Review: Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy – Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform

5 Star, Congress (Failure, Reform), Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Intelligence (Government/Secret)
Amazon Page

Paul Pillar

5.0 out of 5 stars Four for Omissions, Six for Precision Relevance,September 22, 2011


Paul Pillar is speaking at Brookings Institute on Wednesday 5 October 2011 from 10:00 to 11:30, RSVP is required to 21DefenseInitiative[…]

I will attend that session. This alert will be deleted on 5 October.

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I have to give the book a solid five, not my norm by any means for books on the intelligence profession. It loses one star for eschewing deeper discussions of the lack of integrity across the intelligence system (to include George Tenet refusing to implement any of the recommendations of the Aspin-Brown Commission, or Jim Clapper continuing to do the wrong things more expensively than ever before), but abundantly compensates for those omissions with devastatingly fresh precision attacks on the political side of the house, where intelligence is generally irrelevant. This is, without question, the ONLY first class book on this topic, and it is certain to be of lasting value, along with a still relevant companion by Mort Halperin, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy; Second Edition, in which “rule one” is–I do not make this stuff up–“Lie to the President if you can get away with it.”

The killer quote that makes the book for me is from Richard Immerman, and appears on page 318:

“regardless of any benefit from reform of the intelligence community, ‘the effect on policy is likely to be slight so long as the makers of that policy remain cognitively impaired and politically possessed.'”


Wow. I've never heard politicians called stupid and corrupt in such elegant terms. It works for me. Pillar makes a stab at addressing the importance of openness, but this book completely avoids the trenchant details that are better found in Hamilton Bean's No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger Security International) and Dana Priest and William Arkin's Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. The three books together comprise a perfect troika for advanced study, with my own books being still relevant as the obvious solution. In June 2012 Random House will publish Manifesto for Truth: Expanding the Open Source Revolution, a modest book that will mark the beginning of the third stage of intelligence–beyond secret war, beyond strategic analytics ignored by everyone, toward public intelligence in the public interest, creating a Smart Nation where sunlight and collective intelligence eradicate corruption and ideological idiocy.

Here are my detailed notes:

+ Preface focused on both the Viet-Nam and the Iraq wars as “tragically ill-conceived military expeditions,” with the book described by the author as an attempt to address the WHY of such US misadventures, a book written from the perspective of a concerned citizen and scholar of foreign policy.

+ Core focus is on US foreign and national security failures stemming from misguided and even dangerously wrong images in the minds of the policymakers (mostly political appointees–in his discussion of the neoconservatives, all both ignorant and arrogant).

QUOTE (4): “The implication of the intelligence community's work on Iraq was to avoid the war, not launch it.”

This is nice but I would have gone much further–from Charlie Allen and his line crosses to the debriefing of the idiot son-in-law that went back, the professional got it right. The seventh floor never had integrity to begin with, and pimped the war for the wrong reasons.

+ The author slams the 9/11 Commission from the very beginning of the book, and in much more detail toward the end, and I completely agree. As one of those interviewed by one of the children assigned to the commission, as one of those close to ABLE DANGER principals betrayed by their own leadership (still serving as the leader of NSA and Cyber-Command, a compound sinkhole), and as one who has studied both intelligence and policy ineptitude for decades, I find the author's views compelling. I learn from him.

+ The author's bottom line is that intelligence influence on policy is negligible. While I agree with that observation, I completely disagree with his refusal to discuss how $80 billion or more a year, 70% of it spent on contractor butts in seats, can be considered competent by any stretch of the imagination, when it produces, “at best,” 4% of what the President needs and nothing for everyone else, and his avoidance of what deep integrity and public outreach (not a traditional concept, to be sure) could do to keep policy honest. He does get to his ideas at the very end.

QUOTE (5): “Policy has shaped intelligence more than vice versa. This relationship has entailed significant corruption of intelligence through politicization, but official inquires have refused to recognize this influence.”

I actually thought Aspin-Brown did pretty well, and in his discussion of Senator Boren's 2004 try, am reminding that the 1992 try was killed by Senator John Warner and then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, both opposed to any reduction of the fraud, waste, and abuse monies flowing into Virginia and across the country.

+ The second bottom line: politics, not intelligence, drives policy. Perhaps a blinding flash of the obvious, but this book delivers something I have never seen before, a truly superb discussion of why intelligence reform is irrelevant and why political and policy reform are essential, and I for one find this to be a much needed contribution to the field.

+ Citing Doris Kearns Goodwin, he begins his expert dismantling of the politicization of policy and the ignorance of intelligence by noting that world views once formed are difficult to change, and I certainly agree with that. Harlan Cleveland, in The Knowledge Executive; Neustadt and May in Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, and Kristan Wheaton in The Warning Solution : Intelligent Analysis in the Age of Information Overload all have useful contributions on this topic, but at root the point he is making is that the American electoral system is skewed toward the election of ideologically-driven politicians who are finely tuned on local politics and relatively naive and loosely-educated about the real world.

+ Although he touches on corruption, this is not a book about special interests (although Israel does get mentioned, as well as oil), it is mostly a book about how national policy no longer has any semblance of checks and balances, from experts, from Congress, from the press, or from the public. These people are out of control. Here I will just mention one of the better books on Dick Cheney, my review of that book itemizes over 20 documented impeachable high crimes by this man: Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency.

+ There are excellent turns of phrase throughout the book, and it is clearly a masterwork, but I would emphasize it is a masterwork on the political deficiencies, it's soft-shoe coverage of the intelligence community is not helpful. Among the phrases I enjoy are “naive optemism,” “blind determination,” “guerrilla parsing,” “feckless coordination,” “picking the cherries,” and a phrase I have used for many years, “ideology over intelligence.”

EMPHASIS: The political portion of this book is six stars and beyond. I have a note, that this is truly a nuanced and robust study of policy politicization absent integrity or intelligence, and this author's contribution on this point will stand for a decade or more.

Chapter 5: Great Decisions and the Irrelevance of Intelligence, pp. 96-120, is the stand-alone extract for those teaching courses, and it reminds me, a favorable comparison, with the work of Ada Bozeman, Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft: Selected Essays (Brassey's Intelligence & National Security Library), where the 25-page introduction is an essential start for all intelligence and policy professionals.

+ I read the book carefully for hints of where the author stands on Bob Gates and George Tenet, and generally feel that he subtly slams Gates as I would, and covers up for Tenet, as I would not. As the second era of national intelligence comes to an end in the USA, we have over-paid clerks as “leaders” and integrity is not part of the equation.

The final chapters of the book address proposed solutions, and while I am disappointed to some extent, I must agree with both of the author's recommendations:

RECOMMENDATION #1: The intelligence community must be truly independent, and also treat Congress and the public as customers for national intelligence. Quite right, and that is the whole point of the Open Source Agency that Congressman Rob Simmons (R-CT-02), Joe Markowitz, Kevin Scheid, and a handful of others have been championing–under diplomatic auspices, with Charlie Allen as the Deputy for National Security, such an agency would be both open and independent, and would set the gold standard for the classified side of the intelligence community to match, while also helping Congress and the Administration cut the 50% fraud, waste, and abuse from across the various stakeholder stove-pipes (in the US Government today, the Cabinet represents the recipients of taxpayer funds, not the taxpayers). Learn more from THE SMART NATION ACT: Public Intelligence in the Public Interest. I am quite certain that secret intelligence should go back down to 20-30 billion a year, and that DEFENSE should go back to $300 billion a year, while DHS/FEMA are eliminated and $200 billion a year is redirected toward Program 150–diplomacy and international assistance.

RECOMMENDATION #2: Strip the political appointees out of the system, drawing a sharper distinction between the policy facilitators (the civil servants) and the policy makers (Congress, when it is not abdicating its Article 1 responsibilities, and the Cabinet). He expands on this with the observation that something needs to be done to actually educate these politicians about reality, something I have always thought was the #1 mission of any responsible leader of intelligence: remedial continuing education for policymakers.

QUOTE 318): “There is no feasible reform, no national counseling session, that would enable Americans to become collectively and uickly aware of the blinkers they wear as a result of their shared national experiences.”

I sharply disagree, one reason I have been promoting a Smart Nation Act since 1995, and one reason why, if I were ever asked to unscrew US intelligence, I would do so in the context of education-intelligence-research. The three must be treated as a whole–it is not possible to have a smart government in the context of an ignorant culture. The federal government should NOT be dictating education–I concur with the need to sharply reduce if not eliminate the Department of Eradication of Intelligence (Education), but I am shocked at the degree to which the federal government, the media, non-profits, and civil society have failed to connect the average person to reality. We need an educated citizen, as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason understood, and everyone needs to know that reality bats last. Ignoring reality is idiocy and idiocy is fatal.

The author concludes with some passing thoughts, including the importance of agility in the face of change, accepting uncertainty, the need to put a price on information ($80 billion for 4%?), the need to revisit grand strategy, and the foolishness of being over-invested in dictators. Ambassador Mark Palmer has been saying that for years, see Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025.

Two of his most thoughtful comments could been elaborated upon, both are very important. In the author's own words on each point:

QUOTE (352): “The other admonition is that the United States needs to maintain reserves–of resources, of international goodwill, and of its policymakers time and attention–to deal with unforeseeable issues and problems.”

QUOTE (352): “In general, we should be circumspect about assertive strategies that seek to imipose U.S. will or expand U.S. presence.”

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For over a decade I have been saying that intelligence reform is one of four reforms that must happen in coherent harmony with one another. The other three are electoral reform, governance reform, and national security/entitlements reform. At this time the US Government lacks intelligence and integrity across the board, and I expect no change to that condition in the next 4 years. My core piece on this is easily found online, along with my reflections on integrity.

Greater Democracy: Citizen in Search of a Leader

Journal: Reflections on Integrity

I also commend to one and all the following essay on the future of intelligence with integrity by Paul Fernhout:

Paul Fernhout: Open Letter to the Intelligence Advanced Programs Research Agency (IARPA)

Search for the following phrases to see lists and links all coming back to Amazon, on related reviews I have done:

Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Negative)

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most)

All of my reviews can be accessed across each of the 98 categories in which I read at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog.

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