Review: Imperial Secrets–Remapping the Mind of Empire

5 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)
Imperial Intelligence
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Delightful evidence of gravitas, provocative and refreshing,

July 14, 2009
by Patrick Kelley
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From National Defense Intelligence College
Kudos to NDIC for making this book available free online, simply search for the title. The book is easily downloadable and easily readable, and as much as I would have preferred to buy, mark up, and keep the book in hard-copy, the online availability permits me to both read and praise.

The book should NOT be priced above $34.95 and ideally at $24.95. Either NDIC is being cheated by its printer or it is not being thoughtful about making knowledge easily disseminable in the preferred printed form (hand eye coordination, marginal notes, sharing, etcetera). My printer would do this book for under $5 a copy.

I like this book, very much. The author studies the relationship between empire and knowledge, and specifically addresses the “information anxiety” and related intelligence (decision-support) pathologies associated with empire.

The following quote, on page 69, is quite consistent with all that I have both read and written:

“We rely too much on others to bring information to us, and too often don't understand what is reported back because we do not understand the context of what we are told.”

He cites James Baker and Lee Hamilton [Iraq Study Report], page 94.

At each turn the author recognizes that empires are militarily strong and can impose their own “rule of law,” but empires are NOT inherently capable of understanding exotic cultures and socio-economic domains.

The author's discussion of alternative renderings of information, and the importance of translation of meaning vice literal translation, is most interesting. His judgment of what we do now that passes for cultural intelligence is consistent with my own–checklists that apply an old process to a profoundly complex target, producing nothing more than facile templates.

I am much taken with his observation, on page 83

“Whether in the case of classical historiography or Ottoman tax administration, the idea of what constitutes knowledge changes depending on the contexts of both consumers and producers–eliminating these differences in some form of epistemological Esperanto may produce consensus and clarity, but it also sheds the information embedded in those differences.”

In the author's own words, words that describe our intelligence community from the time Ellsberg talked to Kissinger to my own depictions these past 15 years, on page 97:

“If power corrupts absolutely, it also tends to isolate completely–twin tendencies any executive authority risks as it ascends to the heights of imperial power. Bureaucracies rise in tandem with that isolation, providing the intellectual equivalent of walls and gates; but subverting that intellectual structure by act of will can prove nearly as impossible as escaping from the physical walls for reasons of status or security.”

This elegant study brought me back to Michael Foucault {{Archeology of Knowledge]]

The discussion of the British approach to information with respect to its governance of India is especially fascinating for me, and in particular the discussion of the British valuation and exploitation of past history to mask or justify present courses of action and future plans; and the British-US today error in assuming that imperial time was progressive and all other cultural times were not–I observe myself that China and Iran in their own way are both showing US and UK time to be at odds with strategic reality and sustainment.

It is about page 115 where the author briefly touches on warning and observes that the British did not lack for warning, they lacked for understanding. I hope those reading this review might care to look up my most recent article, “Perhaps We Should Have Shouted: A Twenty-Year Retrospective” (OSS.Net, Spring 2009).

The author is fascinating on education attacking authority, and on the displacement of traditional education having the negative side effect of displacing local elites previously well provided for by the traditional system.

The author segues into a reiteration of his key theme, to wit, to wit, intelligence with respect to the “other” is less a matter of specific fact, but rather more a matter of “negotiating” what truth means and defining what “knowing” actually encompasses.

I enjoy the author's integrated discussion of the failure of empire to understand that its behavior is a form of communication that is all too often very negative; that cultural understanding is about vastly more than compiling dates and names; and the intensity, messiness, and in some cases sordid nature of both the gathering and the explaining. The costs–and the benefits–of “going native” only to see t he West with native disdain and to be detested by one's own colleagues for having “gone over” is something I understand all too well from being in those circles where loyalty to the chain of command takes precedence over both the truth, and our oath to the Constitution.

One recurring theme that intrigues me in this book is that of needing to collect intelligence from different social levels–a network for the masters, another for the slaves. This is absolutely fascinating, since I and others know from experience that CIA does cocktail parties, not gutters. I can really see the value of a dedicated non-official cover cadre that specializes in the servant class.

I will end with a strong appreciation for the author's conclusion, and urge wide dissemination of this volume across the schoolhouses and into the international fellows program for incremental enhancement.

Page 184: “Where information is rich, and open to interpretation through sophisticated and polyvalent reading–we have knowledge. Where information grows and expands with organic profligacy while institutions of understanding grow increasingly rigid and formal, we have information overload, the Tower of Babel.”

Page 194: “The real secrets are the things we aren't looking for.”

The author's conclusion is almost spiritual, rich, and the bibliography a wonder. There are a number of areas where I could be critical, but not here, not now. This is a righteous work, and both the author and the NDIC research arm can be very proud of what has been created for all of us to consider.

Other books for the intelligence professional that wishes to go beyond “of by and for the bubbas”:
Strategic Intelligence & Statecraft: Selected Essays (Brassey's Intelligence and National Security Library)
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
Fog Facts : Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (Nation Books)
The Age of Missing Information (Plume)
Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography

Now the following three books I have not read, but the author has turned my attention to a slice of literature I have never before explored, that of empire intelligence (and non-intelligence):
Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder after 1914
Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870 (Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society)
The Armies of Ignorance The Rise of the American Intelligence Empire

Finally, two books covering policy “rules of the game” anti-thetical to “hearing” intelligence or common sense:
Bureaucratic Politics And Foreign Policy
The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command

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