Important enough to reproduce in full.
Politics is mostly marketing, and power is mostly pursued by those who would abuse it. After centuries of highly consistent behavior patterns among elected officials, there is little point in getting angry about politicians, lying. This is a basic matter of tradecraft and daily routine, part of the job description, no different than stage makeup or ghostwritten speeches.So it makes sense for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to claim that the NYPD had stopped 14 terrorist attacks — it’s just plain good copy, a reliable, strong finisher for an otherwise pointless press conference. It’s also not true. The specifics are mundane and matter very little, because the most remarkable part of the story was Bloomberg’s response when some reporters later questioned the veracity of his sales pitch. Faced with a fact-by-fact rundown, and the unspoken implication that he had been caught lying, he was not concerned in the least.
Bloomberg put it simply: “We’ll never know.”
That’s not a very satisfying answer, but it is a strikingly pure statement of where the American social contract is at in 2012. How can you evaluate the track record of a global ecosystem that consumes billions of dollars in almost total secrecy? Where are the solid data points in a history that’s mostly planted evidence, product placements and calculated lies?
”Security” is a benign and ubiqiutous word these days, elevated to a fundamental social good, taken to be synonymous with safety. Viewed operationally, though, the end goal of most security spending is insulating powerful decision makers from the consequences of their own actions. Total executive privilege is a matter of bipartisan consensus today, with each successive presidency further insulating their office from liability for their legacies. Given the real world track record of the past dozen administrations, this was a prescient move.
Double Binds: If it was not for the all-consuming professional paranoia of Richard Helms, researchers today would know very little about the domestic nightmares he oversaw. His zeal to lock down the coverup yielded a wealth of internal documentation. Then again, if Helms were alive today, he would want me to pause and consider: perhaps that was all part of the plan. John Marks was one of the first authors to tackle the MK material, and any sane reader would question if Marks himself were on the payroll. That’s not paranoia, that’s just how these things are done. It would all vanish into post-modern smoke, if not for the physical weight of survivor testimony.
Still, even the most thorough critiques of the Central Intelligence Agency are drawn almost entirely from CIA sources. If there is anything solid to take from studying the wilderness of mirrors, it’s that history is a cheap, plastic thing — easily fabricated and even more easily replaced. Concerted smear campaigns become the foundation of encyclopedia articles decades later. Men like Patrice Lumumba were assassinated multiple times by multiple teams, having both their lives and their legacies terminated with extreme prejudice. Frank Olsen still jumped out a window as far as most historical sources are concerned. The fingerprints are easy to see. They turn up just about everywhere.
As Michael Bloomberg put it later in the same press conference: “They can study anything they want. I don’t know how you prove it one way or another.”
While the cold war was ostensibly waged in the name of the American citzen, the facts of the matter remain largely unknown to us today. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about them. It’s about the extremely high demands that maintaining secrecy places on executive resources and time. It’s about the very real probability that the men and women working behind the firewall of compartmentalized power are every bit as deluded and fundamentally incorrect as the average American citizens they are charged with the management and protection of. This is about decision-making in a completely corrupted economy of information, and this is about inevitable mistakes.
As the tapes of cabinet level meetings in the LBJ White House were released, it turned out the bulk of their conversations were not about strategy or even combat objectives — their primary concern was domestic politics and media coverage. Worse, the conversation itself was torturously circular, comprehensively pointless. The level of indecision in the transcripts is pathological.
Years before he found himself accepting the job of Secretary of Defense on the back lawn of the White House, a young Robert McNamara was evaluating the performance of Air Force bombing campaigns and tactical missions for a unit called the Office of Statistical Control. He was tasked with constructing and monitoring the feedback loop that would guide the final acts of the second world war, with bombardment followed closely by reconnaissance, and success evaluated in stark terms of square feet and total acreage of firebombed destruction.
The result of this increased efficiency was civilian casualties on a massive scale, something that McNamara was forthcoming about in his old age, stating “we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo. Men, women and children.” In 2003, he made the stunning decision to sit down in front of the Interrotron and talk to Errol Morris for hours on end about his entire career. The resulting film, “Fog of War,” is essential viewing for anyone with an interest in power and force. It’s also basically a horror movie.
It’s important to remember that as far as military history is concerned, no matter how badly McNamara miscalculated Vietnam, he was fundamentally correct about World War Two. His careful and thoughtful application of pure Operations Research to the chaos of an Air Force full theater war campaign resulted in huge gains in net efficiency. That translates into millions of innocent human beings, extinguished, whole lives ground into dust and blood. None of these casualties have names, either — they only exist today as aggregate figures, mere statistics.
At the age of 85, McNamara was talkative and transparent but fervently denied any real culpability for his actions. In retrospect, the brilliant strategist protested, ”it is beyond the human mind to comprehend all the variables.” Encouraging words from a man who made his name running the show. Perhaps former Secretary Rumsfeld is sitting at a bar somewhere in DC right now, voicing similar laments about the fundamental unknowability of it all.
Perhaps McNamara was admitting more than he knew by claiming that mistakes and mass murder were simply part of the job description. It’s not the most inspiring statement a grown man could make, but there is at least something to it. As his chief critic David Halberstam noted in his introduction to The Best and the Brightest:
“The other thing I learned about the Kennedy-Johnson team was that for all their considerable reputations as brilliant, rational managers they were in fact very poor managers. They thought they were very good, and they were always talking about keeping their options open, even as, day by day and week by week, events closed off those options. The truth was that history — and in Indochina we were on the wrong side of it — was a hard taskmaster and from the early to middle sixties, when we were making those fateful decisions, we had almost no choices left.”
A worthy statement for any tombstone: “We had almost no choices left.” That line of thought never ends well — in fact, it generally never ends at all.
Computational Intractability & Infinite Regression
“I learned at JSOC that any complex task is best approached by flattening hierarchies.” – Stanley McChrystal
From RAND to PNAC to Obamacare, the Operations Research mentality lends itself to predictable problems. First and foremost is the institutional bias whereby anything that gets measured is presumed to be important. Close behind is the academic hubris whereby any subsequent “improvement” in the measurements get attributed to the sage decisions of the Operations Research department. Between that single closed loop exists far, far too much of recent US policy & history.
Real world problems are seldom a cause for concern in this vacuum, and are all too often attributed to implementation errors further down the chain of command. While that’s usually just a convenient excuse, it’s worth noting that it’s also sometimes true. Still, this is the filter bubble that degrades a goal-oriented organization into another self-perpetuating mere bureaucracy. Classically known as Anacyclosis, more recently known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy, this institutional entropy has been diagnosed by many over the centuries but it has yet to be effectively dealt with.
Robert McNamara had no idea, either. Faced with the gordian knot of bureaucratic turf warfare, forced to question the quality of the intelligence he was relying upon, McNamara made the first of many Horrible Decisions in 1961, when he created the Defense Intelligence Agency, yet another central agency for intelligence. It was a maneuver he’d learned from more adventurous colleagues at General Motors: you deal with institutional inertia by installing a parallel power structure and making decisive cultural changes. Bold men of action making cold, rational decisions…delusions that never fail to inspire. It’s worth noting that this approach also failed for General Motors, but McNamara had moved on before that could become obvious to both Detroit and Wall Street.
The failures of Robert McNamara are probably not an indictment of Robert McNamara, however. He has distinguished company, a pantheon of “whiz kids” and “management gurus” and “warrior scholars” who have undertaken audacious structural reforms to huge media fanfare and failed more or less completely. It raises a question: why do we keep building institutions that are too complex for human beings to manage?
People love to talk about Leadership, to analyze the mostly fictional hagiographies of Great Men, to rhapsodize about Courage, Conviction and Compassion, yet despite all this joyful noise, in the real world of institutions and power the only operational principle in effect is Cover Your Ass At All Costs. The Boy Scouts of America spent decades covering up sexual abuse and child rape in their ranks, not because they have an agenda to enable pedophiles, but because they were desperate to protect their brand, their reputation. Thus does simple cowardice metastasize into actual evil.
Like most any books in the Business section, the Arbinger Institute’s Leadership and Self-Deception is a “teaching story” that drives home less than 5 actual concepts at a less than 8th grade reading level. The real crime here, however, is the wasted title, because history has a lot to teach about the self-deception that passes for leadership. Not enough, clearly, because our current civic dilemmas are little different than what Athenians and Spartans grappled with. Norman Dixon, a historian of vast patience and wry humor, does great justice to the title of his 1976 book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Dixon speaks volumes on the inherent, structural origin of executive delusions, and slyly acknowledges that managing an army of officers means accepting a certain amount of incompetence in exchange for the obedience it ensures. Soldiers can’t all be Pattons of Destiny; most of them simply need to follow orders efficiently.
Citizens are no different. It’s important to remember that much of the secrecy behind what the National Security state does is intended to hide their activities from the American public, not some competing intelligence agencies or rival governments. That is an action movie fairy tale, and in the real world our military industrial power base is infiltrated by dozens of competing conspiracies with conflicting goals. Recent embarrassments like the damage Ahmed Chalabi was able to inflict with a small, well-connected team are proof that documentable 5GW success stories exist IRL. Consider the FBI’s ongoing losing battle with Israeli, Saudi and Chinese espionage rings, consider the CIA’s transition from covert HUMINT to death squads with embedded journalists, consider the NSA going open source to cope with the fact they’ve been drowning in the sheer volume of their Full Spectrum success, and consider the Obama State Department and their ongoing orgy of total blowback failure that’s still being called the Arab Spring because branding has to be simple in order to stick.
“There was a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.” – Alan Greenspan
Faced with this whole horrible landscape of executive failure, I hope that I have left you in a more optimistic and empowered place. After all, the worst you can do is fail and failure is, historically at least, definitely the status quo outcome for any and all human endeavor. Your leaders are every bit as ignorant and confused as you or me, and I would suggest that’s a good thing, at least in terms of your next ten years on this planet. Global problems that appear to be computationally intractable to the Bilderberg set might turn out to have remarkably simple solutions.
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