fog of memory” excuse too. Rather got fired for his stunt. Williams is still on the NBC payroll.

No surprise then that the first Media standard bearer to come to the defense of Brian Williams was “Gunga” Dan Rather. What’s to defend?  A lie?

Becoming the news is a fatal flaw for any objective journalist. Brian Williams is now the news – and a serial liar to boot. His integrity is forfeit. Just as any CBS coverage of the military is suspect, NBC now labors under the same cloud. If you are supposed to be in the fact finding business, credibility is the only currency. NBC and Brian Williams are now bankrupt.

Rather and Williams at the top of their networks is a symptom of more fundamental Media problems: the conflation of news and entertainment, sub rosa anti-military sentiment, and political pandering.

Clearly, Williams like so many of his colleagues are more Kardashian than journalist, professional celebrities. Williams is the most popular of all news anchors, a one man advertising revenue rainmaker.

Let’s not kid ourselves about poseurs like Rather and Williams, their spin on things military is patronizing, revealing an underlying contempt for the real sacrifices made by soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen.

Media coverage of war itself is now a fraud. The President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense will not name the enemy nor call the ideological struggle with Islam and the battles with Islamists a war. Good men and women are maimed and killed in wars where generals and politicians have no intention of winning. Death without strategy or purpose is the dirty little secret yet to be covered by what critics like Limbaugh rightly calls a “drive-by” Media, a pandering Press corps.

Some of the worst today are the political spinners on Public Radio and Television, taxpayer funded propagandists. The News Hour on 6 February featured Mark Shields and David Brooks commentary on President Obama’s appearance before the National Prayer Breakfast. On that occasion, Obama lectured Christian and Jews about the Crusades, Inquisition, and the European slave trade. More White House excuses just after ISIS beheaded two more journalists followed by the incineration of a live Jordanian pilot with a video feed to the internet.

Both Shields and Brooks endorsed the President’s message. Never mind that all three histories cited are irrelevant to the Islam problem and associated terror. Never mind that these very same justifications are used as propaganda by al Qaeda and ISIS. And never mind that Obama, Shields, and Brooks forgot to mention that today’s slave trade is almost exclusively a joint black-African/Muslim enterprise (see Boko Haram for just one example).

Journalism is literally losing its head. On a global scale, Islamists decapitate the very Media cowards who apologize for Muslim behavior. At the same time, too many reporters at home are willing to commit professional perjury, frequently in the name of Islam. Withal, the message is clear. Neither side can trust journalists these days.

Williams has taken himself off the air for a few days while NBC does some internal navel gazing. The longer the network dithers, the worse this soap opera becomes. Williams has created his personal Katrina. Now he needs to fall on his sword, behave like a man. Surely Public Television has a slot for Williams.


If Ash Carter and Martin Dempsey at DOD want to do something serious about stolen valor, they might start by revoking the military Press credentials of NBC and Brian Williams. Media jock sniffers don’t deserve a free ride on any military conveyance or protection in war zones at taxpayer expense. If sanctions can be imposed on Russia, Iran, and Cuba; surely, sanctions against a dishonest journalist and a network that defends frauds is not too much to ask. American warriors and veterans deserve to be covered by men like Ernie Pyle, not by liars and milksops like Dan Rather at CBS and Brian Williams at NBC.


Murphy Donovan writes about the politics of national security. GMD is a veteran of the East Bronx. He also served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive (1968) and the Invasion of Cambodia (1971).


Why Call It Intelligence?

July 18, 2013

“It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently” – Dostoyevsky

The American Intelligence Community (IC) is starting to resemble a large cast of delinquents, a Faustian opera where bad behavior seeks constant rationalization and confirmation. And like most bad behavior, the real remedy might not be that complicated. Restraint is always an obvious solution; unfortunately, an obvious path seldom prescribed or taken by any branch of government these days, especially Intelligence agencies.

Ironically, the 9/11 attack in New York, the worst warning failure since Pearl Harbor, produced a knee-jerk windfall for American Intelligence. Like public school systems, failure became a kind of fiscal stimulus. Subsequently, government agencies that could imbed “terrorism” in their mission statements were showered with tax dollars.

The logic behind such largess is bigness, the assumption that more is the key to effectiveness: more personnel, more toys, more facilities, and more deficit spending. Unfortunately, these days, big Intelligence looks more like the problem than the solution. And the performance deficit did not begin with Benghazi or Boston.

It took ten years for the American IC to find bin Laden. Several of his thugs still serve today as propaganda martyrs at ‘ Gitmo,’ yet to be convicted of anything. Nonetheless, all are hosted at American taxpayer expense, indefinitely, with three hots, a cot, and a Koran.
The Israeli Mosad took out most of Black September, Palestinians responsible for the Munich massacre (1972), immediately after the atrocity. The Russian FSB took less than two years to find and kill Shamil Baysev, Chechen jihadist responsible for the children’s massacre at Beslan (2004). Rendition is seldom a measure of effectiveness for successful anti-terror doctrine.

The Twin Towers failure in New York was not a one off either. The slide may have begun with Vietnam era “systems analysis” where CIA and DOD cooked statistics to suggest there was “a light at the end of the tunnel.” And then there was the surprise loss of Shia Iran (1979) to theocracy four years after the fall of Saigon. Or maybe it was the ‘surprise’ advent of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Pakistan

The Islam bomb was a watershed. Surely the Shia in Iran could not let that Sunni advantage stand. Alas, American intelligence fudged the call on the first bomb in Pakistan, and is still too timid to make a call on the coming Muslim bomb in Iran.

The problem with truth is that it often makes action imperative. Alter truth and the need to act can always be deferred.
Or maybe it was the “shock and awe” of not finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after being assured by national intelligence estimates (see George Tenant and Colin Powell at the UN, 2003) that Saddam Hussein was so armed. Were truths told; Iraq 1 was about oil and Iraq 2 was about regime change.

And let’s be candid, since the invasion of Kuwait (1990), regime change has been the leitmotif of American and European foreign policy. This sponsored change strategy is underwritten by an assertion that imperial Sunni Islam is a protected religion, not theocratic fascism or puerile imperial politics.

Regime change policies have two pillars. First, Islam is said to be “one of the world’s great religions,” thus entitled to moral equivalence and related immunities. A second axiom claims that the Sunni brand of irredentism is the “right side of history.” See almost any public statement on these matters by John Brennan, James Clapper, or Barack Hussein Obama.

Unfortunately, support to any Muslim faction in their millennial feuds is a little like, as Churchill might have said; “feeding crocodiles with the hope of being eaten last.” Negotiating with the Taliban is just the first course in the coming South Asia buffet.

The Arab, or Sunni, tilts in Intelligence and policy are expensive. Playing defense is always more costly – and often mistaken for appeasement. And surrender, no matter the rhetoric, always has a political cost. Such things are often managed with mendacity.
All intelligence operatives lie; it’s part of their job. Heretofore, the mendacity was reserved for the enemy. But now, if Jim Clapper can be believed, we need to lie to the folks who vote and pay the bills too. Peace (talks) with the Taliban is the big lie du jour. The only thing left to negotiate with south Asia Islamists is the terms of allied surrender and retreat.

The Stuxnet and Prism disclosures are just symptoms of decay too, signs that American Intelligence has lost its original moorings. All agencies begin with good ideas until the institution becomes the enemy of the original ideal. Big Intelligence is an example of such excess and decay.

And the failure of the IC to provide strategic warning is not the worst of it. American Intelligence is frontloaded; omnivorous collection undone by inadequate processing and tainted analysis.

Analysis is both the product and weakest link in the Intelligence chain. The most expensive technical collection systems on earth feed the worst amateur estimates. And this corrupt product sets the stage for all manner of national security folly.

Just two examples suffice; John Brennan and Susan Rice. Personalities, we might point out, promoted recently for being agenda merchants, accomplished liars, and not very modest about either skill. Loyalty, not achievement or professional integrity, seems to be the only bullet on Obama staff resumes.

Brennan is clearly the architect of the modern a priori paradigm, an analytic model which provides the “great religion” narrative for administration policy. Brennan is the Intelligence Svengali if you will. Decoupling Islamism from Islam at the White House is his great career achievement, even if has been a little like arguing that cheese and goats are unrelated.

The Brennan ad vericundium analysis of Islam and Islamism is now fixed policy. And with Brennan at CIA, any event or evidence that contradicts the “great religion” assertion is likely to be ignored, minimized, or spun. There may be 16 Intelligence agencies in the IC, but CIA is still the big dog in the National Intelligence Estimates pound.

The Susan Rice saga provides the lurid details of how these things are done, a sordid tale of how corrupt and malleable Intelligence analysis has become.

The immediate IC assessment of the Benghazi slaughter was revised 12 times after passing through some unknown number of layers of bureaucratic review in the IC, at the NSC, and over at the State Department. In the process, facts and conclusions about terror and Islamism were altered. All of which makes the collection of evidence, and any objective analysis of those facts, irrelevant.

After the Benghazi talking point memo was ‘scrubbed,’ it was released to Ms. Rice, then UN ambassador, as blessed Intelligence. Rice was subsequently launched at the Sunday chat shows to sell a blatant lie, a sanitized edition of yet another national humiliation.
The Sunni tilt or bias colors recent reports and analysis of Egypt too. The IC and CIA didn’t predict another military coup in Cairo because such speculation would contradict the “Arab Spring” charade.

If ground truth is bureaucratic revision or political spin, why call it an assessment or analysis, no less Intelligence? If national security analysis can be suborned by political hacks, the IC might be just another cabal of pricey beltway whores.

James Clapper is one of the most impressive chaps working in Washington. He began his military career as an enlisted Marine and rose to become an Air Force general. Eventually, he became the Director of National Intelligence. His technical achievements in Intelligence collection are impressive. Prism, speaks for itself. Somewhere along the way, however, Clapper also sold his soul.

American national security has devolved into a very expensive game of liar’s poker where the voting public needs to be kept in the dark too. Jim Clapper admits as much in Congressional testimony. In doing so, General Clapper tells us that truth and administration politics are mutually exclusive. Deception in the name of national security might be justified, but lying in the name of venal politics makes American Intelligence a very frivolous extravagance.  Alas, democracy usually dies behind closed doors.

G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer.

Tags: John Brennan, Susan Rice, James Clapper, the Intelligence Community, Director of National Intelligence, Central intelligence agency, Barak Obama, Colin Powell, National Intelligence Estimates, national security, Islam, Islamism, Prism, Stuxnet.

The End of Reason

May 5, 2013

Presumption is the pride of fools, and it ought to be the scholar’s pride not to presume.” – Kedourie

Institutions are the product of good ideas. Unfortunately, over time, the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. The subversive character of “success” has an ancient lineage in the history of human experience.

Athenian democracy may have been undone by cynical philosophers and egotistical generals. Ancient Greece cultivated both. Roman republicanism is thought to have been victim to Vandals in the north and then imperial Islam to the south. Another culprit may have been an avatar empire that grew too fond of mercenaries and tax exemptions. When Roman citizens stopped doing the heavy lifting, the graffiti was on the wall. Surely Christianity before Constantine was an inclusive institution, but when Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy) became state religions, monotheism foretold an age where new ideas were dangerous.

The Communist empire collapsed from internal contradictions. Marx and Lenin made all the correct noises about noble principles, justice and democracy for example. Eventually, however, inept totalitarians spiked those promising ideals.

Most small enterprise disappears without a historical murmur. The rise and fall of these may be as natural as the change of seasons and tides. Yet, many institutions probably fade simply because they outlive their usefulness, become victims of financial success – or excess. Contemporary “non-profit” research corporations, think tanks, may fall into this category.

Perched high on the sea cliffs of Santa Monica, California, the RAND Corporation is the mother, indeed, the queen of modern think tanks. Yes, this is the very same firm that was satirized by Terry Southern as the “Bland” Corporation in Doctor Strangelove (1964). RAND managed to outlive ridicule because it was the product of a very good idea.

Towards the end of World War II, the Douglas Aircraft Company funded a small cadre of experts, whose purpose was to provide systematic analysis of strategic options, including nuclear planning. The president of Douglas and the commander of the Air Corps believed that a critical mass of intellects ought to be kept intact after the war. The advent of the Cold War seemed to validate such prudence. So a small group (approx 200) of mostly civilian specialists was sited in Santa Monica in 1948 that they might be as far from the political winds of Washington as possible. RAND is still with us today. Douglas Aircraft and the Air Corps are not.

In the early days, Santa Monica was indeed host to a band of independent intellectual giants; Bernard and Fawn Brodie, Roberta and Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, John von Neumann and others. When Brodie or Kahn came to the nation’s capital with a dog and pony show, the Pentagon auditorium was standing room only. The brass and gold braid in the audience was blinding. Today a RAND power point ranger might have trouble filling a basement snack bar with corporals.

What happened to RAND might be a cautionary tale for all “research” foundations, those intellectual barnacles that now cling to city, state, and federal sponsors worldwide. The purpose of think tanks, simply put, is to study issues and policies that government apparatchiks are unable or unwilling to tackle. An optimistic view of this industry is underwritten by the belief that “outside” contractors provide objectivity or independence. In fact, what has happened to the industry, of which RAND is the charter member, is that financial success, or endowment, has become more important than focus, impact, or integrity. Indeed, RAND no longer sports the virtue that made her prom queen.

The advent of “RAND lite” was probably a function of a complex matrix of personalities and issues which began with Daniel Ellsberg, and was accelerated by exponential competition, revolving doors, and the toxic onslaught of political correctness.

The Ellsberg Affair

The history of the RAND Corporation falls into two eras; before and after Daniel Ellsberg. With an Ivy League PhD in economics, Ellsberg was a typical revolving door dervish, alternately working at the Pentagon and at RAND. In 1971, Ellsberg Xeroxed and leaked copies of a TOP SECRET Pentagon report that had originally been commissioned by Robert McNamara. Ellsberg had access to the report because he was one of the researchers. The study painted a very unflattering portrait of DOD’s, and particularly the Johnson administration’s, handling of the Vietnam War. Given the anti-war politics of the early 70’s, Ellsberg and the so-called “Pentagon Papers” became instant celebrities.

The Pentagon Papers thus came to be the most notorious and overrated national security study in the annals of such reports. On the one hand, the 7,000 page study was commended for its candor; still, the analysis did not reveal anything that skeptical citizens didn’t already suspect after the Tet Offensive of 1968; that is, that two administrations had been spinning a very tedious, unwinnable war. The Pentagon Papers didn’t impact policy much either, the war went on for another four years, until 1975 – when General Giap snuffed the light at the end of General Westmoreland’s tunnel.

The policy impact of the Pentagon Papers may have been marginal in Washington, but in Santa Monica the blowback from the Ellsberg leak was a game changer. Predictably, the RAND board found a new president, Donald Rice, another dervish who would later ride the revolving door and become Secretary of the Air Force at the Pentagon. Rice quickly saw the handwriting on wall and realized that the near exclusive corporate focus on national security was a shaky pole in a windblown tent. National security candor was hazardous also, an existential threat to funding!

Under Rice, the corporate ship came about and made flank speed towards the social sciences. Indeed, today RAND boasts that 50% of 1700 some odd employees (up from 200 in 1948) are doing social work. Their health care projects may be the largest of their kind in the history of such things. It might be too cynical to suggest that RAND got into the health care fracas for the same reason RANDites migrated to the Middle East; cultivating Arabs for the same reasons that Willie Sutton was attracted to banks. “That’s where they keep the money!”

Yet, more ominous than relegating national security, their strong suit, to the back burner, was the likelihood that RAND, after Ellsberg, had become gun-shy; and too willing to tell sponsors what they wanted to hear.

The Competition

If the Urban Institute and the Internal Revenue Service can be believed, there are now approximately 15, 000 non-profit think tanks servicing city, state, and federal governments in the US alone. That would be 30 think tanks for every state in the nation. This number does not include some 150,000 educational establishments which are separate IRS 501(c) reporting categories. Total annual nontaxable revenues for think tanks now approximate 28 billion dollars. The number is nearly a trillion if educational institutions are included. There is more than a little overlap. The growth rate of 501(c) (3) institutions was 60% in the last decade; twice the growth rate of all non-profits combined. Non-profits overall are now a multi-trillion dollar industry.

There are a number of conclusions that might be drawn here. The most obvious is that RAND now has a lot of competition, thus diluting the talent pool of “experts” available and presumably the quality of analysis. If Apple and Microsoft must go abroad to find first string intellects; think tanks like RAND may be playing with scrubs today.

And the numbers raise other questions. If 15,000 “outside” consulting firms are doing the thinking for government at municipal, state, and national levels; what justifies those thousands, if not millions, of super-grade government bureaucrats? And if there is no profit in “non-profits,” what is the explanation for the explosive growth of think tanks? Patriotism?

Part of the truth may lay with endowments; RAND, for example, may have one of the richest nest eggs outside of Harvard yard. And clearly, the designation “non-profit” is an oxymoron. The more appropriate designation would be “untaxable” – for reasons yet to be justified. Successful think tanks may be a lot of things, but like wealthy universities, they are not “charities” by any stretch of logic.

Financial success has allowed RAND to diversify the research agenda and expand their physical plants. The ideas of geographic isolation, and keeping politics at a distance, have been jettisoned with a vengeance. Mother RAND now has offices in Virginia (near the Pentagon), Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Mexico, England, Belgium, Qatar, UAE, and Abu Dhabi. For objective national security analysis, the last three locales are the most worrisome. Hard to believe that systems analysis or scientific candor will ever put petro-dollars or Islamic autocrats at risk.

When asked about analytical diversification, and the new geopolitical reach, an old RAND hand recently observed: “RAND has become just another Beltway (expletive deleted)! Now, the most profitable tool in their kit is a wet finger in the political winds.”

The Revolving Door

RAND’s financial success, like many elite private academies, may be a function of a distinguished alumni association. Any list of former members of RAND’s Board of Trustees, Santa Monica management (aka “mahogany row”), or senior analysts reads like a historical Pentagon “A” list. Names like McNamara, Schlesinger, Carlucci, Rumsfeld, Rice (Donald and Condi), Marshall, and of course, Ellsberg, all sport RAND connections. Over the years, RAND has been a placeholder of sorts for out-of-work political appointees. RAND is a good example of the post-war “military/industrial complex” of which Dwight Eisenhower spoke so persuasively. And to be fair, the satraps of mahogany row make no secret of their insider connections. Indeed, the available boilerplate on the internet celebrates the history and the personalities of the RAND/Defense Department matrix.

The pivot for the RAND revolving door may the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) and its long serving director, Andrew Marshall, a RAND alumnus from that golden era, the Kahn/Brodie days. ONA has schooled many a defense analyst, like James Schlesinger, who later went on to high office. Over the years, think tank CEO’s who presume to dabble in defense related national security matters are well-advised to genuflect at Marshall’s door.

Serving from the Vietnam era through the recent expedition to Afghanistan, Andy Marshall at 82 years of age is not so much the Delphic Yoda, to whom he is often compared, as he is like a Pentagon’s version of J. Edgar Hoover. Marshall knows where all the bodies are buried. More importantly, with a small elite staff, Marshall is still a dispenser of significant contract research monies. When he calls, masters of the universe in Santa Monica, or at the Pentagon, do not put Andy Marshall on hold. ONA reports directly to the Secretary of Defense.

Political Correctness

Any research should have three elements; scientific standards, a catalogue of potential unintended consequences (blowback), and an impact appraisal. The pharmaceutical or auto industries could serve as models. Drug trials and auto tests have measures of effectiveness; and the hazards of blowback (side effects or dangers) are clearly labeled, and advertised. And finally, chemists and engineers regularly assess the impact of their output.

True science always asks two questions; does this work and how well? The bonus from high standards in these, and similar industries, is their willingness to recall clunkers – or modify products that do more harm than good. Unfortunately, America seems to have higher standards for aspirin and seat belts than it does for national security research products.

The Ascent of a Priori

Strategy gurus, like Herman Kahn, used to scold his peers that, if national defense analysis goes awry, nothing else mattered. Indeed! Today there is more than a little evidence to suggest that a significant number of government, academic, and think tank analysts are cooking the books; that is, telling politicians what they want to hear – instead of what they need to know.

The problem is compounded by a timid generation of elected officials cowed by dubious notions of diversity, moral equivalency, and social leveling. Such qualities may be hard-wired in a generation where sensitivity trumps sensibility. Movers and shakers know what they believe and mostly they know what they believe got them to where they are. As a consequence, politicians in a democracy tend to confuse votes with validation. Contradicting the conventional wisdom of such a political class is hazardous duty.

And keeping a host of bureaucrats and federal camp followers on message requires a fairly consistent cueing system. In the national security arena, the obvious players are the usual suspects.

Unfortunately, the American cueing system now includes the Intelligence Community.
When Colin Powell, then Sectary of State, and George Tenent, then Director of CIA, appear before the United Nations and misrepresent ground truth in Iraq with the key judgments of a National Security Estimate (NIE), clearly policy cueing crosses some uncharted threshold.

The tone is set at the top. Cues trickle down. When a US president visits a host of Muslim capitals in his first term, but not Israel, a signal is broadcast. When a CIA Director (John Brennan) claims, nay insists that jihad is personal or ritual cleansing, he sends a message. When a US theater commander (David Petraeus) approves infidel hijabs, in lieu of helmets, for female soldiers, he provides a clue. When an Army Chief of Staff (George Casey) deploys to the Sunday chat shows to rationalize the unspeakable barbarity of a home-grown US Army jihadist; even dullards get the message.

The problem with policy cueing is that it is most likely to influence those listeners with the most to lose if they ignore the muezzin. Indeed, cueing is at the heart of the political correctness problem. A fairly consistent set of institutional signals now appears to have created an axis of appeasement. This axis includes the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community, and more than a few “objective and independent” universities and think tanks that are subcontractors to government at all levels. RAND Corporation provides several recent examples of how the “private” sector responds to political signals.

War, Crime, and Anti-Semitism?

Hours after 9/11, George Bush allowed a plane load of Saudi elites to flee the US before the blood was dry at the World Trade Center. Never mind that most of the New York suicide martyrs were Saudis. The political cue here was meant for domestic and foreign consumption; to wit, America would not hold passive aggressors, sponsor nations, or clerical hate speech accountable for the atrocities of “extremists.”

The majority of Muslims were thus anointed “moderates,” on the authority of an asserted conclusion. All the while, fellaheen danced in the streets of Arabia. Future definitions of the terror threat would be confined to specific non-government agents like al Qa’eda or the Taliban. By fiat, Islamic terrorism was henceforth fenced as isolated phenomena with local motives; in short, jihad is represented as a perversion of, not a tenant of, a global Islamist theology – or Muslim politics.

This politically correct version of reality would be reinforced by a subsequent administration in a series of forays into the Ummah where Barack Obama would declare unequivocally that America, and NATO by extension, is not at war with Islam or Muslims. Never mind that NATO or American troops might be killing Muslims in four, or is it five, separate venues. “We are not at war!” is still the party line.

Then came “independent” analysis which backfills or rationalizes the political Esperanto. RAND report (MG-741-RC); How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qai’da, 2000 is an example. Notice the assumption embedded in the title; “counter” not defeat. The body of the report is devoted to asserting that terror (a military tactic) is best addressed by political, not military means. Separating war, an amalgam of tactics and strategy, from politics is not an assumption that Churchill, Eisenhower, or even Stalin would have made. A politically correct world-view turns logic inside out; where tactics are confused with strategy.

The report ignores the larger strategic phenomena of jihad bis saif and protected Islamist hate mongering. But the bottom line of RAND’s “systematic” analysis is the most revealing: “Terrorists should be perceived as criminals, not holy warriors.” Such assertions may be a kind of strategic masochism; but, not science nor even common sense.

How the West views Islam is more important then how Islamists act – or see themselves! By such logic, Arizona sheriffs might be deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan instead of the US Marines. And by such logic, where might genocidal Islamic felons, should they be caught, be tried; lower Manhattan?

Another RAND paper on the South Asia massacre, entitled “Lessons of Mumbai,” is an even better example of cooked books; a case where analysis and credibility is undone by evidence ignored.

The Mumbai attack was unique in two respects; a small Jewish center was targeted, the occupants were slaughtered; and the hotel hostages were then screened for religious affiliation – again, seeking Jews. It’s a safe bet that none of the Mumbai killers were ever stopped at an Israeli checkpoint or sold a building lot in east Jerusalem. This attack was planned and executed with motives removed from the usual; the India/Pakistan rift or the Israel/Fattah impasse. Mumbai was clearly motivated, in part, by a strain of virulent, contagious, and global anti-Semitism. No mention of this appears in Lessons of Mumbai’s “key judgments.”

The global bloom of anti-Semitism since the turn of the 21st Century is no accident. Those who ignore it, especially scientists at place like RAND, make it possible. Ironically, many of RAND’s most eminent researchers are or have been Jewish.

(This report also reinforces suspicions about non-profit excess. “The Lessons of Mumbai” paper is a mere 25 pages long, yet lists ten (sic) authors; an average of two and a half pages per analyst. Makes you wonder how many scientists are required to screw in light bulbs out in Santa Monica. Clearly, featherbedding is not just restricted to government operations.)

Some recent RAND national security analysis may actually qualify as apologetics. The 2010 paper entitled Would-be Warriors analyses the incidence of terrorism in the US since 9/11. The paper actually ends with the assumptions, concluding:

“There is no evidence (sic) that America’s Muslim community is becoming more radical. America’s psychological vulnerability is on display…panic is the wrong message to send.”

“No evidence” – or none that RAND can detect? If 16 US intelligence agencies didn’t connect the 9/11 dots beforehand, RAND’s statistical assurances ring more than a little hallow. Islamic terror didn’t begin with the barbarisms in lower Manhattan. And assertions about psychological vulnerability or “panic” are straw men or worse. Who sees such fears in the wake of the Twin Towers atrocity? Indifference or political apathy maybe; but surely no panic.

Nor does the RAND analysis account for the New Black Panther Party (NBPP) or the fact that this home-grown political movement was recently hijacked by radical Muslim Americans. The NBPP’s most recent outrage was to threaten to burn the city of Detroit at a city council meeting.

And on US Muslim radicalization; clearly RAND statisticians rarely audit student sentiment at any Los Angeles “occupy” rallies or any California campus when an Israeli speaker appears. Anti-Semitism is ever the canary in the geo-strategic coal mine.

The creation of veiled apologetics is not as worrisome as the pervasive misuse of such scientific reports, a trend which does nothing but devalue the currency of government financed analysis.

While the overall cast of RAND national security research is cautious and in many cases politically correct; the occasional old hand still puts mustard on his fastball. In 2003, Jim Quinlivan wrote an essay in the RAND Review (Summer, 2003), based on statistical analysis, that suggested American excursions against insurgents or terrorists in dar al Islam, were bound to end badly – using strict military measures of effectiveness. Unfortunately, such voices are seldom endorsed or underlined with corporate authority.

The Quinlivan essay was written shortly after 9/11 when “kinetic” solutions were all the rage; his paper flew in the face of the prevailing political winds. More recent RAND reports, as discussed above, tack with the prevailing winds. The difference is integrity.

The Fukuyama Era

The apparent political metamorphosis at RAND has always been more than a bit of a chimera. Early on, Hollywood and a few Santa Monica activists managed to brand RAND as a neo-conservative thought factory. RAND may have been sited on the “left coast” to be as far removed from Washington as possible, but RAND was not immune to the political smog of southern California. Ellsberg was an example, a known enthusiast of local radical activism after office hours. Even today, during think breaks, an employee might pump iron on muscle beach, play beach volleyball, skateboard on the strand, or cruise the head shops of Ocean Park. Since the Strangelove days, Santa Monica has become a kind of destination resort for left-leaning intellectuals.

Indeed, Rand’s most influential political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, now sits on the RAND Board of Trustees.

As a RAND analyst, Fukuyama jolted the world of political and social science with a 1989 essay, the “End of History,” in the National Interest – later to become a book of the same name. The Fukuyama thesis, briefly stated, is that the defeat of fascism, National Socialism, and the implosion of Communism were symptoms of the triumph of a liberal ideal – democratic socialism with a happy face. Ironically, in another day, RAND challenged the conventional wisdom. Now RAND is the conventional wisdom.

Fukuyama’s sentiments have Hegelian threads; in short, a belief that political consciousness evolves with time. Unfortunately, equating progress with the passage of time ignores more than a bit of history and contemporary reality; the Dark Ages and the irredentist vector of Islam today come to mind. History, or the passage of time, is a two way street; going backwards is as likely as moving forward. And like evolution in the natural world, political history is littered with dead ends and dead civilizations.

Nonetheless, to his credit, Fukuyama’s utopian positivism is, today, probably the dominant political idiom for most social democracies including America. The recent and ongoing revolts in the Arab world provide examples.

The belief that democracy is the default political setting in the Muslim world is almost universal among Western politicians, academics, and journalists. The two most common adjectives used during the ongoing Arab revolts are “peaceful” and “democratic.” Neither is underwritten by ground truth.

Surely, political optimists have confused change with progress; or worse still, confused revolt with reform. The best that can be said of the “jasmine” revolution to date is that it is, as Tennessee Williams might have put it, like “the sickly sweet smell of mendacity.”

Indeed, utopian is often confused with dystopian in a world view that fails to accommodate, or minimizes, the dark side of human nature and creeping national security threats. Fukuyama acknowledges the possibility of “political decay,” but seldom sees decay as irredentism. Indeed, Fukuyama, like RAND, has become a member of the “Islam is not at odds with democracy” lobby.

If your primary concern is religion; your world view is authoritarian, not democratic. The Ummah doesn’t get a vote on the Koran or Hadith. And the various interpretations of sacred scripture or the Prophet’s life are made by clerics and religious scholars, not the fellaheen. The adjectival Islam portrayed in the West (i.e. moderates versus radicals) does not exist for most Muslims. As the Turkish prime minister tells us; “Islam is Islam!” For Islamic party leaders like Tayyip Erdogan adjectives like ‘moderate’ are an “insult.”

The big tent mirage is another triumph of hope over experience. Islam is one tent. Spokesmen (emphasis on the second syllable) argue for tolerance only where Muslims are a voting minority. Polities with Muslim majorities may be ethnically diverse in some cases; but religious, sexual, or political diversity is rare. ‘Islamic republics’ are oxymorons where trivia like dress might be enforced with corporal punishment. Alas, a global Islamist movement, and its continuing barbarisms, metastasizes with the support of delusional western rhetoric born of asserted conclusions – and fear.

The most troubling assumption is religious moral equivalency; the conjecture that any religious belief or practice, and associated politics, deserves the same respect and protection as faiths which have, evolved with, and been enlightened by secular democracy. Apologists in the West refuse to consider unreformed Islam as the threat. Nonetheless, Islamic clerics, scholars and politicians are in fact at war with reason, science, and secular democracies.

In this, the aforementioned axis of appeasement and the Fukuyama world view may be cut from the same cloth. This is not to suggest that the appeasers are without critics. Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Paul Berman, and even the late Christopher Hitchens, are all informed and articulate skeptics who have provided candid assessments of Islamic theology and subordinate Muslim politics; now another variant of fascism dressed in a burka of religion.

Nonetheless, research on all things Islamic, with few exceptions, fails to consider religion as the nexus of all those Muslim wars. Indeed, clerical literalists are dismissed as radical or small minorities. However; the literal, (as in scriptural), and emotional, (as in survey), evidence of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, and anti western sentiment in Arab and Muslim communities is overwhelming. The Islamic mimber and cowering Muslim politicians are the problems. And the issue is not simply Jewish reputation among the dysfunctional majority at the UN. The strategic threat is survival – the specter of a 21st century Holocaust.

Elie Kedourie (1926-1992) laid a foundation challenging the conventional wisdom about Muslim “victims.” He more than any other scholar, warned about the pernicious effects of half-baked academic political theories, especially those applied to the Levant and Arabia, as a basis for policy. It is instructive on this point to note that the term “developing world” has replaced the phrase “third world” in the political science lexicon;” surely, like “Arab Spring,” another early euphemistic triumph of hope over experience.

Unfortunately, pragmatic (and mostly traditional) voices are often smothered with name calling, and neologisms like “islamophobia,” instead of reasonable discourse. Language often needs to be reinvented to accommodate quislings. Colonial guilt, self-loathing, and political correctness are, however, merely symptoms of a much larger problem.

The great cipher of the early 21st Century is the growing indifference or unwillingness of “scientists” in the West to defend the traditions and ethos that make reasonable discourse and modern science possible. Richard Rubenstein calls the phenomenon in Europe a surrender of cultural identity.

In another day, Kedourie took Arnold Toynbee and others to task for academic hubris, but the few critics of early political “correctness,” and other advocacy idioms, did little to alter a consciousness of who or what is responsible for the perennial pathology that plagues Muslim countries. If the West absorbs Muslim culture; Islamic values become crimes not virtues – immigration then becomes a kind of blowback imperialism. The major achievement of modern Islamism is that it has undone, for honest observers, the myths of religious and political moral equivalence. Suicide terror, religious war, and resurgent theocracy represent a trifecta of evidence that should speak for itself.


Possibly, the intersection of government sponsored study and policy has never been a crossroad for truth. In today’s analysis, facts seem to have two faces; truth and ignorance. Evidence might be used to establish the truth of a matter, but facts are just as likely to be manipulated or ignored; indeed, used to spread polite, yet false, narratives. Systematic cherry picking of evidence to support a prioi judgments is now a cottage industry among the social, environmental, and political sciences.


We use RAND Corporation in this discussion because that institution is representative of the think tank phenomenon; the outsourcing of national security analysis, policy, and responsibility. RAND was there at the beginning and continues to be a prominent player. It seems politicians and generals seldom think for themselves anymore. Outsourcing allows the elite to take bows for policy achievements while providing a convenient scapegoat for any failures.

To be fair, RAND’s strong suit, historically, was always technical. Santa Monica made substantial contributions to space, gaming, systems analysis, and communications technology. Unfortunately, that’s history. The great dilemmas of contemporary national security are moral, not technical.

Today’s challenges are not ‘why’ or ‘how.’ “Should” is the tougher nut. Here RAND and its many brethren have failed. Failures like the mislabeling of terror tactics, regime change characterization, factual cherry-picking, and the minimization of global jihadism are all symptoms of moral malpractice. Most analysis of Muslim terror, theology, and links to political dysfunction suffers from want of candor.

Such practices are now classified as a separate “science:” Agnotology – the cultural production of ignorance. Necrosis of objectivity is compounded by virulent strains of Islamism; not simply threats to democracy and freedom, but more significant as threats to a culture tolerance, logic, and reason.

Surely, any view of reality is a compromise between ideals and experience. Total objectivity is impossible. Unfortunately, politically correct national security analysis now corrupts scientific method on the one hand and underwrites a plague of distortion on the other.

Threat is a function of two things; capability and intentions. The dominant clerical factions of Islam, Shia and Sunni, have been crystal clear on intentions. And their military capabilities improve daily. A Sunni nuclear capability already exists, and the Shia bomb is waiting in the wings. Such facts do not require much study; unless the purpose is to dismiss the evidence.

Citizens expect politicians to hedge their bets. Similar evasions are fatal for science, research, and analysis. RAND was originally an acronym which stood for research and development. The RAND Corporation never did much “development” and now their “research” might be more political than correct.

The Intelligence Community may have already been compromised; and now think tanks seem to know more about making money than they do about making sense. We should expect nothing but cold candor from official Intelligence sources and “independent” national security analysis – or stop wasting borrowed money on both.

Time may show that RAND and Fukuyama are half right. The collapse of Communism, now followed by the rebirth of religious fascism, is the end of something –the end of reason maybe, but surely not the end of history as we know it. The liberal ideal is anything but triumphant. The Twin towers, Benghazi, and now Boston are reminders; not lethal enough yet to be wake-up calls, but we might do well to think of terror as down payments on the next big bang.


A condensed version of this essay appeared in the spring (2013) issue of Otechestvennye Zapiski: the Journal of Russian Thought.


Political Revolt and Religious Reform

May 8, 2011

“Revolution is a transfer of power; reform is the correction of abuses.”  Lytton


Scholars and politicians are still trying to make a case for Muslim “democracy” in the wake of an ongoing viral Arab revolution.  These arguments, as they have since the beginning, are underwritten by two grand assumptions; a “moderate” Islamic present and an enlightened Muslim future. If asserted conclusions and wishful thinking were evidence, such speculations might be supportable.

The predicate of “moderation” imagines an Islam that is ecumenical and tolerant; in short, a culture of persuasion, not an imperial political ideology. Such assumptions tend to ignore the realities of global militants, jihad financiers, and aggressive proselytizers.

Fearful politicians and an uncurious Press reserve most of their anguish for relatively minor and geographically remote groups of Muslim radicals such as Arab al Qaeda and the South Asian Taliban. The Pyrrhic victory laps associated with the recent summary execution of Osama bin Laden are symptomatic. Concurrently, the larger international Islamist movement grows apace, largely unexamined and unchecked.

Global terror attacks now number over 50 thousand incidents per annum; and most anti-secular insurgencies worldwide, while nearly exclusively Islamic, are dismissed as unrelated or isolated events with local motives. Islamic terrorist organizations now number in the dozens and more than a few operate globally. Petrodollar financing of mosques, religious schools, and religious cultural centers also operates beneath the radar of international concern. Religious proselytizing organizations such as Hizb al-Ikwan al-Muslimum (Muslim Brotherhood), Hizb ut Tahir (Party of Liberation), and the Tabilighi Jamaat (Society for Faith Propagation) now have a gross membership in the hundreds of millions.

PEW surveys of Arab attitudes towards jihad, terror, Jews, and religious law reveal significant support for the Islamist agenda. In some countries those sentiments exceed fifty percent of the population. The most facile defense of irredentist Arab attitudes are the blanket claims, like those made by White House advisors, that negative sentiments are  “unislamic” or  fringe phenomena, not representative of  true Islam or genuine Arab opinion. Islamic leaders seldom make such fatuous claims about “moderation,” yet factual terror statistics and factual opinion surveys seem to have little impact on non-Islamic apologists.

More than a few militant groups, work several facets of the jihad imperative; violence and good works. Hamas and Hezb’allah (Party of God) are two prominent examples – bloody sedition masked under a burka of community service.

Nonetheless, the largely unwarranted assumptions about Muslim moderation are not near as troubling as forecasts or wishful thinking about Muslim “democracy.”

It is religious reform and tolerance, not political revolution that makes democracy and republicanism possible. Islam does not recognize a distinction between church and state. Indeed, contemporary Islamic clerics and scholars hold that religious/secular distinctions create a “hideous schizophrenia” in the West – the source of all European and American degeneracy. Such dogma offers few prospects for renewal, internal or external to dar al Islam.

Developed societies do not find the sacred and profane mutually exclusive. For too many Muslims, such enlightened tolerance is neither a virtue nor a likely future.

 The Christian Experience

 The keystone for secular/religious harmony is the admonition to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” found in the synoptic gospels (Mathew 22:21). Indeed, the early Christian tradition followed a polytheistic Roman model which, short of political revolt, was very tolerant – and at one time, republican. Indeed, the man Christians knew as Saint Paul was in fact, unlike Christ, a literate rabbi and a Roman Citizen. He lived in three worlds and thrived.

Up to the time of Constantine, few people made a distinction between Jews and Christians. A Christian was a kind of reform Jew.  Early Christian theologians, and later Enlightenment philosophers, were admirers of Greek and Roman secular notions of democracy and republicanism: Albertus, Augustine, Aquinas, and (especially) Erasmus were prominent.

The seeds of civilization were first embalmed in sectarian amber with Constantine’s Edict of Milan (313 AD); a proclamation whose net effect made Christianity the state religion of a fadingRoman Empire.Constantine, weary of internecine wars in Europe moved the Roman capital to the Bosporus where classical civility awaited its fate at the hands of the Ottomans.

The end of the Roman Byzantine epoch was forecast in 1054 AD when the western and eastern rites of the Christian church excommunicated each other – a divide which persists today.  By 1453 AD, the lights of Constantinople were dimmed by Mehmed II after a siege that lasted less than 60 days.

If Constantine had the gift of prophesy and could have foreseen the tyranny of Holy Roman Emperors and corrupt Catholic Popes, he might then have given polytheism, and the entire Greek and Latin pantheon, a second look.  Monotheism was a hop, skip, and jump from religious monoculture, a straitjacket that was not undone inEurope for a thousand years.

Rome and Constantinople did not perish from a single cause. Indeed, the decline of both was slow enough that Western Europedidn’t rouse itself from the dogmatic stupor of the Dark and Middle Ages until it was too late. The last vestiges of Classical Rome, and many Greek antecedents, were devoured by monotheistic cannibals; Christianity on the north and west and Islam to the east and south. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment barely saved Europeand Christianity from themselves.

Much of the problem with historical religious tyranny is the assumed superiority of monotheism and the infallibility of associated clerics or “prophets.” Orthodox or fundamentalist monocultures are invariably authoritarian and characteristically intolerant. In the modern Arab world, autocratic secularism and religious exclusion often share the same pulpit.

Diversity and pluralism are celebrated as secular virtues, yet somehow these values don’t travel well with doctrinaire monotheists. True cultural diversity would include religious practices, not just racial demographics. Ecumenicism, another value attributed to Islam, is also a one-way street as any non-Muslim pilgrim to Tehran,Riyadh, orMeccawould discover.

A thousand years after the fall of Rome, but mere decades after the fall of Constantinople, the Christian Reformation challenged both an absolute Church and a host of absolute monarchies. Here, many of the key Enlightenment players were clerics. Luther and Erasmus were seminal; two monks ordained into the same Augustinian order. It was Erasmus who most notably disputed Fra Luther’s determinism and argued to retain key Catholic ideas of choice and free will.

The American Experience

The ink had hardly dried on Luther and Calvin’s absolutism, notions of predestination and fatalism, when a thousand apostates bloomed. Many Christian free thinkers fled from the intolerance and religious wars of Europe to the relative freedom of the British and French colonies in America. Once there, the Protestant varieties of Christianity continued to multiply, many of them restoring Catholic values that Luther had rejected. Prominent among these were free will, redemption, clergy, and good works.

It was left to Americans to fire the forge of democratic ecumenicism; a furnace where freedom, republicanism, and the best common law traditions of Judaism and Christianity would be alloyed.

Most of the European Enlightenment gloss that was to grace the boilerplate (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights) of the American experiment would have been unknown to most citizens of the original colonies. Indeed, the various state assemblies and elected representatives were created a century before the 1776 war against England. The Virginia House of Burgesses first sat in 1619. A “burgess” was a free man.

The 13 American republics were as much a product of secular neglect as religious reform. England cared little about colonial governance as long as imperial commerce and revenues were assured.  Indeed, the Church of England had little influence before the Revolution and less after. And the early democratic pretensions of the states were limited; the voting franchise was restricted to property owning, white males.

Nonetheless, the early American republics were unique in two respects. The choice of government, if not governors, was a bottom-up phenomenon. And religious tolerance was not so much a choice, as a necessity. The young American democracy developed in tandem with two religious “awakenings,” in fact an American religious reformation which produced a diversity of Christian sects inAmerica that Luther and Calvin could never have imagined. The spires of Christianity and Mogen Davids of Judaism, the American religious mosaic, are still visible today in every town from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The story of how the “Awakenings” changed Puritan thinking was best told by Nathanial Hawthorne in the fictional Scarlet Letter.

Hester Prynne is not simply the story of a fallen angel redeemed. The back story is even more fascinating. Hawthorne was writing in midst of the Yankee critique of Luther and Calvin. In the process of trying to reform Catholicism, Puritan zealots had rejected beliefs in free will, penance, and good works. Hawthorne, a writer with Puritan roots, and his fictional adulterers, helped to restore these core values to American variants of Christianity. In the end, Hester’s scarlet letter becomes: a red badge of courage, an affront to clerical hypocrisy, a symbol of personal responsibility for moral choices, and ultimately, an icon of good works; the path to redemption – in this world, if not the next:

“…the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril.”

Europe took its “democratic” cues fromAmericafrom that point forward.  Historians seldom note that the US Constitution never mentions democracy. Republican founding fathers had little faith in the wisdom of crowds.

Subsequent, political and commercial success in Europe and America was made possible, not by the decline of religion, but by the rise of reform; republican reforms that released the constructive energies of true political and spiritual diversity.

The Civil War was America’s great secular renovation; it was made possible by diverse religious campaigners that insisted on social justice. The abolitionist movement,Lincoln’s Republican Party, and the Underground Railroad began, and were sustained, by the conscience of congregants.

Europe might well take credit for social “democrats” as these were linear descendants of Luther, Calvin, Marx, and Lenin. Ecumenical Judeo/Christian republicanism, however, was a product of the American experiment, and the wellspring of Yankee exceptionalism.

How the French went wrong, just a few short years after the American Revolution, is another story. The Richelieu precedent and religious homogeneity probably didn’t help – or possibly Voltaire died too soon and Robespierre lived too long. The French Catholic monopoly survived in any case. To the south, in Spain, a stifling secular/religious oligarchy prevailed through a bloody Spanish Civil War and well into the 20th Century.

The Russian Revolution of the early 20th Century was in many ways similar to the French. The Slavic upheaval began with all the usual cant about freedom and democracy, but the face of reality soon became terror and totalitarianism. The great error of Marx and Lenin was to make an enemy of the Church, instead of cultivating and harnessing the energy of congregants, Communists created a massive spiritual fifth column in Eastern Europe. With that, the “revolution without guns” of the late 20th Century became, as George Keenan forecast, inevitable. Ultimately, the old believers ofEurope swept the secular atheists of Marxism into “the dustbin of history.” Today, the Russian prime minister wears a crucifix.

Religious contributions to American and European success were not limited to Christians. Jewish gifts to the development of democracies were substantial.

The Jewish Experience

The conflict between theocratic Jews and secular Romans reached a boiling point in the First Century (66 AD), a tipping point during the Second Revolt (132 AD). For most Jews, the Diaspora was an opportunity to turn lemons into sorbet. They did this by adapting themselves to 19 centuries of secularism in exile while retaining local diversity of religious traditions. In spite of, or because of, depredations, Jews made exceptional artistic and scientific contributions to a world of nation states. They “rendered unto Caesar” on a global scale while preserving a unique and, at the same time, a value-added culture. The keys to Jewish success were acceptance, however pragmatic, of secular authority in public affairs – complemented by traditional tolerance of spirituality.

Like the American experience, necessity was the mother of Jewish invention; tactical assimilation served a larger strategic goal of cultural survival. The Jewish Diaspora is the gold standard example of symbiotic secular and religious values in a successful society. Tension between the sacred and the profane is both necessary and sufficient for survival and progress. All success is a product of perseverance, competition, and struggle. Conflict is good – and inevitable. Utopian religious or secular monoculture is not just impractical; it is also impossible.

The great danger of Islamism is not that it might succeed, but the damage it does before it fails.Israelis likely to be the first casualty.

Today, we again hear national politicians and prominent Muslim clerics, reviving a primitive bigotry, as they talk of “wiping Jews off the face of the earth.” What are we to think – that such declarations are signs of moderation? No rational world can fail to recognize the historic and global contributions of Jews, the symbolic significance of Israel, and the categorical imperative (to borrow a thought from Emanuel Kant) to defend them both.

The Islamic Experience

Too much of Islam has never evolved or repaired the depredations of orthodoxy. Utopian monocultures, religious or secular, are impossible in this world – and possibly the next. Short of radical reform, Islamism is doomed to ruinous failure.

The sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity were written by many hands; insuring degrees of observance and a rich diversity of interpretations. The holy texts of Islam come from a solitary source – or at least that’s the claim.  The genius of Talmudic and New Testament commentary is the daily effort to make them relevant to a developed world. Republican democracy is impossible without such religious pluralism and complementary political diversity.

There are too many examples of sovereign religious and political absolutism in the Arab League, so it is instructive to look elsewhere; examine a nation likeTurkey, a NATO member; and every apologist’s favorite Muslim “moderate.”

Turkey is an instructive example of contemporary Islamic backsliding and intolerance. Put aside for a moment the ethnic cleansing of apostate Kurds and infidel Christian Armenians. Put aside also associated genocide denials. Consider instead the erosion of Kamalist secular values and the systematic intimidation of the military since the Islamists came to power in 2002; a military long thought to be the guardian of secular values is now cowed by clerics. Consider also the fate of the Eastern Rite Christian church in Anatolia. The Erdogan government has closed the last Christian Orthodox seminary inIstanbul by fiat; virtually guaranteeing that one of the oldest congregations in Christendom, without clergy, will be suffocated in a generation.

Mehmed II showed more mercy to the Christians of Constantinople in 1453. And the Church of Rome shows as much concern for their Christian brothers in Turkeytoday as they did in the 15th century. Then as now, Europe may be, as Oriana Fallaci claimed on her death bed, its own worst enemy. Admitting modern Turkey to the European Union makes about as much sense as making Somalia the 51st American state.

Tayyip Recep Erdogan is not just the prime minister; he is also head of Turkey’s largest religious party, a party which garners well over three fourths of the national vote. And Erdogan is Islamism’s most eloquent spokesman on the subject of moderation. The prime minister claims that the adjective “moderate” before the noun “Muslim” is an insult:

“These descriptions are very ugly; it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”

The Turkish prime minister does not abide the notion of moderation, how arrogant is it for Western journalists, politicians, and academics to insist on perpetuating this myth?

If theocratic monoculture is the price of racial pluralism, then claims about Islamic diversity are a social fraud. And if European and American commercial imperialism was a crime against Muslim history, surely Islamic religious imperialism is a crime against the future. Freedom and democracy have always been impossible without religious reform.


The world is both enriched and bedeviled by spirituality. Religion is a basis for ethics in classical education and an ancient curb-level contributor to common law. Too frequently, Western scholars and politicians are uncomfortable with religion; unable to recognize its potency and unwilling to condemn its excess.

The European and American Enlightenment is a telling example. Academics wax eloquently about the political and scientific contributions of John Locke, Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, but few are inclined to value the spiritual reforms of Disiderius Erasmus, Roger Williams, Jonathan Edwards, John Carroll, or Abraham Geiger.

History is usually written by self-proclaimed agnostics, timid academics with little sympathy for spiritual grass roots, or the people who actually make history. At the same time the academy will defend the moral equivalence of political Islam in the name of ecumenicism; literally defend intolerance in the name of tolerance. The complicity of Islamist right and the secular left is one of the great ciphers of the new century.

For good or ill, political scientists are often too eager to ingratiate themselves to an “ism” or a political fad. The politically correct view of Islam today, now mandated apparently from10 Downing Street and the White House, is that militant Islam and national security threats are mutually exclusive. The belief that democracy will follow Arab revolts appears to be, like Islamophobia, another neologism.

White House papers insist that the language of national security analysis be altered so that no link between religion and threat can be established or implied. Somehow the religious incantations and the bombs of suicide assassins are unrelated; and now Muslim revolution is inextricably linked to democracy? Such scenarios divorce evidence from reason. Monolithic religion, like totalitarian politics, has always been a threat to civility and human progress. There is little evidence to suggest that contemporary Islamic imperialism is any different.

The “awakenings’ of American history were religious reforms. The carnage in the Arab world is a lot of things, but religious reform is not one of them. Indeed, the images from Arab television (chanting mobs of burkas, green banners of jihad, and contorted faces of clerics like al Yusuf al Qaradawi); reveal an Arabia that is not so much awakening as sleep walking back through history.

Revolts may change regimes, but only reform will correct historical error.


The author attended Catholic schools in the Bronx and New Rochelle, New York. This essay appeared in the 7 May 11 edition of Global Politician.


Vinegar Joe and the Village People

November 2, 2010

“The fear of war is worse than war itself.” – Seneca

Saving Islam from Itself

Sometimes the past provides instructive precedent. Yet just as often, history is meaningless for those who choose not learn from it. Several generations ago, soldiers saw a necessary relationship between war and winning.  Today’s brass seems to have foresworn goals like victory for more ambiguous objectives like “stability.” Joe Stillwell must be rolling in his grave.

Stillwell was an iconic, albeit unsung, hero of WWII. At the start of the war, among his peers, he was thought to be one of the best and most demanding troop commanders on active duty. His soldiers called him “Vinegar Joe.” Between wars, Stillwell had several tours as military attaché in China, acquiring a fluency in Mandarin. George Marshall assigned Stillwell to the China/Burma Theater.

Stillwell’s jungle campaigns were overshadowed, then as now, by  Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur, and ultimately by an Air Corps B-29 over Hiroshima carrying a single bomb called Little Boy. The great achievement of Stillwell and his air commander, Claire Chennault (of the Flying Tigers), was that they tied down the core of the Japanese Imperial Army in China while Nimitz and MacArthur spilled guts and garnered glory in their Pacific island hopping campaigns.

Stillwell did not suffer fools gladly. He and George Marshall got along well enough, but he made no secret of his disdain for British and Chinese “allies;” the timidity of Lord Louis Mountbatten and the posturing of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Vinegar Joe’s acerbic personality didn’t help much either. In the end, Roosevelt fired Stillwell at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek in the closing days of 1944. Six months later, the war was over. A little more than a year after that, Stillwell died quietly in bed at the Presidio from cancer.

Surely, the Second World War produced more flamboyant generals, like McArthur and Patton, but Stillwell set a standard for competence and modesty.

Surviving photos of Joseph Stillwell (right) reveal a man who looked more like an aesthetic than a warrior; thin as a rail, balding, and bespectacled. Even his dress uniform was austere, just US lapel insignia and stars on his shoulders. Stillwell knew that real leaders had no need to wear a resume on their chests. “Fruit salad” and vinegar were a poor mix.

If Joe Stillwell’s ghost walked into a Joint Chiefs meeting today at the Pentagon, it would be a little like watching Leonidas meeting the Village People. And to be honest, most of the colors are awarded for attendance, not achievement. It’s always easier to give soldiers a ribbon than it is to give them a promotion or raise.

And this emphasis on appearances is not without penalty. Recall the sad tale of Admiral Boorda, the late Chief of US Naval Operations, who committed suicide after it was discovered that he had awarded himself a Vietnam combat ribbon that he had not earned.

The hazards of emphasizing form over substance are not limited to personal humiliations. Looking good seems to be the new being good; a heretofore merit based military culture is absorbing an ethic of political correctness at the expense of victory. This new military idiom has very significant tactical and strategic implications. Admiral Mike Mullen, at the Pentagon, and General Dave Patraeus, in Afghanistan, provide examples.

Mullen is in danger of becoming the JCS Chairman best remembered for adopting the gay “rights” tar baby. The administration is hostage to a campaign promise and wants some high profile uniformed officer to win over Mullen’s four star peers. So far it’s tough sledding.

Clearly the White House and Congress are playing “kick the can” with the gay issue. Mullen and the Chiefs should be smart enough to punt the problem back where it belongs. The Pentagon has more important things to do in wartime. If the Congress wants to advance the ball, they might pass a law to retract “don’t ask/don’t tell” and surely the brass will salute smartly. Indeed, the President himself has recommended such an approach.

If gay issue is a tactical distraction, the political correctness of General Dave Petraeus has strategic implications. The Patraeus political digressions make former ISAF commander General Stan McChrystal’s loose talk look like prophesy. The difference between these two flag officers is candor; McChrystal had it and Patraeus does not.

The latter has become a megaphone for several politically correct misrepresentations; blaming Israel, Afghan withdrawal ambiguity, and suggestions that terror groups, including the Taliban, might be appeased – in the interest of “stability” or political solutions.

The blame Israel canard was on full display when Patraeus, as CENTCOM commander, dispatched a team of staffers to several Arab countries in order to take the pulse of the Arab street. The team returned and prepared a briefing that suggested America could or should make a deal with terrorists on Israel’s borders: Hezbollah, Fattah, and Hamas. Never mind that none of these Arab groups can manage to partner with each other, least of all Israel.  Now Patraeus has apparently carried the appeasement paradigm to South Asia where talk of making deals with the Taliban is rampant.

The Petraeus argument has three facets; victory is impossible, all possible solutions are political, and the key to political stability is a radical change to the long-standing policy of American/Israeli solidarity. A sordid axiom of the Petraeus worldview links Israeli intransigence to American casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The attempt to link Israeli domestic policy to NATO casualties worldwide was later repeated by Vice President Joe Biden on his trip to the Mid-East. The military and political logic here comes perilously close to a classic anti-Semitic argument.

The CENTCOM analysis and its derivatives are fatally flawed on several counts. Legitimate pollsters audit Arab sentiments on a regular basis; anti-Jewish sentiment consistently registers in the upper 90th percentile. And scholars who have audited historical paranoia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in Arabia and the larger Muslim world agree that these phenomena pre-date the state of Israel by millennia.

Any connection between American foreign or Israeli domestic policies and future casualties in Iraq or South Asia is unsupportable too.  General Petraeus should know that there are no military operations analyses which measure events which might or do not happen.  Indeed, if a thread links Islamist terror worldwide, it is anti-Semitism, not opposition to Israeli policies. The Mumbai attack which struck a Jewish center in India is illustrative. Pakistani jihadists were instructed that “the lives of Jews (not Israelis) were worth 50 times those of non-Jews.”

There is no evidence that any kind of Israeli/Palestinian settlement would have any impact on Islamism worldwide. The historical evidence suggests just the opposite. Since the end of the Vietnam War, US forces have intervened on behalf of Muslims on a dozen occasions.  There are few if any indications that such human and material largesse altered radical opinions, terror tempos, or the intensity of the propaganda jihad.

The Patraeus/Biden analysis fails to consider unintended consequences; the abundant evidence that appeasement will be seen as weakness or a lack of resolve. Islamists define victory as the elimination of Israel and the submission of the West. Beyond appeasement, General Petraeus’ objectives reflect no such clarity.

The crux of the modern flag officer dilemma is modesty – or lack of it. The tendency of senior officers to regale themselves like refugees from the HMS Pinafore is merely an image problem; the treacherous waters of politics and political correctness are far more troublesome. No serving military officer should be asked, nor should they accept, any mission which asks them to campaign in domestic culture wars. No flag officers should be asked to fight for, or front for, changes in foreign policy. And no soldier should believe that ambiguous delusions like “stability” are a substitute for victory.

The military is the blunt instrument of policy; it is not a test bed, nor is it a policy think tank. Surely, military officers should provide discrete and confidential advice, but this should not be confused with consent. The Joint Chiefs and their subordinates execute national policy; they do not make it or approve it.

Joe Stillwell had more than his share of disagreements with his peers and President Roosevelt. He didn’t like his assignment and his theater allies were less than helpful. Nonetheless, Stillwell held the Japanese by the nose while others kicked their azimuth.  He never lost sight of his duty as a soldier; making the most of what he had and winning by inches.

To this end, Vinegar Joe’s heirs might consider two suggestions. For appearances sake, the wearing of decorations, save the highest medal, purple hearts, and most the recent campaign ribbon should be optional. Real warriors don’t need chest hair or fruit salad.

And in the interests of strategic clarity, General Patraeus should understand that the struggle with Islamism is not binary; i.e. military or political. The Islamic threat, like a pentagon, has five facets; ideology, religion, culture, politics, and violent jihad.

Any general who no longer believes in winning or victory in any of these venues ought to keep that sentiment to himself – or find another line of work. On his worst day in the jungles of Burma, Vinegar Joe would have never told his troops; “We are not here to win”.

We seem to have bought into the Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” analogy, the notion that, if we break anything in the Islamic world, we own it. Ironically, it was Powell’s disingenuous presentation to the United Nations which justified the second Iraq war and subsequent occupation. The difference between the strategy of George Bush senior and his son is this question of occupation or presence on Muslim soil after, or if, the shooting subsides. For the moment, the Obama administration and General Patraeus seem to have accepted the occupation paradigm. It’s hard to believe that any politician will bring the “nation building” definition of victory into another presidential election cycle.

So the question remains. Assuming we are at war with Islam or Islamists, or both; what does victory look like? Victory may look a lot like disengagement or, better still, redeployment and a reprioritization of targets within the Islamist threat matrix.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a threat to strategic energy sources. That threat has been neutralized. Afghanistan is a threat to itself and possibly will continue to be one of many terror sanctuaries. All the while, the threat to Israel and the Levant is obscured by the smoke from these small wars. Unfortunately, the Islamist threat in the Middle East is existential; Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast, are merely troublesome.

Yet, by accident or design, NATO is now stuck in the muck of Islamic nation building and there’s very little evidence that the alliance is capable or inclined to cope with another contingency – such as a perfect storm over Israel. That storm is forecast by a convergence of interests: Persian nuclear ambitions and the growing conventional capability of Arab non-state radicals encircling Israel.

Thus victory for NATO might look like Iraq and Afghanistan in the rear view mirror. Victory might even look like candor, an admission that the Islamist threat is not limited to South Asia or bin Laden and al Qaeda.

When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia funded half the clandestine war against the Communists. Now that the threat comes from co-religionists, the Saudis have another standard.

Victory might also look like reassignment of responsibility; i.e. re-gifting the expense and manpower for the war on terror, counter-insurgency, and nation building to the Arab League. Only Muslims can save Islam from itself.

The goals of fanatics have been crystal clear for 50 years. They seek to circumscribe the influence of reason, freedom, and democracy in the West. Indeed, the Islamist definition of victory is captured in a word: submission. Fanatics also seek to eradicate the state of Israel. Our goals should have similar clarity. We might put the Muslim world on notice, Arabs and Persians in particular: Europe and America will defeat any threat to democratic institutions including Israel – no matter the cost.


This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of the New English Review. The author  also writes at Agnotology in Journalism.

Signals and Noise in Intelligence

August 30, 2010

“Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell

Media pundits have reduced the complex problems of tactical and strategic Intelligence to a kind of running joke. Failure to “connect the dots” is the common taunt. Such mindless euphemisms, when applied to national security analysis, reduce the signal/noise dilemma to a child’s game. As a practical matter, conveying the correct signal to the correct receiver is the most difficult challenge in art, science, and especially, government. A signal is not singular. Indeed, signals are irrelevant without receivers. In similar veins; speakers require listeners, writers require readers, warnings require recognition, and analysis requires acceptance.

Many of the impediments to signals are internal to the Intelligence Community: this includes time honored vehicles like briefings and reports and less obvious barriers like structure, size, and politics. Intelligence collection and targeting systems operate efficiently today in real time. The strategic analysis process, however, does not provide a comparable return on investment.


Rhetorical skills, in a briefing for example, might not convince any listener. The best facts, logic, and analysis often fall on deaf ears. Titans of industry and government are people with strong convictions. They know what they believe; and they believe what they know got them to where they are. There are no objective listeners any more than there are objective speakers. We all filter what we say and hear through the sieve of what we think we know. And too many of us think we know more than we do.

Truth is what we believe; unfortunately, what we believe is not necessarily true. Strongly held beliefs will always trump facts, logic, and analysis. Any speaker who seeks to change a paradigm needs to know what his audience already believes.

Testing some policymaker’s suite of beliefs, especially in any public way, is hazardous duty. Messengers get shot for less on a regular basis.  Speaking truth to power is dangerous; and those who raise too many problems often become the problem. Inertia is often the most persuasive argument in the room.

Briefings slides are both inevitable and ubiquitous. This modern petroglyph is where the figurative dots are literally connected. The power point presentation (PPT) has become part of the national security culture, although it’s not clear that these tools have improved communications. Even the junior officers who prepare briefing slides, aka power point rangers, are skeptical. “Hypnotizing chickens” is a common euphemism for PPT sessions.


All of what might be said about the spoken signal is also true about the written word – and worse still. At first glance, a document might seem more concrete and credible than a briefing. This is an illusion.

With a briefing, there is at least a specific audience for the message; the written word provides no such assurances. All you can ever say about the written word is who received it, not who read it. The fact that any document was delivered to ‘such and such’ a policymaker’s office is often meaningless. Titans are buried in paper and electronic mail every day. There are few, if any, feedback mechanisms that allow us to know who read, understood, or might have agreed with a written report. Even legislators seldom read the laws to which they contribute and for which they vote.

An ‘after action’ report might be an exception, though not necessarily a good one. With these, the signal is clearly separated from the noise. Here specific actions are recommended to specific policymakers; and some up or down judgment usually follows – usually after the damage has been done. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) is an example.

Yet the clarity of post facto deliberations is often undermined by hasty judgments, added complexity, and more ambient noise. The Homeland Security Act (2002) and the Intelligence Reform and Prevention of Terrorism Act (2004) are examples.  The net result of these well intended fixes was the creation of three new stovepipes; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). How more layers in a 16 agency Intelligence Community (IC) reduce the signal to noise ratio remains a cipher to most observers. And burying the most economical military service, the Coast Guard, under a non-military bureaucracy (DHS) beggars any notions of operational prudence – offensive or defensive.

Special commissions and ad hoc committees may be inevitable and their recommendations may be significant. Unfortunately, their deliberations are not remotely connected to any known science.

When the diverse fail to converse, post facto commissions or study groups usually come to the same two conclusions; expand and reorganize. The ‘usual suspects’ seldom suggest that less might be more. Arguing for fewer boats is not the way sailors become admirals. Unfortunately, increasing size, complexity, and cost (or shuffling the deck chairs) does little to coordinate the uncoordinated or reduce the noise level in warning systems.


The nexus of Intelligence is warning. All other national security functions might be irrelevant if warning fails. The attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were catastrophic warning failures. Four targets were selected by al Qaeda and four targets were destroyed. The Islamist offense was as efficient as our defense was deficient. Warning signals get lost or unrecognized in the noise of everyday bureaucratic traffic. After action reports often isolate those lost signals, yet those same reports (aka ‘shots from the grave’) seldom make serious recommendations about eliminating the noise.

Roberta Wohlstetter’s  (1912-2007) military intelligence study, Pearl Harbor; Warning and Decision (1962), is required reading for most entry level Intelligence professionals, yet there is little evidence that her cautionary classic has had a lasting impact on Intelligence praxis. The proliferation of Intelligence agencies since Mrs. Wohlstetter’s day may have increased the ambient noise within the IC by orders of magnitude. If spending is a measure of complexity, the Intelligence budget has trebled in less than a decade. The IC now employs nearly a quarter million souls at a cost of 75 billion dollars per annum. The Director on National Intelligence (DNI) claims that ten thousand analysts are working the terror problem alone. Indeed, terrorism has become a cash cow for academics, think tanks, and government agencies.


Warning signals might be likened to tripwires, while formal analyses might be compared to the prepared defenses behind the wires. All the right signals might be detected, yet the message might still be undone by; existing analysis, the conventional wisdom, or expectations. Outdated analyses and estimates create ambient noises of their own and they often taint perceptions. Several recent studies suggest that “experts” too close to any subject often develop blind spots, an unwillingness or inability to see new or contradictory evidence. Believers do not suffer apostates gladly.

And with new analysis, bridging the gap between analysis and acceptance is a crucial step seldom taken. Few analysts make good salesmen; and managers of analytical processes are not inclined to rock the boat.

The space between analyst and process manager is often filled by “talking dogs.” The talking dog is usually an articulate soul who does justice to a suit or military uniform. A briefer may not have any relevant expertise, but they can usually be trusted to stay on message.

The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq might represent a case study of these phenomena. This assessment provided the ‘substance’ for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the UN (6 February 2003) in the run up to the second Iraq war. Unfortunately, like many bureaucratic products, this estimate was a “wet finger;” an estimate that catered to expectations, not facts or reasonable analysis. Such reports are common to all bureaucracies, yet they are much more consequential in the national security arena. The fruit of that 2002 poisoned tree is yet to ripen. How the IC treats the genuine nuclear threat next door in Iran is a story yet to be told.

Beyond the inherent difficulties of oral, written, or analytical mediums; the noise problem in the IC is also structural and political. Technological band aids, additional personnel, and bigger budgets are unlikely remedies for these man-made, self inflicted aliments.

Structural Noise

The structural problem, simply stated, is size; 16 agencies, 18 layers if the penultimates are counted. The “stovepipe” problem is compounded by internal layering within each agency and complicated by the various agency specific; information systems, clearance levels, and classification types.

A “secret” world will always be at odds with the free flow of information. In this respect, Intelligence reports and studies labor under a unique handicap. The gauntlet that signals and analysis must run in such a maze is formidable.

Part of the problem is historical; Intelligence is a complex of institutions built by events not design. DHS is the latest example of Lincoln Log engineering. Much of what flourishes year to year in the IC is redundant, superfluous, and dangerously opaque. Signals attempting to navigate obdurate bureaucracies encounter obstacles at every level; and the ambient noise is deafening.

These vertical structures often become institutional cultures for all manner of human foibles. Each layer inevitably creates its own gatekeepers and apparatchiks; ‘not on my watch,’ ‘not invented here,’ ‘not my job,’ and ‘not without our chop’ are just some of the examples of attitudinal barricades. Such culture infests every large bureaucracy and the IC is no exception.

No doubt every agency is born of good intentions, but over time the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. Tenure and survival too often become the dominant idioms of large enterprises, especially governmental departments. Intelligence has not defined the IC today so much as the IC has defined what passes for “intelligence.”

The modern enemy is nimble, mobile, decentralized, economical, lean, mean, and effective. For the moment, the national security community that seeks to track this quarry is none of these.

Political Noise

And all of what the IC does is colored by politics. To argue otherwise is dishonest or naïve. The question is not whether, but how much. It is no accident that every Intelligence agency falls under the Executive Branch. Intelligence is a traditional servant of policy.

In the wake of WW11, the father of modern national estimates, Sherman Kent (1903-1996), sought to sustain the integrity of analysis by keeping a discrete distance between policy and Intelligence. Situating CIA in the Virginia woods may have been part of that stratagem. Today there are few measures for how well the barrier between Intelligence and policy has been maintained.

We like to think that analyses or research is driven by scientific method; a rigorous consideration of facts, logic, and research – untainted by bias or subjectivity. Unfortunately, original research requires resources, special talents, and time. Policymakers, driven by events, rarely have the patience or time for rigor. As a consequence, most of what we call research or study, in or outside of government, is actually “derivative,” a polite euphemism for junk science. The “hot wash-up” is the rule, not the exception, in the worlds of Intelligence and politics.

And politics is the most persistent noise surrounding Intelligence analysis and reporting.  Clearly, policymakers have bigger fish to fry than Intelligence, but no policy is well served by flaccid or cautious analysis. Fear is a very loud ambient noise. The blizzard of euphemisms coming from the policy community today looks a lot like fear.

Euphemisms usually have two purposes; masking a painful truth or attempting to change the subject. Rhetorical contortions are commonly used to avoid naming two combat fronts a “war.” This distortion is compounded by efforts to separate these wars and the world-wide anti-terror campaign from Islam and Islamists.  Such mixed signals are sending cautionary ripples through the analytical community. Trying to speak or write about the struggle with Islamists without mentioning Islam or Muslims is a little like attempting to eradicate malaria by ignoring mosquitoes.

Obscuring the threat is not without opportunity costs. As the chief of USAF Intelligence put it, in an email, to an editor of WIRED Magazine on 9 December 2009:

“The number one cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan is the Taliban — not air power. Human Rights Watch has verified that the Taliban kills three to four times more civilians than ISAF air and ground forces combined. More often than not, these deaths are deliberate….It is curious that it appears there is more ink spent on casualties from air attacks than there is on the criminality and violation of the ethical tenets of ‘Islam’ (sic) that occurs daily as a result of Taliban actions.”

Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula’s concerns were underscored by a more formal, but equally candid, report from Afghanistan written by Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, chief of ISAF Intelligence, and published by The Center for a New American Security on 4 January 2010:

“Our senior leaders – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, Congress, the President of the United States – are not getting the right information to make decisions with … The media is driving the issues.  We need to build a process from the sensor all the way to the political decision makers.”

A casual reading of these two reports from senior Military Intelligence officers reveals two clear signals. Instead of defining the enemy; we are at risk of being defined by our opponents. The second signal is even more ominous; the Media, not good Intelligence, appears to be driving the policy process.

The differences between the generals in the field and the politicians became an open wound with the recent resignation of the ISAF commander in Afghanistan. What soldiers like Stanley McChrystal lack in tact is seldom redeemed by candor.

Nonetheless, these alarms are symptoms of a crisis of confidence, a growing sense among taxpayers that many very expensive public institutions simply do not work. The Intelligence Community is one of those institutions.

Great research is done in small batches; usually a small group of sharply focused world class experts. And great writing is usually done by a single hand; a hand unencumbered by layers of second guessers. Such requirements are seldom satisfied in the national estimative process. With Intelligence, peer review is too often confused with institutional consensus.

And even those ‘hot washups” will always be surrounded by some level of ambient noise. But, introduced uncertainty is another matter. No decision is well served by ambiguity or doubt. Policy pronouncements masked in a veil of euphemisms may placate real or imagined foes, but such uncertainty tends to confuse the home team


Vacuums of ignorance are often filled by beliefs; beliefs that might not be true. The purpose of Intelligence is to warn, define the threat, and challenge false paradigms. If policymakers prefer wishful thinking, Intelligence must persist to undo these illusions. Indeed, Intelligence must take the final step – bridge that gap between analysis and acceptance. Trivial euphemisms like “connect the dots” undermine both the difficulties and seriousness of the problem. Words matter.

Reason and religion are unique tests for contemporary warning and analysis. The rational actor models that served us so well during the Cold War no longer apply. The threat spectrum is now dominated by theocratic irredentism, a mix of fanaticism driven by an unreasonable quest for political, religious, and cultural monoculture. The spectrum of mayhem now runs from lone wolves to totalitarian theocratic states, from suicide bombers to nuclear weapons.

National security analysis does not just support the policy process; it also sets the tone for the entire Intelligence Community. A “gold standard” collection and targeting system will be impotent if the analytical side of the equation can’t produce a clear picture of the threat. The national estimative process might benefit from better people, fewer people, and more independence. Over-coordination and consensus are often the most pernicious kinds of ambient noise.

Once the threat has been defined, clarity from the policy community would also be a deficit neutral improvement to the noise problem in the Intelligence Community. Citizens and soldiers must know what and who they are fighting. If the war of ideas is lost in the ambient noise of political correctness or politics, shooting wars may not matter.


This essay appeared in the 27 Aug 10 edition of Small Wars Journal.