Wednesday, January 27, 2010

If the Hippocratic Oath Applied to Intelligence

I'm just about done with Tim Weiner's phenomenal Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Two themes are at the heart of the book.

First, the Agency has been incompetent from its inception. The roster of incompetence includes subversion operations that cost the lives of hundreds of agents and accomplished nothing; CIA-managed coups that backfired; the Bay of Pigs; and many others. Even operations that "succeeded" were pyrrhic. Installing the Shah via a CIA-sponsored coup in Iran in 1953, for example, created enmity that resulted in the Khomeini revolution and hostage crisis of 1979 and continues to this day.

Second, the Agency and its political masters have consistently lied to the American public about CIA domestic law breaking. Anyone horrified at the notion that the modern CIA kidnaps and tortures terror suspects at secret prisons should understand that these activities aren't aberrant, but are in fact the legacy of programs like Project Artichoke and Project MKULTRA, in which the Agency built secret prisons in Germany, Japan, and the Panama Canal Zone, prisons where suspected double agents were tortured and dosed with heroin, amphetamines, sleeping pills, and LSD. And, like the interrogation videotapes the CIA now claims it destroyed in 2005, the CIA also destroyed its records of these earlier illegal activities.

It's tempting to conclude from all this that the CIA should never have been in the operations business -- after all, incompetence measured against subversion of the Constitution seems a bad bargain. But it's hard to see what CIA analysis has accomplished, either. Mostly the analysts have been disastrously wrong (on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, the Agency continued to insist even after Russian tanks crossed the border that it couldn't be a full-scale invasion), but even when the Agency has been right, it hasn't made a difference. When policy makers agree with CIA conclusions, they use those conclusions to justify what they were going to do anyway. When policy makers disagree with those conclusions, they simply ignore them. Either way, the conclusions become irrelevant. You can have the best information and analysis in the world, but if it has no impact on policy, it's still a waste of resources.

Counterproductive operations, activities that subverted the rule of law, irrelevant analysis... it's hard to read Legacy of Ashes and conclude other than that America would be better off today if the CIA had never existed.

Of course, no politician will ever abolish the Agency. The CIA is too useful a tool for demonstrating to the public that a politician is doing something about a problem, and an iron law of American politics (perhaps all politics) is that a politician can never say, "We're doing as much as can reasonably be done about this problem, and attacking it further would only make things worse." Also, the CIA is too easy to ignore when ignoring it is convenient, too easy to manipulate when CIA support is useful, and too easy to blame when something goes wrong (say, a mistaken and unjustified war).

So what can be done? The solution, I think, lies in a critique of Weiner's book by Nicholoas Dujmovic, available on the CIA's website. Dujmovic writes:

The intelligence services that are often judged to be superior to CIA—the Israeli Mossad, the Cuban DGI, the East German Stasi, and even the British SIS -- are far more limited in focus and scope. CIA from the beginning was charged with worldwide coverage in all intelligence areas, something no other service, except perhaps the Soviet KGB, was required to do. If making no mistakes is Weiner’s only standard, he has adopted an unrealistic one -- a Platonic ideal for intelligence -- that CIA, dealing with the world as it is, could only have failed to meet.

That last line is just a straw man: Weiner doesn't require that the CIA make no mistakes. No reasonable person would. But if Dujmovic's point is that the CIA is too diffuse to be effective, why not focus its mission? Eliminate its operations arm, which has consistently done more harm than good. As for analysis, do politicians really need secret information to formulate sensible policy toward, say, China? And even if they did, history suggests they wouldn't use it except to justify what they were going to do anyway. So eliminate operations and ruthlessly focus on questions that only good intelligence can answer: the whereabouts of Pakistani nukes, for example, or the nature of terrorist financial networks, or how close Iran is to acquiring nuclear weapons. Resources are always finite, and an organization that's focused in part on China will inevitably be less focused on Pakistan -- and will probably perform poorly on both.

P.S. I'm proud to report that I'm now being syndicated on Truthout, which puts me in the company of Mel Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Andy Worthington, and some other journalists and writers I've learned a lot from and admire. If you have a chance, stop by and leave a comment on today's post -- many thanks.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Best Lack All Conviction

If you want a pristine example of why people view Democrats as feckless wimps, here's Obama's statement from yesterday on what the Dems should do about health care reform following Brown's Massachusetts victory:

"Here's one thing I know and I just want to make sure that this is off the table. The Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated. People in Massachusetts spoke. He's got to be part of that process."


"It's not enough that the rules make it difficult to pass legislation. We're also going to make sure we don't take full advantage of the rules. In fact, we're going to make up nonexistent rules, like having to delay a vote until a new guy gets seated, and impose those nonexistent rules on ourselves. We wouldn't want anyone to think we don't fight fair; accordingly, we're going to tie one arm behind our back and fight that way."

Can you imagine Republicans doing this under like circumstances? Of course not. GOP leverage of the filibuster is the very reason Brown's election has stymied the Dems. I don't like the way the GOP has used the filibuster (I think the rule should be eliminated regardless of which party has a majority), and I don't think the rule is good for the country or that it's been used in good faith, but hey, Republicans are just exploiting the rules to what they see as their advantage. Something Democrats are obviously themselves afraid to do.

But neither the surface maneuvering, nor the substance of the underlying argument, is what matters politically. What matters politically is this: voters sense Republicans are effective; Democrats, fearful. Republicans, unafraid of what people think of their tactics and focused on results; Democrats, obsessed with being liked. The comparison is not flattering to Democrats.

I just finished reading Rory Miller's new book on violence, tentatively entitled "Seven" (I'm writing the foreword). Rory talks about how criminals don't see their victims as humans, but rather as resources, and how difficult it is for a normal person to understand this criminal perspective. We're deeply invested in believing in our common humanity, in the power of reason and the presence of empathy... and it's hard for us to accept that, with certain people, we can negotiate as effectively as we could with a hyena.

The Democrats are in a similar state. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they remain in denial -- still clinging to the belief that with enough compromise, enough compassion, they can placate their Republican enemies and negotiate the passage of some sort of compromise. They don't understand that Republicans don't want something passed. They don't want anything passed. They want to "break" Obama and the Democrats and inherit the ruins after.

Yes, a political strategy aimed primarily at breaking a party rather than at building the country is irresponsible, reprehensible, disgraceful, etc. But until Democrats start acting like they understand the nature of the fight they're in, voters will continue to look at them and wonder, with reason, "Jeez, if they can't handle a bunch of bully politicians, how can they handle Ahmadinejad (or any other officially designated boogeyman)? What will they do, complain to Ahmadinejad that he's not being fair?"

It's one thing to show your belly if there's a reasonable chance submission will result in mercy. But when submission repeatedly results in your opponent attempting to disembowel you, you might want to consider another strategy.

Unless, of course, you just really like submitting. With the Democrats, you have to wonder.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Indeed. One party is harmful and knows exactly what it's doing; the other is innocuous and doesn't have a clue. One party's inept; the other, insane. Welcome to America.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Democratic Crybabies

The Democrats are so pathetic.

Their latest plea is that if Martha Coakley doesn't win in Massachusetts today, they'll lose their critical 60-seat Senate block and with it, health care reform.

It's bullshit. If the Democrats wanted to pass health care reform, or anything else, they could do it today. Any time they wanted, with a simple majority vote, they could end the filibuster rule that enables Republicans to block legislation.

This is so simple, it's useful to break it down the way a child might approach it.

Democratic Senator: Sorry, little girl, we can't pass health care reform without 60 votes.

Child: In school they taught us there only 100 Senators. So don't you need only 50 votes?

Dem: Yes, but there's a Senate rule that allows the minority party to do something called a "filibuster," and when they do, the majority party needs 60 votes to overcome it. Filibusters used to be rare, but now the Republicans do one for every bill we try to pass. Those meanies.

Child: Well, where did the rule come from?

Dem: The Senate passed it.

Child: By a majority vote? I mean, 50 Senators?

Dem: Yes.

Child: Then don't you need only 50 Senators to repeal it?

Dem: Huh?

Child: I mean, if you think Republicans are meanies who aren't being fair about the rule, why don't you just change the rule?

Dem: That would make the Republicans really mad!

Child: So you're afraid of them?

Dem: Of course not!

Child: Then why don't you change the rule?


Child: I was afraid of bullies, too. But then I stood up to one and he backed down. You should try it.

The only thing my hypothetical child might be missing -- and only because she's so innocent -- is that the Democrats might actually like the filibuster they're always complaining about. Here's a link that nicely lays out how the filibuster works and why the Democrats are motivated to keep it: essentially, because they can use it to excuse their failure to fulfill their promises to their constituents while simultaneously invoking mean Republican abuse of the rule in their fundraising efforts.

So are the Democrats cowards or cynics? I'm not sure. Sometimes, watching them, I see a study in learned helplessness -- they've let themselves be beaten down so many times they just want to cringe in the corner and give up. Other times, I see the Stockholm syndrome -- they want to lick the hands of the people who are punching them. Or maybe they do indeed know exactly what they're doing -- their "inability" to cope with those obstreperous Republicans is great for fundraising. Regardless, listening to them whine about how they can't pass legislation because they don't have 60 votes is like listening to a guy who says he can't work because he's wearing handcuffs -- handcuffs he's put on himself, and to which he's holding the key.

Ironically, undergirding the cynicism and cowardice is stupidity. I doubt the average voter knows that much about the details of health care reform or any other proposed legislation or platform. Most people don't choose a product because they really know the product's features; instead, they make an emotional decision based on the product's brand. At this point, the Republican brand is "bully." Not good, you might think, because most people hate bullies. But the Democratic brand is "coward." And looking out at a scary, uncertain world, a lot of people would rather be led by a bully than by a coward. Until the Democrats grasp this obvious, fundamental point, their fortunes will continue to come down to the results of single special elections, their turns in the White House to interludes between bouts of Republican incompetence so profound that desperate voters will temporarily grasp at any alternative. You can call this state of affairs a lot of things, but "prescription for getting things done" will never be one of them.

Between one party that's "corrupt and inept," and the other that's "batshit insane," what can be done? Digby has the best and most level-headed plan I've come across. Read it on Hullabaloo here.

P.S. Yesterday Scott Horton blew gigantic holes in the government's attempt to cover up torture and murder at Guantanamo. Overseas papers are all over the story, but the American mainstream media won't touch it. Make a difference -- post, tweet, or forward Scott's article and do what you can to make America a nation under the rule of law.