By Richard Sale, author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
As the brilliant Washington Post piece made uncomfortably clear, the dilemmas of intelligence are not only as intractable as they have ever been, they have become contaminated in a very dubious and even sinister way by questions of marketing.
I am speaking, of course, of the hiring of outside intelligence contractors whose field may be intelligence assessment but whose survival and financial success depend on finding backing among decision makers who are no way exempt from the dangerous fallacies associated with the formation of opinion.
In my view, perhaps the foremost intelligence questions are three: what is really worth knowing about a predicament or a threat, how is that information to be conveyed to quarters where it counts, and how is one to convince policy-makers that the correct views are valid and, therefore, demand a series of effective countermeasures.
Unfortunately, policy-makers suffer from the same defects as the rest of us. We are all mentally inert, and the minds of policy-makers are, like our own, examples of acquiescent credulity covering an extensive range of matters. The novel or original is hardly ever the welcome and it is no surprise that the majority of such minds display a worship of hearsay. They work best with those minds whose views most closely mirror their own. The familiar and commonplace is all too often perceived and esteemed as being the true and it follows that facts that are disturbing, discrepant, contradictory, and which may actually prove key to the successful analysis of the case, all too often initially appear perverse, willful or ignorant. Many policy-makers are people of unforeseeing temperament, and we too often forget that the accurate and the familiar will almost always be two hostile species eternally at war.
As a marketer, the outside contractor knows this. Their survival and success depends on providing what the policy-maker most wants to hear. They know that most policy-makers seek to avoid failure rather than to secure success. The focus of contractors thus shifts from objectivity of analysis to summing up a situation in the light of the money that can be made from it. The aim is not dispassionate analysis but the push to successfully market a product. Thus, the goal is to overpower critics and opponents. Any vestige of critical detachment departs and the contaminating skills of debate move to center stage. It is the hour of dexterous words and dazzling arguments, the time for obvious ignorance and obvious claims. Any advocate is the slave of the tendencies of the hour and as the contradictory, the subtle, the skeptical are diluted and deleted we get, not the truth, but all the rehearsed vehemences, the manipulation of expectations not warranted by either results or the evidence. The dissenting case is weakened, undermined and falsely presented as trivial and even a dangerous waste of time. Thus the bad argument dethrones the good.
In history we have seen such conflicts over and over again, and that each has occurred with disastrous consequences is all too clear. Think, for example, of the development of Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 weapons, and the notorious Sandys-Cherwell controversy. Cherwell did everything possible to diffuse and blur any focus on the essentials of the threat, instead of selflessly acting to sharpen the understanding of them. Reports of a rocket and a flying bomb Cherwell dismissed as hoaxes. Cherwell was wrong from beginning to end, and yet while this bickering went on in England for almost three years and while Cherwell blundered stubbornly on, denying or trivializing the threat, the V-weapons which could directly threaten British territory with little or no warning, and which were designed for the mass slaughter of the British population, went right on. Cherwell’s arguments were so much wind wasted, and thousands of casualties were the result.
There are, of course, other cases. One thinks of the dispute in the 1950s between the U.S. Army and Air Force over the nature of a U.S. counterstrike against a Soviet attack. The Army was in charge of missile development, the Air Force in charge of developing manned bombers. The Army was lackadaisical, the Air Force determined. Thus, the Air Force won the argument until the startling advent of Sputnik showed that the Soviets had concentrated on the correct strategic course of developing missiles, prompting, in a violent swerve, the United Sates to abruptly change course.
In fairness, one has to concede that this kind of tragic contest between factions can occur because even the best intelligence consists of scraps, of fragments, and, all too often in history, even its most brilliant strokes consist of little more than an inspired guess. And yet these fragments must go up against a bulwark of established nonsense, hurled like so many eggs against a wall, for, as we know, no human task is greater than to get human beings to reconsider what they regard as fixed wisdom.
Thus, the warning is there. Too often contractors succeed because they know how to argue and convert, because they play expertly on the anxieties and uncertainties of decision makers. But are they right? And to what degree is what they peddle perverted and deformed by a desire for financial gain and for further influence and top-level access?
A further note
A matter that also troubles me personally is the enormous fragmentation of the intelligence picture that has occurred since the demise of the Soviet Union. Think of the incredible number of new states, the weakening of federal authority in many old states of Western Europe, and one wonders how any nation will be able to muster the means to become master of any intelligence picture.
I read recently of how Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was as much of a triumph of intelligence as it was a feat of arms. Caesar was a student of Alexander the Great and his father Philip who were master collectors of strategic and regional intelligence. Philip entertained a constant stream of visitors who were prominent in their region and he asked questions about the productivity of the soil, the number of inhabitants and gained knowledge of bridges, roads, harbors and strong points. He also was familiar with the biographies of all the prominent men of the area he meant to conquer.
Alexander did the same thing with Persia. He was alert to seize its weak points and pick the vast empire to pieces, and in the case of Gaul, Caesar did the same. He especially excelled in gathering ethnographic intelligence – the structure of the tribes, especially their wars and divisions, and Caesar, like Philip, was a careful student of their character, their volatility, their lack of resilience, their boastfulness, their unreliability. And in the case of tactical intelligence, Caesar had his marvelous squads of scouts traveling 15 kilometers ahead of his army, and the scouts’ leaders had direct and immediate access to him.
We live in an age of comint, elint, humint, and all kinds of imaging intelligence, and yet my mind goes back to Bosnia, an area we knew so little about and had so few experts who spoke Serb Croatian that in the early days we could barely gather intelligence from the Serb newspapers. Does our current infatuation with contractors and technology provide us with sufficient ethnographic intelligence on Afghanistan, an area which seems to me very similar in its makeup to Caesar’s Gaul?
In other words, even with all our technology, is it possible for us to repeat the lesson of Caesar and Alexander – that the locals know and the invaders don’t?