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.

Briefings

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.

Reports

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.

Warnings

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.

Analyses

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

Epilogue

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.

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


Turkey, a fourth front against Israel?

June 7, 2010

“By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation.” – Edmund Burke

Turkey has long been held up as an exemplar of a model Islamic state; secular, moderate, democratic, and collegial. Nonetheless, the inherent contradictions of an “Islamic republic” may be coming home to roost in Anatolia – putting the lie to secular, moderate, and collegial.

Ankara, a NATO “partner”, has been backsliding for some time now; indeed, ever since the Islamists achieved power in democratic elections. The so-called “freedom flotilla” which attempted to run the blockade to Gaza a few days ago is the latest symptom of the march backwards. The convoy, masquerading as humanitarian relief, originated in Turkey with a political cargo of 700 pro-Hamas activists – spoiling for confrontation. The agitators got the fight they were looking for, and predictably, Israel is now vilified for defending its borders against hard core Islamist Turks and a small mixed bag of “progressive” nitwits.

Lest there be any doubt about Turkey/Hamas nexus in this contrived confrontation at sea, it should be noted that the unrealized port of debarkation in Gaza was festooned with Turkish flags and a gargantuan portrait of Recep Tuyyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister. The Turkish sponsor of the Gaza flotilla is the IHH (Isani Yardim Vakfi), a radical Islamist organization registered In Istanbul with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood (al Ikhwan) and the Union of Good (Itilaf al-kahayr), a collective of Islamist funds which supports Hamas.

We might also note that Hamas itself is a militant step-child of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a network now operating in over 40 countries. The Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt where it has been responsible for countless assassination attempts and gratuitous acts of terror for nearly a century. Nonetheless, Hamas is held up as the people’s representative in Gaza. Never mind that the Hamas insurgency split the Palestinians into two irreconcilable factions. Yet, somehow Israel is supposed negotiate a two state solution with two groups of Arab fanatics, who can’t share the same tent, no less a country.

Caroline Glick’s 15 Oct piece in the Jerusalem Post ”How Turkey was Lost”, sounded an early alarm about the Turkish malignancy, a cautionary tale about confusing elections with democracy. She described Ankara’s back sliding since the election of Erdogan, head of the formerly outlawed Islamist AKP. Since Erdogan came to power in 2002, Turkey has given Hamas a reception usually reserved for heads of state, eliminated the visa requirements for Syrian travelers to Turkey, and now cancelled air exercises with Israel and begun joint military maneuvers with Syria. Glick seems to believe that the Turks have cast their lot with the Shiite Crescent. If what she suggests is true; we now have an Islamist fox in the NATO henhouse – and Turkey’s campaign for membership in the European Union has hit the hard rocks of reality.

The irony of elections in a country with a Muslim majority is that it often represents the camel’s nose under the tent; opening the door for religious opportunists to hold the one election that could be the last. On this score, Algeria evokes hot flashes of déjà vu. Islamists might be fanatics, but they’re not morons; they will use Western institutions to undo apostates and infidels. Such are the vicissitudes of democracy. And such is the dilemma also in Afghanistan; where the choice is between the corruptible Karzai and the incorruptible Taliban, Mullah Omar. Not too many good options in this neighborhood. If Omar ever ran in a UN supervised election; he might win in a landslide.

The big problem with Afghanistan, like Iraq before, is its potential for distraction. The only accomplishment of elections in Iraq was to reverse the sectarian poles – and assist Iraq in becoming the second Shiite nation in the Crescent, another potential ally for theocratic Tehran. Over time, American good intentions have managed to do to Iraq what the ayatollahs could not.

Land-locked Afghanistan is not an immediate, or should we say proximate, threat to America or Israel. Afghanistan has six neighbors; five of which are Muslim states, all with a vested interest in neutering the Taliban and al Qaeda.  As Bernard Lewis has reminded us so many times; Islamic fundamentalism is more of a threat to dar al Islam (the Muslim world) than it is to the West.

Elections in Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan could be meaningless. And another UN supervised circus proves nothing. Nation building might better be done by the natives. If we can’t influence electoral probity in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or the Emirates; why do we think we can do it in Kabul?   With Turkey now backsliding, the European Union pandering, and the White House apologizing; someone might ask why another American kid should die in any Muslim backwater to underwrite another election.  Indeed, the larger question should be: why does the West need to save Islam from itself?

The difference between the Bush and Obama brands of Islamic illusions are negligible. The Turkish slide to the theocratic side drops one of the last veils covering the “moderation” myth. Turkey, on a larger scale, is similar to Algeria; Islamists will use elections to come to power, but their objective is not pluralism, moderation, or any notion of democracy as we know it.

The exposure of Islamic irredentism in Turkey may be a blessing. Turkey was long thought to be a progressive influence in the Muslim world, a bulwark against the worst instincts of Islam. Indeed, Turkey was thought also to be a friend and ally of Israel. The Turkish attempt to break the Gaza blockade is a signal event; non-state Sunni actors in the terror campaign against Israel are giving way to Turk and Persian state sponsors. Ankara and Tehran may now take the lead in the jihad against Israel and the West.

Indeed, the Turkish flotilla fiasco opens a fourth front against Israel. Shiite and Sunni terror groups torment Israel from three directions on land; and now an unapologetic Muslim state sponsor agitates on the high seas. Arabs and Persians make common cause when it comes to Israel and now the Turks have joined the anti-Semitic axis on a sea-going front. These “freedom” flotillas have a lot more to do with intimidating Israel than they have to do with assisting Gaza.

The seismic signals from Turkey may provide some incentive for America and its allies to reexamine alliance membership and strategy – in the war “we are not having with Islam.” Ankara’s NATO participation was long thought to be a reward for modern democratic institutions. Now, other questions need to be answered; did we let a Muslim democracy into NATO or has the Western alliance been suborned by a theocratic 5th column? More importantly, if and when the Israeli navy meets another “freedom” flotilla off Gaza, this time with a Turkish naval escort; what’s the NATO battle plan?


Whistling in the Dark

May 22, 2010

“Courage is the resistance to fear, the mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

Dennis Blair’s commentary for the opinion pages of the Washington Post on 18 December is a world class contribution to the literature of denial. His assessment of American national security since 9/11 is notable only for what it ignores. The Director of National Intelligence uses the fifth anniversary of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act of 2004 to celebrate a 16 agency US Intelligence Community that is not lean, mean, agile, or effective.

Let’s deal with denial first. Mr. Blair wastes an opportunity by writing about Intelligence reform without once mentioning “Islamic” terrorists or two costly wars in progress in two “Muslim” theaters. Reading his assessment, you could be led to believe he can not or will not identify the threat or the enemy. It is as if the words Islam and Muslim had been stricken from the strategic vocabulary. In this he is not alone.

The President, speaking in Cairo and Istanbul, exhibited the same reticence. Reading the Cairo transcript one might conclude that the sources of genocidal Islamic rage are things like French dress codes. In a similar vein, the Secretary of State, more recently, in Berlin described bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the administration’s national security concerns. Mrs. Clinton’s false narrative seeks to narrow the threat to one man and one terror group. Clinton also repeats a chestnut often offered by her husband, former President Bill Clinton:

“And we do bear some of the responsibility, frankly, for helping to create (sic) the very terrorists that we’re now all threatened by.”

Mr. an Mrs. Clinton are fond of arguing that the United States, and Israel by implication, are at the heart of Islamist angst. Ironically, this is the same rationale that has been provided by ayatollahs, imans, and mullahs for the past half century.

A clear picture of the Obama national security doctrine is emerging as we sift the specifics from the President, from Secretary of State Clinton, and now from the Director of National Intelligence. For the moment, this doctrine appears to have three components; denial, threat minimization, and guilt. We should first believe that Muslims and Islamists do not share what they so obviously have in common; we should also accept bin Laden and al Qaeda as the only “core” issues; and, adding insult to injury, we must recognize that we Americans (and Jews) are two of the sources of Islamic jihad, terrorism, and the quest for kalifa.  Corollaries to this doctrine are provided by the policies for Iraq and Afghanistan; both of which could charitably be described as exit strategies with expiration dates.

This policy of denial, if not appeasement, should be a winner in Europe and at the United Nations, but it leaves a lot to be desired if the safety of America (or Israel) is a concern. Indeed, if the Sunni threat can be reduced to a bearded man and forty thieves in a cave somewhere in Pashtunistan, then surely the nuclear menace from Shiites and Iran is a kind of strategic chopped liver.

Mr. Blair’s holiday manifesto, after ignoring the Islamist menace, provides a definition of Intelligence strategy with a bizarre wish list of primary concerns:

“The new (US) National Intelligence Strategy provides the blueprint …  for effectiveness…  and a focus on cyber security, counterintelligence and … problems such as pandemic disease, climate events, failed states … scarce natural resources…(and) such issues as energy, trade, drug interdiction and public health… Continued commitment and investment in this reform are vital.”

Does cyber security include those unsecured downlinks from reconnaissance drones in Iraq and Afghanistan which are being hacked? Does counterintelligence effectiveness include that Muslim Army major who shot up Fort Hood? And what do disease, climate, natural resources, and public health have to do with an enemy that might make all those other concerns irrelevant. What Mr. Blair’s intelligence “strategy” seems to lack most is focus.

The Director of National Intelligence goes on to tell us:

“It has been famously argued that information is power and, therefore, should never be shared. The Sept. 11 attacks showed the fatal flaws in that logic. Our nation is becoming safer every day…..”

Who is it that says information shouldn’t be shared? And speaking of 9/11, how are we doing with bin Laden and Mullah Omar after a decade of looking? And who among us feels safer every day?

Those “stovepipes” which Mr. Blair celebrates are part of the problem also, not the solution. He fails to mention that the major element of the “reform” he celebrates was the addition of two new stovepipes; the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The 16 separate Intelligence agencies are still defended in the name of analytical diversity; yet when the diverse fail to converse, we are led to believe that “sharing” solves the problem.

Mr. Blair’s celebration of sharing didn’t anticipate the catastrophic failure to communicate a week later; precisely the flaw that allowed the “underwear” bomber, Mr. Abdulmutallab, to board a Detroit bound Northwest Airbus with nearly 300 souls on board on 25 December. Tragedy was averted by a few courageous passengers and crew, not an alert Intelligence Community.

Other than “sharing”, the key word in Mr. Blair’s 18 Dec argument may be “investment,” a shop worn euphemism for bigger is better. In this arena, Blair seems to be oblivious to the “tumescent threat” a bloom that sinks many an enterprise. Institutions may be the product of good ideas, but when size becomes unmanageable, the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. If Mr. Blair’s analysis provides any clues, the bloated US Intelligence Community may have reached a tipping point.

In his analysis, Mr. Blair also fails to mention Israel, America’s lone democratic ally in theater. This omission is becoming part of a pattern. President Obama has visited two major Muslim capitals since coming to office. He has yet to go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. One of the lessons that Mr. Obama might take away from a visit to Israel would be an appreciation of virtues of compact, focused Intelligence efforts.

Israel is often characterized as the “canary in the coal mine.” If we read the signals coming from the Oval Office, we might think about changing the metaphor from canary to sacrificial lamb.

And if Dennis Blair’s analysis of the national security threat and associated Intelligence requirements on 18 December represents the best thinking of the American 16 agency consortium, he and his colleagues, like the White House, are whistling in the dark.

(This article appeared in the 18 Dec 09 edition of American Thinker)

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G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer and author of “Escaping the Wilderness of Mirrors,” an argument to privatize national estimates, which appears in the December edition of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.


The Wilderness of Mirrors

May 18, 2010

“It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” – Blaise Pascal

There was a time when most National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) were classified, restricted and rarely read. Recurring estimates were dusted off periodically and circulated in the Intelligence Community for coordination.  “Happy” might be changed to “glad” and the cycle would begin anew. Indeed, the NIE was formatted not to be read, they all began with the punch lines, “Key Judgments”. Most readers stopped there.

All of this changed in the wake of the 2002 NIE on Iraq. The subsequent estimate on Iraq was sifted above the fold like the ashes of Herculaneum. We have come full circle on analysis, from cooking to opening the books. CIA, especially, is clearly trying to address a credibility problem. Unfortunately, the recent publications relations blitz opens select products not the process; the effort does not speak to the two faults at the heart of the analysis problem; competence and integrity.

Off the Gold Standard

As far as anyone knows, any given estimate might be drafted by some unknown staffer at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and amended by one or sixteen nameless intelligence agency hands. Dissenters appear in footnotes. In most cases, the point men represent agency politics not expertise. Few experts of national repute work at the NIC or in the bowels of Intelligence agencies. Believing that our intelligence agencies still hire the best analysts is a little like believing that our best lawyers work on Capitol Hill. Most national estimates are not just group-think, worse still; they are bureaucratic group-think. They don’t represent good analysis so much as they represent consensus, however brief.

The sixteen agency “community” is defended in the name of analytical diversity. Yet, these same agencies are then condemned as “stovepipes” when the diverse fail to converse; a classic ‘cake and eat it’ argument.

Boosters regularly insist that the NIE is the “gold standard” in the Intelligence Community. This is a classic example where hope and optimism seems to have overcome recent historical experience.

Conversely, uninformed critics often sneer at Military Intelligence (aka Tactical Intelligence) as an oxymoron. In fact, our seamless web of strategic and tactical collection, processing, identification, targeting and weapons applications is the real Intelligence Community gold standard. (Thanks to General James Clapper). This is not to say that the tactical folks never get it wrong. But when they do, their systems are self medicating. National security estimates, on the other hand, have been a basket case for decades.

Integrity is the predictable victim when the key dynamic of the process is bureaucratic log-rolling. The closet battle between Air Force Intelligence and all other agencies during the Cold War is a classic example. In that period, Air Force footnotes to strategic force NIEs would exceed the word count in the body of estimates. Those infamous bomber and missile “gaps” were products of this struggle.

Maxwell Taylor’s, Uncertain Trumpet (1960), documents some of the blow back from this era. Strategic force assessments are unique insomuch as the threat is tied directly to budgets. The math is simple, bigger threats equal bigger budgets. The late Kevin Lewis of the RAND Corporation tagged this phenomenon as the “tumescent threat’.

In those days the Air Force was a young divorcee. Separated from the Army; she was determined to spread her wings. With the help of Intelligence, a ‘ten foot’ Soviet foil was fashioned.

Reform and Controversy

The Soviet threat was embellished again by the “B Team” controversies of the 1970s. A 1974 Foreign Policy article, by Albert Wohlstetter, then at the University of Chicago, suggested that our strategic NIE might be underestimating the threat. The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) requested that then CIA director William Colby host a competitive analysis with outside experts. Colby refused; believing that no outside group could do better than his intelligence officers. The issue resurfaced in 1976 when Colby was fired and replaced by George H.W. Bush; and the B Team project went forward.

The B Team was staffed by 16 mostly hard line civilian intellectuals and they predictably reported that the national assessment of the Soviet military capabilities and intentions was seriously flawed. In retrospect, it’s fair to say that the B Team report was half right on capabilities and justifiably prudent in their assessment of doctrine or intentions.

Three years earlier, William Colby had abandoned the founding analytical paradigm; one created and nourished by Sherman Kent. The small and centralized Office of National Estimates (ONE) and the Board of National Estimates (BNE) was cashiered. It was replaced by a larger and more ecumenical system of National Intelligence Officers (NIOs) in 1973; latter to be incorporated into today’s even more complex National Intelligence Council (NIC) et al. In a decade, the analytical paradigm shifted from small and focused to large and decentralized – all intelligence agencies became NIE players. To date, there is little evidence to suggest that estimates have improved and considerable evidence to suggest that they have become easier to manipulate or taint with politics.

Abandoning Kent’s Wise Council

Sherman Kent, legendary second chair of the original BNE (1952-1967), at his introspective best, catalogued many cases where national estimates missed the mark, including the Soviet missile deployment to Cuba.  Any human institution gets it wrong from time to time. And critics who do not expect mistakes are naïve; Intelligence assessments and estimates are not prophesies. The contemporary problem is much more troubling; truth now seems to serve power.

Kent formalized early analytical tradecraft. He created and preserved the first paradigm for national intelligence analysis; one which insisted on a prudent space between analysis and policy. Today’s analytical superstructure and its products have become something he would not recognize. The spectrum of fakery includes feigned ignorance, data manipulation and outright invention – probably motivated by politics.

Cases of  historical premeditated ignorance would include the Israeli nuclear weapons program, the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident and the KAL 007 shoot down of September 1983, just to name a few. Blatant statistical manipulation was part of the heady brew during the McNamara years of the Vietnam War. Bomb damage, infiltration, strategic hamlet, pacification and Vietnamization statistics, masquerading as measures of effectiveness, were all used to obscure an unpalatable ground truth. More recently, since 9/11 and in the run-up to the second Iraq War, evidence seems to have been manipulated wholesale to support foregone conclusions.

The most egregious recent example of cooked Intelligence was Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on 05 February 2003 just prior to the second Iraq expedition. On that occasion, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sitting Secretary of State, with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency posing behind him, delivered an assessment to the world that was an embarrassment to General Powell and Director George Tenant and the institutions they represented. The briefing to the UN, presumably based on NIC estimates, was fatally flawed as fact and analysis.

Blatant exaggeration was the most bizarre part of the Powell address. Did someone think the threat in this part of the world needed to be embellished? Unfortunately, the final paragraph in the 2002 Iraq NIE is yet to be written. Crying wolf on Iraqi weapons may make analysts wary of making the tough calls on Iran’s missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. Once bitten; twice shy!

After any real or imagined intelligence failure, the inevitable ad hoc commission comes to tell us how to fix the beast. Invariably, the answer is more money and more bureaucracy. Bigger is always better. The 9/11 Commission and the more recent Iraq Study Group (March 2006) are illustrations. The Intelligence Community is now larger and deeper and, of course, more expensive. In short, it’s business as usual.

Obvious Solutions

No recent task force or congressional bromide addresses the obvious solution to better national security analysis; ending the Executive Branch monopoly and removing national estimates from the Intelligence cloister. There is no good reason for national security analysis to be the exclusive purview of any branch of government or worse still, a cabal of agencies with vested interests in outcomes. Privatization may be the only answer for analytical competence, transparency and product integrity.

A small group of independent experts could convene as required to prepare assessments. The membership might vary as the subject requires; rotating diversity if you will. Experts might be compensated on a per diem basis. Politicians, lobbyists and obvious partisans need not apply. Intelligence agency functions could then be restricted to what they do best; all source collection, tactical and strategic warning, and intelligence support to deployed or engaged forces. The resources now devoted to assessments, estimates and forecasts should be reallocated to an independent analytical body.

Transparency might also eliminate special interest ad hoc analysis within the Intelligence Community. The Douglas Feith cowboys that recently freelanced from the Pentagon come to mind.

Assessments from an independent group of experts might also benefit from single hand and named authorship, much like Supreme Court decisions. Dissenters would write minority opinions. Court analysis is attributable and transparent. Should national security arguments have lesser standards? Indeed, the current practice of giving the Executive Branch an exclusive on national security analysis is a little like giving the power of  judicial review to Congress.

Calling our national assessments “intelligence” estimates is also a perennial source of confusion. The issue is national security not Intelligence. Intelligence is merely one of the ingredients of analysis. Most data, method and even thinking that go into analysis are unclassified. Surely sources and methods of intelligence collection need to be protected by classification. So be it. Nonetheless, classification should not be used as an excuse to obscure the process and product of national security deliberations.

The Case for a  New Paradigm

The advantages of government sponsored privatized national security analysis seem to be self-evident: The analysis could be done by acknowledged experts with known credentials; Intelligence would be subordinated to national security analysis; secrecy could not be used to mask weak evidence or shabby method; transparency would boost public trust; and all branches of government and the taxpayer would be exposed to available evidence, rigorous reasoning and the arguments of dissenters.

Limiting the influence of politics on Intelligence and analysis would be the most important advantage of an independent and transparent process. There is no government activity that does not benefit from sunshine and the “wisdom of crowds”.

Any argument against a more open system would surely raise security and secrecy questions. Indeed, secrecy and compartmentalization is the favorite post mortem finding that no one ever cares to do anything about.

Secrecy has always been a self-inflicted wound within the Intelligence cloister. Those with SECRET clearances do not have access to TOP SECRET material; those with TS clearances do not have access to CODE WORD material; and those with CW clearance do not see EYES ONLY product. Analysis takes place at all these levels, yet the very system of compartments restricts the flow of relevant information. New categories of restriction are invented on a regular basis because of parochial or real security concerns. The Intelligence Community is now so big that it is impossible, if not imprudent, to give all analysts access to all relevant data from every security compartment. Yet, we expect them to perform.

The blind alleys of security are crafted with precious little regard for the burdens placed on analysis. Even a hypothetical super analyst at the Pentagon or at the NIC with every Intelligence clearance may be half blind because he or she will not have operational clearances. Rear echelon observers seldom know what friendly Intelligence or military operations are ongoing at the flashpoints. This is less of a problem at the tactical level where the military has attacked cognitive dissonance with a vengeance. There is little public evidence to suggest that this issue has been addressed at the top of the analytical food chain.

In theory, all data from all categories of Intelligence and all levels of classification are joined in a mystical fusion process at the top of the national security pyramid. In reality, the pyramid is more like a prism or as James Angleton might have put it; “a wilderness of mirrors”. Nobody seems to know where the “fusion” takes place, if it happens at all. Angleton coined his metaphor to describe the agent business. Had he been an analyst, the metaphor would have been even more colorful – and probably unprintable.

An Analytical Star Chamber

The argument here is to create a national security star chamber; a specific place with specific analysts for a single purpose – national estimates untainted by log rollers or politicians. A key assumption would be that America’s best and brightest would possess enough civic virtue to participate.

The process of selecting a panel would not be without its own problems. Finding a good cadre to serve and winnowing the ideologues would be difficult but not impossible. Surely no more difficult than selecting and confirming federal judges. The likes of Paul Johnson, historian, and Bernard Lewis, Islamic expert, analysts of proven talent with an expansive world view, would be ideal. Indeed, the paper trail for civilian experts is explicit and relatively easy to audit.

Such an analytical star chamber would of course be interdisciplinary with a rotating chair depending on the subject at hand. This rarified air should not be limited to academics; institutions like the military, Intelligence, the science laboratories or even the Press might participate. In the latter category, a stellar analytical mind with a sharp quill could make significant contributions to the form and logic of national estimates. There is no reason why national security findings should not be good literature. Here someone of Claudia Rosett’s (Wall Street Journal) stature comes to mind.

The Consequences of  Inaction

A final and paramount consideration is the potential cost of not changing the existing analytical paradigm. An observer outside of the classified cloisters might be led to believe that the only change afoot today in the national security arena is a shift in political winds. Reading the tea leaves of public statements, the threat is being repackaged with charm and sanitized with soft soap. Whether this represents new analysis or new policy is difficult to determine.

Rational actor models informed most of our strategic analysis during the Cold War. A theocratic threat hardly fits that paradigm. There are no Herman Khans, Bernard Brodies or Albert Wohlstetters discussing mutual deterrence in Sunni or Shiite seminars.

When policy colors analysis, the only relevant tool in play maybe a wet finger in the wind. The predictable result will be more confusion and risk, not stability.

We seem to have a good war and a bad war at the moment; the latter hostage to a campaign promise. And we are admonished to see both as mere “contingencies”. We are not to associate enemy combatants with the culture or religion they share; in short, “we are not at war” – with a world-wide growth business. On the flanks of actual combat, one sect already has a nuclear weapon and the other sect is an aspirant. Indeed, Pakistan has a weapon and is one bullet removed from theocracy and Iran already has the theocracy and may be a few tests away from a nuclear weapon. If we were to use a Sherman Kent set of weighted adjectives to describe this dilemma, we would have to say that a dark future is not merely probable; it is very likely.

Kent formalized our “words of estimative probability”. Yet, thinking about futures in terms of probabilities began with Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Today, all national estimates or forecasts still need to pass a Blaisean test. The potential benefits of belief should always outweigh the likely return on skepticism.

An overestimate is a no-lose hedge. If the threat fails to materialize, what is lost? On the other hand, an underestimate is always dangerous and often fatal. Weakness is more provocative than strength; any thug understands this. Trying to sugar coat a clear and present danger is not simply a poor tactic; it is a reckless strategy.

The two most important values for any human institution are trust and regret. Without trust, no relationship is possible; neither with colleagues, policymakers nor the public. Without regret no progress is possible. For those who can not or will not recognize error and change their behavior, the future is forever a receding green light.

One Key Question

A host of difficult questions are always associated with any suggested change; especially a radical change to the apex of a complex Intelligence and national security analytical apparatus. Yet, only one question is relevant here: Do we want to limit the corrosive influence of politics on national security analysis? Or put another way, do we want power to serve truth? If the answer to this question is yes, then all other questions are subordinate and solvable.

The National Security Council has always been a political hothouse; and now the National Intelligence Council has become a sauna. The solution is not a return to the BNE. That institution was flawed because it was part of the Intelligence cloister and operated at the whim of a political appointee. We should not return to the B Team either because that group was cherry picked for its politics. Nonetheless, they made their point; competing views should be included in all national security analysis. And the personalities of a star chamber shouldn’t matter either; at least not as much as their credentials, talent, and demonstrated independence.

If we are to address the persistent competence and integrity problems that plague the national security process, “top tier” national security analysis needs to be isolated from the vexations of secrecy and the venom of politics. And we could do worse than heed Sherman Kent’s wise counsel; “…great discoveries are not made by second rate minds.”

[The following source material is arranged by relevant subject starting with early trade craft; followed by reforms, controversies and a sampler of contemporary thoughts about national security analysis.]

Jean Mesnard, Pascal: His Life and Works (translated by G.S. Fraser), Harvill Press, 1952.

Blaise Pascal was a late Renaissance physicist and mathematician who had a unique influence on modern analysis. He introduced notions of probability and risk/benefit analysis; not just as ways of calculating odds, but more importantly, as ways of looking at the world – ways of estimating the costs of everyday choices. His most important contribution may have been humility; we ignore his frequent cautions about the limits of reason, technology and “scientific method” at our peril.  If Pascal and Sherman Kent had been contemporaries, they would have been soul mates. Both had a profound understanding of human frailty and the limits of our “key judgments”.

Sherman Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, Archon Books, 1978 (revised edition).

“Words of Estimative Probability”, Studies in Intelligence, Fall, 1964.

Sherman Kent is the godfather of modern Intelligence analysis. He was the second director of the Office of National Estimates. The original staff was no more than three dozen and for the 16 years of Kent’s tenure it never exceeded 75. He began his analytical career on the Yale faculty and served with the OSS before coming to CIA in the early 50s.

His essay on probability is a classic of its kind. Kent was not trying to assign numerical precision to the language of estimates so much as force analysts to think about their judgments in precise orders of probability – or improbability. Indeed, all things are possible yet few are certain.

Kent believed that good analysis required a small, centralized, critical mass of expertise; insulated from politics. The standards that Kent set for rigor and integrity seem to be honored in breach today.

Harold P. Ford, Estimative Intelligence, University Press of America, 1993

This is an update of Sherman Kent’s 1978 classic on the subject. Ford and Kent were colleagues at the original Board of National Estimates. In Ford’s recent testimonial for William Colby in Studies, he doesn’t mention that Colby changed Intelligence analysis in ways that have yet to prove themselves. This omission is true of many contemporary accounts of Colby’s tenure. Perhaps the “family jewels” crisis, the Pike/Church Committee investigations, the 1773 Middle East war, and the B Team flap all conspired to obscure Mr. Colby’s most lasting mark on Intelligence process: turning national security analysis into a bureaucratic goat rope.

P. Gill, S. Marrin and M. Phythian (editors), Intelligence Theory: Key Questions and Debates, Routledge, 2008.

This is a good anthology of essays on intelligence trade craft and the current state of play in strategic analysis. The Richard Betts piece is notable for seeing the “dominance of operational authorities over intelligence specialists”. Betts is way too polite; the politicization of national security analysis is too serious a problem to obscure.

The Center for the Study of Intelligence does credit to the memory of Sherman Kent by sustaining a literature of Intelligence; unfortunately, their journal, Studies, is still classified. Classifying professional literature is a little like talking to yourself.

Albert Wohlstetter, “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” Foreign Policy, Summer 1974.

The national estimates debate was well under way when this essay fanned quality of analysis smoke into a house fire. Wohlstetter may not be the father of the B Team but his arguments had the gravitas to launch a thousand lips – and many haven’t stopped moving since. He attacked the “arms race” myth and argued that our relationship with the Soviet Union was more like a managed competition. So far so good.  After living with the bomb for half a century, the principal players are still “rational actors”.

Wolstetter’s wife, Roberta, was the true Intelligence scholar in the family; her contributions to the study of strategic warning are unique.

Richard Pipes, “Team B; the Reality Behind the Myth,” Commentary Magazine, October 1986.

This is a defense of the Team B analytical model by one of its distinguished members. The eminent and always articulate Dr. Pipes makes his case for dueling analysts and robust threats, erring always on the side of international cynicism and domestic prudence. The B Team analysis of Soviet capabilities might have been off on the high side; yet their take on Soviet doctrine was probably spot on, given what we knew at the time. In threat analysis, inflation is only a venial sin.

Anne H. Cahn, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1993.

Here we have what’s known in the business as a shot from the grave. A quarter century after the fact, the B Team still annoys people. Ms Cahn, and like minded disarmament advocates, has made the “B Team” a Nicole Kidman; an issue with great legs. If hyperbole were an argument, Ms. Cahn might have a better case against competitive analysis. And there is something more than a little off key when she writes complains about “excess” in a journal for the  wizards who brought us the hydrogen bomb.

Ms. Cahn expanded her arguments to book length in 1998; Killing Détente: The Right Attacks CIA. The “Right” didn’t kill Détente, but Wolhstetter and Pipes did help to kill the Soviet union, the major Communist exemplar. They spent, we spent and the wheels came off their bus; a good investment, considering the alternatives.

Ms. Cahn seems only to understand part of the logic of threat assessment. Yes, bigger threats are a rationale for bigger budgets; but, threat inflation is also a hedge against an underestimate, which could be fatal – and intentions which can change overnight. The price of freedom isn’t just “eternal vigilance;” it is analytical prudence. If there is a very high degree of uncertainty about the threat; there needs to be some corresponding rise in vigilance – and capability to respond.

Colin Powell, “Transcript of the Presentation to the UN Security Council on US Case Against Iraq,” posted at CNN.com on 6 February 2003.

This might be the best example of the worst analysis in the history of recent history. This briefing, and the NIE that proceed it, is a case study of much that ails the Intelligence Community. Just the mobile biological weapons allegations made by Secretary Powell serve as an example. The only potential gain of putting a weapons lab on the functional equivalent of a Good Humor truck would be mobility. On the other hand, the potential risk is enormous. A minor fender bender might lead to a national disaster. A little back of the envelope Blaisean analysis, or better still common sense, should have killed Powell’s agnotology.

Greg Bruno, “National Intelligence Estimates”, Council on Foreign Relations (backgrounder), 14 May 2008.

Bruno’s essay is an excellent unclassified summary of the current NIE process. It is also a good critique of the notorious pre-war estimate on Iraq. Beyond the obvious problems with facts and analysis, there were two footnotes (dissents) to the 2002 estimate. To its credit, Air Force Intelligence questioned the logic of putting biological weapons on RPV’s; State Department intelligence officers questioned the evidence for nuclear weapons in Iraq.

While State analysts were officially skeptical about the NIE, Secretary Powell reflected none of this uncertainty in his Security Council presentation in early 2003. Indeed, if Powell was provided five days of personal preparation by DCI George Tenant before his UN speech, we are left to wonder what happened to make Powell contradict his own Intelligence officers?

“Report on the US Intelligence Community Prewar Intelligence Assessment on Iraq,” US Select Committee on Intelligence, 9 July 2004.

Unfortunately, most Congressional reports are too little and too late. This official critique of the now famous 2002 assessment on Iraq is an example. Had such analysis been available a year and a half earlier, Messrs Powell and Tenant might have been able to salvage their reputations before the UN Security Council. Congressional committees may never get the hang of oversight, but they are the best Monday morning quarterbacks inside the beltway.

Maxwell Taylor, The Uncertain Trumpet, Harper and Brothers, 1960.

General Taylor was probably the most important military figure in the last 60 years. Scholars like Wohlstetter may have made the intellectual case, but it was Taylor’s influence with the Kennedy/Johnson administrations that made things happen. He argued for flexible military capabilities, forces that could respond short of a nuclear exchange, at a time when strategic forces held center stage. His influence laid the groundwork for the Special Forces that now play such an important role in asymmetric warfare. Ironically, three of the four major recommendations in Uncertain Trumpet concerned strategic capabilities – including fallout shelters. Yet, Taylor is best remembered for the doctrine of Flexible Response and the capabilities that followed.

[The next two reports are samples of current thinking about Intelligence analytical tradecraft. Their banality is underscored by comparing them with the proceeding entries in the bibliography above.]

Deborah Barger, “Toward a Revolution in Intelligence Affairs”, RAND Corporation, 2005.

This paper, written by an assistant deputy director of national Intelligence, calls for a revolution in Intelligence and then fails to say what such a “revolution” might look like; no plan, tactics, strategy or  objectives. It goes on with a clarion call for “bold and unique solutions” and then recommends none. In short, this report is 150 pages of govenrnment sponsored twaddle; a polemic telling us how we might think about thinking.

G. Treverton, S. Jones, S. Boraz and P. Lipscy, “Towards a Theory of Intelligence,” 15 June 2005 Conference Proceedings, RAND Corporation, 2006.

These proceedings are a group version of the Barger paper. One speaker suggests that Intelligence has two “unsolvable” (sic) problems; “predicting the future and changing minds.”

In fact, these problems are not only solvable, but they are what Intelligence does. Every estimate is a forecast of some sort and every analytical argument is an attempt to confirm the conventional wisdom or change it. Any analyst who believes that he can not bridge the gap between analysis and acceptance might just as well stay in bed in the morning.

The RAND report goes on to wonder; “what should Intelligence do?” and their answers do not include recommendations about collection, warning, or national estimates – primary Intelligence functions. If  national security analysts are still wondering what to do some sixty years on, then to use Sherman Kent’s Words: “… Intelligence is through”.

In Memoriam

Kevin Lewis (1955-2008), “The Tumescent Threat,” unpublished RAND Corporation paper, (author’s library), circa 1981.

Nearly thirty years ago Kevin Lewis, then a young analyst at RAND Corp in Santa Monica, wrote a satirical research report that was a hilarious send up of missile envy, bomber gaps and ever growing budgets. It became an instant underground success on the beach and on the E-Ring. Lewis, like his colleagues Alex Alexiev, Ben Lambeth. Bob Nurick, Gordon McCormick, Lee Marvin and others were regulars at the Chez Jay seminars on Ocean Boulevard. Lewis thought outside the box on his way to breakfast every day; his wit and wisdom will be missed.

(A version of this essay appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.)


Kicking the Can in Afghanistan

May 16, 2010


“Kick the Can” is a child’s game familiar to kids from large cities. The only equipment required is an old tin and a few willing children. The skills in play are stealth and speed. Like “Hide & Seek,” all but one of the group hides; and then they are sought by the solitary player.  With “Kick the Can,” all initiative is ceded to the quarry – a kind of fool’s game for solitary hunters.

At the risk of abusing a metaphor, we have now embarked on a national strategy that looks for all the world like a fool’s game; and, in the process, ignores rules even a child might understand.

The first rule is that one side doesn’t get to make the rules. In Afghanistan, declaring an arbitrary time limit, not only telegraphs punches, but does little but raise the pressure on the home team. Set aside for a moment the nonsense about wars of “choice” and wars of “necessity,” we might consider the blowback from Iraq. Having reversed the sectarian poles in Baghdad, might not the “progress” we see there be a kind of prudent economy of force? The Shiite majority may simply wait for the clock to run out now that we have set a date certain for withdrawal. The King of Jordan warns of a Shiite Crescent to the north of Israel. Is he wrong?

One side doesn’t control the number of players either. The arbitrary designation of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the problem ignores a larger threat with a global reach. Islamic fundamentalism is not limited to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Indeed, the ideology and financing on the Sunni side originates in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our erstwhile “allies.” The militant threat on the Shiite side originates with Iran – now a nuclear aspirant. If Iraq was a distraction from the real threat in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan not a distraction from the real threat in Iran?

The truth about Iraq is that it was a corrupt totalitarian menace to its corrupt theocratic Arab neighbors. Now Iraq is a corrupt Shiite state that might pursue a sectarian alliance with Iran. The truth about Afghanistan is that it isa tribal, if not feudal, mix beset by naïve Westerners. The truth about Pakistan is that it is a corrupt, if not duplicitous, janissary that might be one bullet away from theocracy. The truth about Iran is that it is the world’s largest Shiite theocracy; a so-called Islamic “republic.” The truth of all of this is that the threat is not a specific terrorist, terror group, state sponsor, or Muslim state.

The bloom of jihad and theocracy within Islam world wide is the true threat. This menace is not simply demographics or immigration; it is also political. Theocracy is the goal of Islamists of every stripe; to replace secular law with a religious monoculture. The final and inadmissible truth is the inability or unwillingness of national security specialists, in general, and Western politicians, in particular, to acknowledge any of this.

Tehran is yet another example in the Islamic constellation where we presume to make the rules of the game; we assume that the Persians can be jawboned or threatened with “sanctions” to relinquish their nuclear ambitions.

And now there is a new strategy announced on 1 December of last year by President Obama at West Point. The new course has two major components: moderation and denial. With the moderate approach we are neither “all in” nor “all out” in Afghanistan. We have limited our targets to one leader and one terror organization – and a kind of half-baked “nation building.” In Afghanistan, the US aspires to do what the British and Soviets could not. The English used to strap insurgents to the busy ends of cannons and the Soviets used to level villages from the air. American tactics are different; we plan to conquer Islamist fanatics with kindness – moderate on moderate.

As the moderate card is played we should remember what Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to say on the subject; “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam….”

The second component of the President’s West Point proclamation is denial. “Islam is one of the world’s great religions” we are told. We are led to believe that Jihad, Sharia, cultural irredentism, misogyny, and fifty years of terrorism have nothing to do with Muslims in general or Islam in particular. Never mind that prominent Muslims tell us otherwise so frequently that we can not or will not hear what they say.

The modest reinforcement in Afghanistan, constrained by an 18 month timeline, appears to be an attempt to replicate the “surge” strategy of Iraq. Here we should remember what President Obama said about such comparisons, “You never step in the same river twice.”

Military Operations Research (MOR) has been looking at counter insurgent campaigns, including Afghanistan, for decades. MOR is an aggregate of disciplines that attempts to size forces and examine the variables that might lead to victory or stability. These disciplines include: statistics, probability theory, game theory, modeling, and simulation among others.

Three variants have been applied to Afghanistan and insurgency in general: force to force comparisons, force to population models, and most recently, strategy to strategy comparisons. All three reach similar conclusions; numbers and strategy matter.

In Afghanistan alone, 500,000 troops or police might be required; not for victory, just for stability. Or in the words of the RAND Corp. report, “The extremely low force ratio for Afghanistan, a country with a larger population than that of Iraq, shows the implausibility of current stabilization efforts by external forces.” Another analysis, looking at comparative strategy, simply says the insurgents will prevail.

These are polite ways of saying there are not enough US or allied troops in the field to do the job – nor is an adequate force likely to be deployed. This kind of candor is rare, indeed, especially for government contractors. The idea that the allies will fight al Qaeda and the Taliban while training and equipping 400,000 competent Afghan cops and soldiers, in 18 months, is nothing short of delusional. The majority of recruits would have to come from the Pashtun tribes, fighters most closely allied with the Taliban and their Arab sponsors.

In short, General McChrystal probably underestimated the theater problem to begin with – and President Obama certainly did not give him what he wanted anyway. We have to assume that the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and the White House are aware of the studies and have chosen to ignore their conclusions.

As in “Kick the Can,” numbers matter and we appear to be playing a fool’s game. The allied expeditionary force has no edge or margin of error in South Asia. In 18 months, if catastrophe does not end the game early, we will still be asking “what is to be done” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we will still be playing word games with the larger problem in the Muslim world.

For the moment, the policy sketched by President Obama at West Point on 1 December 09 can fairly be characterized as an exit strategy with an expiration date.

(Originally published in American Thinker on 08 Dec 09)


Soft Power in Afghanistan & No Plan for Iran

May 15, 2010

Self-delusion reaches new heights when clueless Westerners defend Sharia, the “moderate” … and “mild” Islamism – Youssef M. Ibrahim

Anyone who remembers the Vietnam War might be having hot flashes of déjà vu today. We are again engaged in a grand campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of an implacable foe in a place where we do not understand the language, the religion, the culture, or the opportunity costs. The macro strategy is “nation building”; a policy which explicitly admits, unlike Vietnam, that there are no “kinetic,” or military, solutions to the Afghan insurgency.

So strategy begins with an oxymoron: 100,000 troops deployed to secure, police, and train – not to kill and break things. The assumptions here are twofold; that Afghan troops or cops will serve for reasons other than pay; and that NATO troops are best used as secular missionaries – teachers and social workers first, warriors only as necessary. Put aside for a moment the practical difficulties of such tactics. The purpose of this nation building is to convince a semiliterate theocratic peasantry that a corrupt central government in Kabul, and a bevy of naïve NATO philanthropists, has the best interests of the locals at heart. Reserve judgment! It gets worse.

Flawed premises are a stones throw from false assumptions.  Spokesmen from Kabul, thru Brussels, and on to Washington argue that a little (or a lot, depending on who is counting) nation building, might drive a wedge between the “people” and the Taliban/al Qaeda axis – an axis underwritten by powerful shadow sponsors with deep pockets. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Pakistan are just some of the players behind the scrim. These are states that NATO is unable or unwilling to confront for their support for Islamist incitement, insurgency, and terrorism in the Mid East, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Nation builders earnestly argue that the Taliban and al Qaeda are “foreign” radicals, not native to Afghanistan; fair enough, yet still only a half truth. The Taliban, literally religious “students,” are mostly native to Pastunistan, a tribal area of six million souls that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Arab sponsors are indeed foreigners, but compared to whom? Surely Pashtun fellaheen have more in common with native mullahs and Arabian imams than they do with Americans and Europeans.  NATO and the elites in Kabul are playing on the slippery slope; and the radical coalition of Islamists is the home team with the high ground.

Reasons for not confronting Arab and Persian sponsor states are clear enough; fears about energy, debt, and nuclear proliferation. Western politicians are reluctant to put their pecuniary or kilowatt excesses in play. Arabia carries the liens on many Western furnaces and significant sovereign debt. Sunni Pakistan, another erstwhile “ally,” remains a safe haven for serial nuclear proliferation and serial terror. Recall the recent Mumbai massacre.

Nonetheless, wishful thinkers on both sides of the allied political spectrum insist that they know the minds of illiterate tribesmen in Afghanistan, most of which live under the Taliban thumb. The reliability of opinion polls in places where we can’t drive a Hummer, no less take a political pulse, is more than a little suspect. However, there are many other polls in the Ummah (community of Muslim nations) which put the lie to the myth of moderation among Muslims.

Recent opinion surveys taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in the Arab/Muslim world indicate that terror groups and their tactics (jihad) have enjoyed significant support in many countries for years. These figures would surely be higher still if countries like Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Libya, and Iran were included in the polling. Anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) sentiment consistently comes in at 90% plus in the Arab world. Selective as they are, the Pew surveys clearly show that support for Islamism is hardly a “fringe” phenomenon in the Muslim world.

Beliefs of Muslims, in general, and Arabs and Persians in particular, are guideposts to a larger question of opportunity costs, questions that four successive American administrations have been unwilling to confront. If the “war choice” in Iraq was a diversion from the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, how is the war in Afghanistan not a distraction from the sufficient threat from Iran? The Teheran menace is not simple nuclear proliferation; the entire Levant is slipping its strategic moorings under the fog of a banal debate about micro tactics, like “soft power,” in South Asia.

Exhibit one is Turkey, a NATO member state. Ankara is distancing itself from Israel and mending fences with Arab and Persian neighbors. Visa restrictions have been lifted between Turkey, Syria, and Iran. More ominous is the recent purge and persecution of military Kamalists (secular Turks) by the ruling religious party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Exhibit two would be Iraq where the Shiite majority, using democratic elections and Persian financing, could become the permanent majority and make Iraq the second Shia state, forging another link in a theocratic Islamist crescent.

Exhibit three would be the unholy trinity on the flanks of Israel itself; Hizbollah (in Lebanon) to the north, Hamas (in Gaza) to the south, and Fatah to the east (on the West bank). All three terror groups are now supported by Persian and Arab donors. Shiite and Sunni activists make common cause when it comes to the elimination of Israel.

Exhibit four would be the Persian nuclear program where everyday that passes lowers the threshold for a strategic war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan irrelevant overnight. Persians have taken the point; picked up the gauntlet of Muslim militancy after 50 years of Arab incompetence.

Picture now yet another war where Israel and Iran are involved in an aerial exchange, while Israeli borders are besieged by Islamist irregulars on three sides.  NATO forces could not be easily redeployed without tedious international dithering, assuming the West supports Israel at all. Geography, space, and time are not IDF allies.  The risk of another Holocaust is the most obvious opportunity cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan sideshows.

The renaissance of theocratic militancy within Islam worldwide is a rapidly escalating peril to believers and infidels alike. The subway bombings in Moscow on 29 March again underline the global scope of the problem. The nexus of the threat is political, yet the varied instruments are lethal. Religion is the burkha for an ideology that seeks to: use and then curtail democratic processes, eliminate secularism, and ultimately replace democracies with a kind of utopian monoculture.  Surely such totalitarian schemes must fail; the damage they do in the interim is the danger.

The most immediate existential threat comes from Iran. A recent Department of Defense memo addressed to the National Security Council expresses alarm that the Obama administration has no contingency plan should sanctions against Tehran fail. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates claims the “the United Sates does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability.” According to the 17 April NY Times report, unnamed White House officials have dismissed the “wake up call” from DOD.

National security analysts have been looking at the evolution of ‘modern’ Islamic irredentism for fifty years now. As the recent correspondence between DOD and the NSC suggests, experts remain reluctant to clarify the threat or prioritize the targets therein. Riflemen refer to such navel-gazers as “poges,” military slang for useful idiots; unwitting apologists who campaign vigorously for flaccid or ambiguous policies that put deployed allied soldiers, partners like Israel, and true democracy in harm’s way.

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This article appeared in the 21 April  edition of American Thinker.


Bibi and the Barbarians

April 30, 2010

“Where hope is unchecked by any experience, it is likely that our optimism is extravagant.” – Charles S. Pierce

Barack Obama has yet to visit Israel, America’s only true ally in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the president is about to visit his third Muslim capital in a year. Without reading too much into Mr. Obama’s heritage or foreign travel priorities, it may be time to remind the president that Israel is a friend also; not simply the only true democracy in the Mid-East, but Tel Aviv is also a unique partner in an otherwise barbaric neighborhood.

Yes, barbaric! Let’s not mince words. Israel is surrounded on three sides by terrorists; Hezbollah, Fattah, and Hamas. These are groups who name buildings, streets, and squares after suicide bombers. Farther North, Israel is threatened with mind numbing regularity by Iran, the oxymoronic “Islamic republic” – a Shiite theocratic menace that minces no words either. Tehran’s threat to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” is soon to be underwritten by nuclear weapons with which the ayatollahs hope to take the irredentist mantel from inept Sunni Arabs. Indeed, Persia is poised to attempt to do what the Arab world, after many failed attempts, could not: sponsor the next Holocaust.

Against this darkening sky, the Obama White House sent a professional bridesmaid, Joe Biden, to Tel Aviv to jumpstart another oxymoron: the “proximity” talks. Proximity is one of those State Department euphemisms used to describe an adult version of “telephone;” party A talks to party B only through party C. Such charades are necessary because schizophrenic Palestinian Arabs are divided by two warring governing authorities; Fattah on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

Do the math. Three players are in search of a “two state” solution. Israel must suffer this madness because the two Arab claimants can not speak with one voice. Vice President Biden, foot ready at the mouth, played the role of intermediary for a few days starting on 8 March in Tel Aviv. With such “partners,” no Israeli Prime Minister could be faulted for looking for the rabbit hole.

While Biden was trying to explain how three goes into two, some numbers of a different sort were tossed into the mix. The Israeli Interior Ministry announced that 1600 additional apartment units would be built in east Jerusalem. Before Air Force II could get its wheels up, Biden and Hilary Clinton launched a fusillade of brickbats at Israel; claiming among other things that the expansion of housing was an “insult” and a “slap in the face.”

You might think that Hilary would have a thicker skin by now. After all, during her husband’s administration, the priapic President was too preoccupied with a young intern in the Oval Office to notice the Taliban taking Kabul (Sept, 1996) for the first time; and Mullah Omar closing every girl’s school in that country. Afghanistan bled while Hilary’s husband dallied – until the Bush administration came along to reopen those schools. Now Mrs. Clinton, yet another “progressive” Secretary of State, finds her integrity under a stack of Jerusalem condo plans.

(Mrs. Clinton seems to be channeling Madeline Albright, her husband’s Secretary of State; hyper sensitive to Israeli behavior and insensate to the worst behaviors among Arabs and Muslims; behaviors that include genital mutilation, polygamy, child marriage, stoning, amputations, and a universal terror that targets civilians. Not all Muslims are terrorists, yet nearly every recent terrorist is a Muslim. When should we expect an apology from Islam?)

A pandering media was quick to pile on. First there was MSNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Mathews, suggesting that Jews were racists because President Obama doesn’t fare well in Israeli polls. Then Tom Friedman of The NY Times, never one to miss the opportunity to abuse an opportunity, resurrects the old canard about the omniscience of Israeli guilt. Paraphrasing Biden, he reports:

“What you (Israel) are doing here (building apartments) undermines the security of our (US) troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and endangers regional peace.”

Put aside for a moment the Vice President’s witless confirmation that US Special Forces are doing more than “training” the locals in Pakistan. Biden is using the contemporary rhetoric of anti-Semitism; whenever Muslims misbehave, somehow, somewhere there’s a Jewish connection or liability. Such “progressive” logic would have us believe that Israeli behavior, or American support for Israel, are central motives for Muslim atrocities, no matter where they occur. Such reasoning absolves the barbarians of moral hazard and validates a future of endless, no-fault terrorism.

We should recognize the warped Biden/Clinton and Mathews/Friedman moralizing for what it is: an obscene double standard that now typifies the distortions of the Muslim Right and the American Left. Their indignation is underwritten by the insidious presumption that Israel should put its national development on hold until inept Arab neighbors get their act together.

But, what about Bibi? Is the Israeli government trying to send a message to antagonists and apologists alike? Here, there is more than a little fertile ground for some informed speculation.

On the one hand, we could believe that the Israeli PM was ambushed by coalition partners to his right; religious conservatives who like to remind all takers that the status of Jerusalem is not negotiable. Fair enough. Under Palestinian control, the Temple Mount might be renamed the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed mosque. Now that would be a real insult!

Then there is the possibility that Netanyahu knew about the impending housing announcement and sought to use Biden’s token visit to underscore the certainty of Israeli policy – in contrast to the drift and dithering that passes for strategy in Washington.

And lastly, there is the camel in the tent. Maybe Bibi is laying down a marker, given the flaccid response of America and Europe to the likelihood of nuclear weapons among the Persians. Maybe the Israeli PM is telling the world that he will do what is necessary to insure the prosperity, comfort, and safety of his people. If this is Netanyahu’s purpose, then Joe and Hilary are just bicycle messengers. Bibi’s real audience is Barack Obama. Maybe the Israeli Prime Minister, like Thatcher did with Bush senior, is trying to put a little starch in Barry’s knickers – before the smoldering fuse in Iran becomes a catastrophic Mid-East explosion.

Of course, Binyamin Netanyahu has apologized for any real or imagined indignities that Joe Biden may have suffered while in Israel. But it is unlikely that the PM will change the housing or the strategic plan. A wise leader knows that, in the end, puerile manner is no substitute for prudent policy. The penalties for caution are much more severe than the amends of regret.


General Casey Strikes Out

April 28, 2010

If you gaze for too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.  – Friedrich Nietzsche

As Joe Lieberman (D-Conn) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) threaten to subpoena the Justice Department and the Department of Defense for information on a domestic terrorist, we might want to review the bidding on Major Hasan and the brass at the Pentagon to date.

Army General George Casey, set a new standard for flag officer pandering while making excuses for domestic terror on the Sunday talk circuit last November. On three separate networks Casey seemed to be more concerned with “diversity” than troop safety. Casey you may recall was the field commander in Iraq who, like William Westmoreland before him, was kicked upstairs, in the middle of a war, to be Army Chief of Staff. On that Sunday, Casey was seconded by the White House when the President cautioned “against jumping to conclusions until we have all the facts”. This is the same Barak Obama who had no trouble jumping to conclusions about the Cambridge Police and charging them with “stupidity” for arresting an abusive and uncooperative Harvard professor. So let’s look at those “facts” about Major Nidal Malik Hasan before we jump.

Hasan is an American citizen of Palestinian descent. He received all of his higher education at taxpayer expense in exchange for a limited tour of duty with the US Army. He is now a middle-aged field grade officer, a doctor, and psychiatrist. He spent most of his military career at the notorious Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, DC, counseling combat veterans. He likes to argue with patients, proselytize them, and passes out copies of the Koran. Off duty, he is fond of donning Islamic garb and patronizing a radical mosque five miles from the capital. He is an outspoken critic of the “war on terror” which he preferred to call the war on Islam – contradicting his commander-in- chief. He is known to have publicly asserted that his first loyalty was to Islam, not America. He, or his name sake, posted defenses of suicide bombers on radical Islamic web sites. He attempted and possibly contacted an iman, a jihad recruiter, linked to al Qaeda. His automobile sported a bumper sticker “Allah is Love!” His bizarre behavior was reported to his superiors to no avail. Other colleagues say they kept silent out of fears that any criticism of Hasan would violate unwritten Army rules of political correctness.

Army brass “kicked the can” and transferred Hasan to Fort Hood, Texas where he received orders for his first overseas deployment. In protest, he claimed that he could not kill other Muslims; yet, he apparently had no problem murdering kafirs (unbelievers). On 5 November he shot and killed 13 unarmed fellow soldiers, including a pregnant mother, and wounded 31 – shouting “allahu akbar” in Arabic (God is great) as the massacre progressed.

Consider those facts; but let’s not jump to any conclusions. While you’re at it, consider the litany of false narratives that have followed yet another mass killing in the name of “Allah”. First was the characterization of Hasan as a victim; a victim of trash talk and having his automobile keyed, surely a racist slur. Then there was the post traumatic stress defense (PTSD). When it was revealed that Hasan had never been deployed anywhere near combat; apologists suggested he was stressed by the stress of his patients, stress by association if you will.  And then the “lone wolf” defense appeared where solo actors apparently have an immunity from being characterized as terrorists.

Consider also the facts in the unclassified Global Terrorism Database (GTD) maintained under federal contract at the University of Maryland which now contains the gory details of over 80,000 terrorist “incidents”; yes that number is eighty thousand worldwide since 1970. Also consider the unclassified data base maintained by US State Department, Country Reports on Terrorism, which tracks annual casualty figures from terror. Those casualties have grown by a factor of 15 since tracking began. In 2008 alone  nearly 60,000 were kidnapped, killed, or injured worldwide.

And before we jump to any conclusions, we,  like Senators Lieberman and Collins, need the answers to some questions. How did Casey get to be a general? Where did he get the notion that diversity is more important than national security or the safety of the troops? How did Nadal Malik Hasan get a commission in the US Army? Who thought he should be promoted to a field grade? How does the US Army get to play “kick the can” or “pass the buck” with dangerous incompetents? And finally, how much longer do we ignore what Islamists and terrorists so obviously have in common?

Consider all of this before you come to any conclusions. And then add the Fort Hood slaughter to the data bases, those reservoirs of facts we are so keen to keep – and ignore. And then make the number of atrocities we are willing to tolerate, or excuse, eighty thousand and one.

General George Casey repeated a mantra as he made the rounds last  November; “If our diversity becomes a casualty (of the Fort Hood massacre) then that’s worse”. Worse than what, General? We want to know what in the warped world of political correctness is worse than putting a bullet through an innocent pregnant girl and 43 of her innocent fellow soldiers.

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The author is a veteran with 25 years of military service. This essay appeared in the 29 April 10 edition of Family Security Matters.