NIE: PIE in Our Face

Why were Americans so surprised by the National Intelligence Estimate? Despite six years of fighting in Iraq and the global war on terror, our 16 intelligence agencies agree that there is an expansion of extremist Islamic movements, a rise in terrorist threats, that al-Qaida has evolved, reorganized and could attack us in the US, and that violence in Iraq continues to escalate.

The fact that this was news is a sign of our collective psychological ignorance. All of this was not only predictable -- it was forewarned. As a companion to the NIE, we need a PIE, a Psychological Intelligence Estimate, and a PIA, Psychological Intelligence Agency to base our policies on sound principles grounded in legitimate bodies of knowledge. Tons of facts and data without understanding the underlying dynamics leads to ignorant, dangerous policies based on emotions, short-term concrete thinking, false beliefs, delusions, and a failure to understand the perspectives and perceptions of those on the receiving end of our policies.


  • If we understood the forces and dynamic patterns that fuel cycles of violence, retaliation and terrorism, we would have expected the NIE results -- or, even better, we would have prevented them by heeding warnings, avoiding war, and using creative, nonviolent strategies instead.
  • In fact, those of us who study these patterns through the lenses of conflict studies and other social sciences predicted in 2002 and early 2003, that the invasion of Iraq would

    • multiply recruitment, provide motivation and rationale for more terrorist attacks
    • unleash a global jihad movement against the West
    • provoke a civil war in Iraq and spread violence in the region
    • endanger countries joining the coalition of the willing, making them targets for terrorist attacks
    • inflame anti-American sentiments as well as anti-Semitism around the world
    • eventually make the US more vulnerable to terrorism
    • cause overwhelming suffering to innocent Iraqis, many of whom will swear vengeance, turning friends into enemies
    • harm and traumatize US soldiers and their families
    • humiliate over a billion Muslims, inciting violence and making it difficult for moderate Muslims

    We said these consequences were not merely probable, but inevitable if we invaded Iraq. The war was not even a gamble, because when you gamble, at least you have a chance of winning.

    For the record, we are now predicting much worse if there is any military action against Iran, Senator Lieberman.

    The Credibles

    In the months before the war, my colleagues and I wrote articles, op eds, went on radio and television. I arranged contacts with my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict and Senator Arlen Specter's offices, warning him of the cataclysmic consequences of the war.

    At the Asch Center, Associate Director and political science professor Ian Lustick warned, "If we sow the wind, we will reap the whirlwind." Clark McCauley, another co-director and psychology professor, expert in terrorism and asymmetrical conflict said that if we went to war we would activate Bin Laden's base of a billion Muslims for him. A second war against Muslims would do for Bin Laden what he had failed to do himself: move a billion Muslims toward support for jihad. (Now OBL is hoping the US will be lured into military entanglements in Iran.) Harvard psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton said that war would create "an atrocity producing situation." The work of Professor Phil Zimbardo, past president of the American Psychological Association, predicted the torture at Abu Ghraib, regarding what happens to psychologically normal people when they are put in a position of power over prisoners. Zimbardo also wrote about the psychological manipulation of public fear through use of elevated color coded threat alerts. Dr. Marc Pilisuk, my co-chair on the Committee on Global Violence and Security of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and I wrote an "Emergency Statement: Our Professional Duty to Warn," and I coauthored another piece with conflict analyst professor Richard Rubenstein, "Psychologically Incorrect: Erring on the Side of Danger," about false beliefs justifying the war, just to name a few efforts accurately warning about what has happened.

    It was like watching Romeo and Juliet, warning them not to take the poison, in vain.

    Psychologically Incorrect

    Gripped by fear, righteous indignation, and overconfidence, whether well-meaning or manipulative, people argued for the necessity of war for our security. However, arguments based on intense emotions, false beliefs, geopolitical and economic motivations, paranoia, or simplistic thinking are not valid and produce results opposite of those intended (unless what is intended is Armageddon).

    "Poor reality testing" is a psychological concept meaning one's assessment of objective reality is distorted by emotions. As long as our leaders and pundits are driven by poor reality testing, their strategies are guaranteed to make things worse. Reacting out of fear and producing fear, humiliation, and defiance in those we think we can control produces an escalating spiral fueled by "self-fulfilling paranoia."

    Why are we influenced by people with no credibility and no relevant training or skills who make up stuff up? Why don't we have a 'psychological fact check" when they say things that are the opposite of what is true, like we now do when companies say cigarettes are not addictive? Why does no one require qualifications when it comes to global violence when the stakes are so high?

    In trying to assess various policies now, why not listen to those who repeatedly get it right -- "the Credibles," who study relevant phenomena, and who have no vested financial or political interest other than preventing and reducing cycles of violence?

    Political Malpractice

    When one is in an accident, bleeding with broken bones, you don't bring in lawyers and politicians. You bring in a team of specialists trained and experienced in stopping bleeding, reducing pain, preventing infection, setting bones, and healing. Global security is in the emergency room now, maybe the intensive care unit, and we need political healers rather than political quacks to save us.

    In most professions, there are established standards of practice and ethical codes. Practitioners are not allowed to make stuff up. They can't practice outside their area of training, grossly misdiagnose, or use unproven and unsuccessful methods. They can't be ruled by emotions, or use treatments that kill a 85% of patients. (For example, sanctions -- a punitive policy favored by many in congress -- fail 85% of the time -- making matters worse, except under very specific conditions. Rep. Ron Paul got this one right). Responsible professionals consult with colleagues and get supervision with difficult, complicated cases.

    But in politics, people are allowed to make stuff up and act on hunches with no sound basis. In politics, mistakes don't harm 1, 10, or 100 people, but millions or billions. Isn't it time we have a Hippocratic oath for politicians to "Do no harm?" Why aren't politicians, who have our lives in their hands, required to follow standards of an ethical and sound practice using effective violence preventing and reducing strategies? Why not train people that in working even with "bad guys" one does not humiliate, threaten and back them into a corner, knowing that would make them more dangerous?

    Why not conduct a "grand rounds" with trained interdisciplinary professionals trained in the social sciences who understand tension reduction, violence prevention, conflict transformation, trauma, fear, humiliation, systems theory, collective healing, use of media, and so on? Why not a Psychological Intelligence Agency?

    Policies for Sitting Ducks

    In the 6 years of the GWOT, Global War on Terror, incidents of terrorism have multiplied seven fold. As a technique, terrorism has evolved in skills, technology and tactics. As Condy Rice said, they are evolving and adapting (to our aggression!). As Donald Rumsfeld suggested, we are creating more terrorists than we are killing. Al Qaeda has transformed into to a global movement, thanks to US. We cannot bully, threaten, humiliate, invade, and build military bases in Muslim countries - pissing off over a billion people and passively hope our leaders can protect us from their "warfare of the weak" reactions to us.

    Terrorism cannot be defeated. Counterterrorism is a superficial strategy focused on the symptom -- not the causes. Eliminating terrorists is the opposite of eliminating, or reducing terrorism. Granted we need intelligence, surveillance, inspections, and securing fissile materials around the world (Nunn-Lugar bill which Bush cut funding for) -- but this deals with the supply side of terrorism -- not the demand side. As long as we only treat the symptoms, there is no endgame. We will be sitting ducks, provoking spirals of violence, inspiring future attacks and living in fear -- forever. This is irrational.

    Cheaper, Deeper Security

    Although terrorism cannot be defeated, it can be drastically reduced. Terrorism is not an inevitable fact of life that we have to live with. We do not have to accept being dragged into "the long war."

    Politicians and media focus on the inherent evilness and bad behavior of our enemies, as being independent from our actions. If we ignore our role in provoking escalation, we will always be right, always be good, and always be in danger. Like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle -- we cannot accurately observe anything without considering how we effect what we are observing. If we can understand how our uses of power affect the behavior of our adversaries, and the dynamic interactions, as well as history, we have a chance of deliberately, consciously reducing tension and violence.

    There are forces that push individuals and groups to extremism, fundamentalism and violence. These do not arise from nothing. Frequency of attacks correlate with various factors, including occupation and other forms of asymmetrical power. For many who become suicide bombers, there is a transformative "breaking point" such as the killing of a family member or leader, trauma, or a humiliation, or dashed hopes.

    People are more dangerous and violent when afraid, humiliated, threatened, overpowered, and blocked from satisfying universal, basic human needs. People prefer to get their needs met by decent means. When these are blocked, they resort to more devious means -- eventually violence if all else fails. For example, in Iraq there have been many peaceful demonstrations and petitions to end the occupation. Failure to respond leads to more violent tactics.

    Since basic human needs are universal and non-negotiable, people will not give up easily until their needs are met. Some research demonstrates that forms of terrorism are instrumental in nature and end when the goals are met. Those who are in power to satisfy basic needs often refuse - believing they would be rewarding the bad behavior that was provoked by blocking these needs to begin with. This creates an impossible power struggle, a "catch 22" or an apparent "double bind" meaning "damned if you do and damned if you don't." Using common sense, being right, righteous and reasonable usually makes things worse. What works is often counterintuitive, the opposite of what you'd expect -- requiring "uncommon sense."

    Actors who possess the most power often fear and refuse to do precisely what will work because they do not understand the suffering of their adversary, the nature of just grievances and legitimate goals, believe they are giving in rather than correcting a root cause. Politics from an "ego position," i.e., "we can't give in, let them win" does not allow for interventions that are capable of actually reducing violence. This includes ending occupations.

    To drastically reduce terrorism, we must reduce the desire of peoples to take revenge on us, by understanding, analyzing and addressing root causes, just grievances, basic human needs and legitimate goals for dignity, identify, sovereignty, and security. Advanced techniques of conflict transformation, beyond the scope of this article, exist. Tension reduction is an organizing principle.

    A ton of prevention is worth a megaton of cure. After so much trauma, it is far more difficult and requires specific processes designed to promote individual and collective healing. The first step is stopping the violence. Various elements of truth and reconciliation commissions are being evaluated for effectiveness in ending cycles of violence. These include recognition of the truth, bearing witness, recording an accurate historical narrative, personal and political apologies, restitution, reparations, and healing rituals.

    A Quantum Leap in Ending Terrorism

    Another factor that could drastically reduce terrorism would be a change in the US government to one that is sharply disidentified with the actors and the administration responsible for unleashing so much pain and suffering. Differentiation of a new US government from the old, to an administration that is not threatening, and even reassuring, healing, correcting, rebuilding will go a long way to reduce the threat -- if we can achieve that before the next attack.