The big unreported story of the Iraqi crisis is the failure of American intelligence agencies to foresee the ISIS campaign. Indeed, the ISIS phenomenon from its emergence two years ago until now has largely passed under the radar of the CIA, NSA et al. Officials are quoted as admitting that we were "caught by surprise," "of being stunned." That should not surprise us in the light of a depressing record of serial failure to identify in advance developments in Egypt, Mali, Libya, Kenya, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran. By any objective measure, the intelligence establishment's performance in its main task of gathering and interpreting information has been mediocre. Graded in terms of efficiency, yield per unit of resources invested, the United States surely is at the bottom of the international ranking.
There has been no explanation for this latest dismaying lapse. None is demanded -- by the White House, by Congress, by the media. The latter phenomenon itself provides part of the explanation. Nobody has held the intelligence agencies accountable for sins of commission or omission since the great GWOT was launched. They have been flooded with dollars, allowed to run their own show, and publicize as a great successes their paltry results because no one has been looking critically at what they have been doing. Even the Snowden revelations' shining of a light on systemic abuse of constitutional guaranteed civil liberties has dimmed. The absence of any discernible payoff from those illegal activities remains a matter mentioned only in the shadows.
The intelligence agencies' lack of knowledge in depth about ISIS and its intentions is especially glaring for two reasons. First, it concerns what all have declared the overriding security concern of the United States: Islamic terrorism. Second, it has arisen in the very country that we invaded, occupied and politically remade through hands-on intervention for eight years. Iraq is where we built the world's biggest embassy staffed by more than 2,000 officials. Iraq is where we still have 25,000 nationals engaged as contractors of one sort or another assisting the Iraqis with everything from maintenance of American arms to oil extraction. In addition, Syria next door has been at the top of Washington's foreign policy agenda where it has gotten priority attention for the past three years ever since the civil war broke out. Yet, despite all these advantages, we have only the most cursory knowledge of who's who, what's what, and what we could expect next.1 The evolution of sentiment among the Sunni tribes of Anbar that led to an alliance of convenience with ISIS seems not to have been closely monitored. The role of the Ba'athist Naqshbandias, who fought us during the insurrection between 2003 and 2008, eluded the intelligence grasp of the CIA. As for ISIS itself, we slowly are learning that it has developed a sophisticated organization structure that includes meticulous record keeping and regular financing through diverse activities centered on Mosul where it installed itself during the period of "false victory." American officials thought it had been "vanquished," reduced to a wraith of its former self (The Telegraph, June 242).
There is reason to make an exception for the DIA on the monitoring issue - at least. Why the information presumably transmitted to the CIA and NSA did not prompt their chiefs to analyze rigorously the implications and transmit the conclusions to the White House remains the compelling question. Possible explanations are considered below.
The self-serving justifications that have issued from various anonymous officials are embarrassingly simple minded. (Newsweek, June 193) The Embassy staff found it too dangerous to venture outside the Green Zone. (To observe with one-eyed telescopes)? We lost contact with our sources among the tribal leaders in the turmoil that upset communications routines (E-mail? Text messaging? Telephoning? Carrier pigeons?). "Our guys" in the sensitive ministries have been removed by Iranian advisers. Doesn't sound tradecraft dictate that a network of intelligence sources inside a foreign government should not be constructed only of people identifiable as "our guys?" Did the CIA in fact leave behind a network of contacts inside and outside government and the political factions on whom Washington could rely? Or were the 2,000 lost souls in the imperial palace on the Tigris supposed to be a functional substitute? If so, how? If not, how do they spend their time?
All of this seems pretty rudimentary to any reader of John Le Carre or the memoirs of agents. It is hard to believe that there were not people in the CIA or DIA or wherever who had some sense of the ISIS -- its emergence and implications -- however inadequate. As often is the case, the communications gap between analysts' reports and policy-making levels is the Achilles heel of the American intelligence establishment. Essential information and analysis can easily be misplaced, warped, diluted or distorted to serve ulterior purposes. The risk of this happening is magnified several fold when certain conditions exist. Agency leaders who have pronounced views as what policy should be are one liability. Agency leaders who are careerists mainly concerned with what reporting will win favor with the White House and/or Congress is another. Infatuation with technology at the expense of human assets at every phase of the intelligence gathering and assessment process is a third. In all candor, each of these conditions has been a pronounced feature of American intelligence agencies in the GWOT era. The negative consequences are aggravated when senior makers from the President on down are not paying focused attention to the workings of those agencies or the quality of their product.
This last has been a feature of the Obama administrations. It derives from a number of sources: inexperience, undue attention paid the domestic political aspect of foreign policy, unjustified confidence in and loyalty to certain individuals, or viewing a high position less as public trust than as a vehicle to advance personal ambitions. A related dimension to this complacency syndrome is instinctive acceptance of the basic tenets underlying American foreign policy. The Obama administration shares with its predecessors the core beliefs and premises that have underlain the nation's view of its world since 9/11. Some precede it. American exceptionalism, indispensable American leadership, overly ambitious goals (to create a new world order, to eradicate fundamentalist Islam, to reduce the terrorist threat to zero) and sweeping definitions of national interest are all taken implicitly as Gospel. Any deviation is judged heretical and shunned. The only permissible change is in the packing and presentation - as Obama's West Point speech demonstrates. The dead hand of the political classes' orthodoxy stifles the slightest inclination towards skepticism.
This is the environment in which belief substitutes for strategy, policy results are automatically spun, failure is a world unspoken -- and, therefore, no one is held accountable for it, especially the intelligence agencies.
The distressing truth is that our leaders have inhabited a policy world so twisted out of shape by deceit and self-delusion that that their grip on reality has been dangerously loosened. The dishonesty at the core of George Bush's "war on terror" has had the deleterious effect of distorting the lens through which Americans -- including his successor -- view themselves, the world around them, and the dangers that emanate from it. Multiple delusions follow. One of these delusions -- shared by the President and his entourage -- is that we are protected by highly motivated, super competent and relentless intelligence agencies directed by people of great probity. A companion delusion is that it is unpatriotic to look too critically at those leaders and what they actually are doing. The inevitable outcome: abuse, failure and squandered resources.
Of course, there is an advantage to perpetuating delusions about the performance of the intelligence agencies: you don't learn things that inconveniently discredit other delusions. We have one striking example of this psychological pattern at work. Revelations about the NSA's trespass on the Fourth Amendment evoked a response conditioned by the near universal conviction among Washington elites that the Agency's activities were invaluable and, therefore, any conjectural curtailment -- however modest -- had to be balanced against that supposed benefit. Senior officials gave solemn testimony under oath that indeed the information gleaned had been vital in protecting Americans.
Those pronouncements by Clapper, Alexander, Brennan et al turn out to have been outright untruths. It is now established that there is no evidence that a single terrorist threat in the United States, of any magnitude, was prevented as a result of these massive assaults on civil liberties. Or the electronic surveillance of foreign leaders and other public figures. The President's own select Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies has so concluded. Yet, neither the Congress, nor any part of the Executive Branch nor the MSM have drawn the logical conclusion that the threat has been hugely inflated and the siege mentality that has driven American policies at home and abroad without sound basis. Concealing that logical connection helps to explain the absence of any serious effort to come to terms with the NSA abuses, those who have orchestrated the deception about their justification, those who lied about them and those (including the President) who have used the same methods against the Senate Intelligence Committee itself. To tear the tissue of delusion about the one is to risk the pain and embarrassment of tearing other tissues of delusion as well.
Freedom of conscience about the truth of the "terrorism years" is not prized or sought. It is the comfort and convenience promised by "corrected" truth that better serves what our leaders' crave and need most.
1. See, too, the Swedish report: Following the Money: Financing the Territorial Expansion of Islamist Insurgents in Syria, by Michael Jonsson -- FOI Memo 4947; 2014-05-23
2. Kurdish sources reportedly forewarned Washington of a formal agreement signed by ISIS, Sunni tribal leaders and the Naqshbandias late last year. They specifically noted plans for the campaign aimed at Mosul. It fell on deaf ears. (The Telegraph June 24)
3. Newsweek, June 19, 2014
"The "surprising" collapse of the Iraqi army and the defection of key Sunni tribal leaders to al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents has largely stripped the CIA of spies in the embattled country, according to knowledgeable intelligence sources. As a result, according to a U.S. intelligence official, the CIA is mostly relying on "technical means" -- electronic intercepts of all kinds -- and the support of friendly regional secret services, like Jordan's, to monitor the rapidly deteriorating situation.
"The train has left the station," a former top CIA operations official told Newsweek on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the situation. "We can monitor where else they are spreading and who their new playmates are, but that is about it."
U.S. intelligence operatives are for the most part "holed up" in the American embassy in Baghdad, unable to meet with sources in Sunni tribes who previously battled al-Qaeda-backed forces, either because their contacts have defected to the insurgents or because traveling to the battle zones is too dangerous.
Defense Department and CIA "contractors have been operating the last couple of years in the [outlying] areas at the request of the embassy ..." but now, "they say that 70 miles outside of Baghdad, it's just lawless."
"We were all amazed and so were the Americans," a senior intelligence official told the Guardian. "None of us had known most of this information."
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