Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Intelligent Revolutionary?

Kristan Wheaton, blogging at Sources and Methods, links to an article by Barron YoungSmith in The New Republic, purported to explore Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s “revolutionary” proposals for intelligence-gathering.

As an aside prior to commenting on YoungSmith’s article, Wheaton works as an Intelligence Educator at the very intelligence-savvy Mercyhurst College, and moonlights as a blogger on intelligence related topics at Sources and Methods. She’s prolific, informed, non-partisan from what I have seen, and she’s in my blog roll.

I don’t know that I want to keep repeating “YoungSmith” to accord with my journalistic stylebook. Maybe this is a new affectation as alternative for hyphenated names. But I keep thinking of Senator Paine (Claude Rains) or Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) making slight reference to poor Jefferson Smith (Jimmie Stewart) in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Since YoungSmith is identified as a “web intern” for TNR, perhaps he won’t be offended if I go with Barron out of convenience.

Barron leaves his readers little doubt as to where his sympathies lie in his opening paragraph.

Many of Barack Obama's foreign policy initiatives are designed in direct philosophical opposition to the policies--indeed, the worldview--of the Bush administration. On Iraq, Obama does not merely say that he wants to end mismanagement of the war (like John McCain), nor the war itself (like Hillary Clinton)--he says, "I don't want to just end the war. I want to end the mindset that got us in the war."

Barron apparently adheres to that strand of liberal orthodoxy that insists that war mongering or some other illicit, assumed but unspoken ulterior motives underlie all war making decisions by the Bush Administration. Rather than any genuine motivation to, I don’t know, fight terrorism and the nation states that sponsor and support terrorism. Of course, this comes as no surprise from someone who has helped produce a book called U.S. vs. Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security.

Barron applies his conceit of ulterior motives to a little remarked on idea of Obama’s, that of transforming the post of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) into a fixed term, presumably non-partisan position like that of the Federal Reserve Chairman:

It's common for Democrats to promise an end to Bush-style politicization of intelligence. But the way that Obama frames the issue--likening the DNI to the independent, technocratic Chairman of the Federal Reserve--indicates that his view of the intelligence process is ontologically opposed to the way conservatives see it. As Franklin Foer has explained in detail in The New Republic, the Bush administration justified its pre-war intel abuses using a methodological critique that dates back, at least, to the 1970s (some trace it back to Edmund Burke's distrust of the Enlightenment).

The administration argued that the CIA put too much trust in the social-science methods cultivated by people like the CIA's "father of intelligence analysis," Sherman Kent. Abram Shulsky, who ran the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans--the outfit that produced "alternate intelligence" to justify the Iraq war--decried "the view that intelligence is, at bottom, an endeavor similar to social science, if not equivalent to it," which led to the pernicious belief that "intelligence analysis can be divorced from the policy process and, indeed, be apolitical in nature. As a result, one can even talk about creating within the intelligence community an analytic arm along the lines of a 'world-class think-tank'."

When liberals start dissing Edmund Burke to discredit their political adversaries, their hackles are up, way up. But there’s one heck of a dense set of assumptions in that last paragraph, and worthy of some specific criticism.

No one who has spent any time evaluating the metrics, analytic basis, modeling or predictive assumptions in that miasma called modern Social Science would fail to understand how great an insult is intended by “the view that intelligence is, at bottom, an endeavor similar to social science, if not equivalent to it.” Shulsky no doubt would fully agree with the sentiment Barron in the next paragraph attributes to Obama, that “intelligence assessment is a non-ideological exercise in finding out what's true and what's not,” or that the Intelligence Community (IC) trades first and foremost in “empirically-verifiable facts.”

The IC also necessarily involves subjective judgments, estimates and forecasts, a fair amount of deduction, and prediction, else it provides little value to decision-makers. This nuance ignored by Obama and other Bush critics, and likewise omitted by Barron in his analysis, more accurately gets to the heart of what Shulsky, Rumsfeld and others were trying to accomplish with the IC.

Another aside, this one to critique the TNR piece by Foer that Barron quotes admiringly. (Good choice for an intern.) Foer runs through a litany of stereotypic, cherry picked examples of Bush Administration animus towards the sciences (foremost, the social sciences, but hard sciences too). You’d be hard pressed to glean any even-handedness in Foer’s screed, given that any policy deriving from the “scientific basis” for anthropogenic global warming is good, any objection based on faulty or inadequate science, or worse, pseudo-science is bad.

Foer bases his assault on some imagined Conservatism on this premise:

Since its inception, modern American conservatism has harbored a suspicion of experts, who, through adherence to inductive reasoning and academic methodologies, claim to provide objective research and analysis. To be sure, this social-scientific approach has its limits. Conservatives have raised genuinely troubling questions about its predilection for downplaying the role of "culture" and "values" in shaping human behavior. But the Bush administration has adopted a far more extreme version of this critique: It takes the radically postmodern view that "science," "objectivity," and "truth" are guises for an ulterior, leftist agenda; that experts are so incapable of dispassionate and disinterested analysis that their work doesn't even merit a hearing. And the results have been disastrous.

That’s gross distortion of the position of those who oppose Progressive policy and agenda, whoever well such policy prescriptions are wrapped in the trappings of a science that most of its proponents do not understand a wit (ex., Al Gore). What Conservatives (actual and neo-) have objected to is a presumption that the social scientific fads of today can be counted on as firm foundation for all manner of expansive social programs, the hidden or unintended consequences of which are poorly anticipated or outright ignored.

But note that this resistance to an ever-increasing Government role as Solution to Problems not yet defined, is transformed by Foer and his progressive ilk into a radical view that dispenses with truth. Nothing could be further from “the truth,” as what galls conservatives most is how lightly or little Progressives want to treat with actual truth and consequences, rather than hypotheticals and extremes.

Back to Barron. Barron attempts an even-handed assessment of the IC in acknowledging error, but also doing well in learning from it’s mistakes:

Finding the truth is--of course--a difficult task, and even those who strive for empiricism and objectivity inevitably commit errors. That's true even when the White House and Congress are not pressuring them. But, contrary to current, unwarranted popular perceptions, the IC is actually quite good at doing its job, learning from its mistakes, and adapting its procedures to meet new challenges.

But that’s a fig leaf for Barron,  who evidently views the products of the IC as only acceptable when they fit his (and Obama’s) preconceived and narrow interests, and again, the conceit of “cooking the books:”

Most recently, there was the scuffle over last year's National Intelligence Estimate, which can only be understood in the context of the Bush administration's past attempts to pressure the CIA over Iraq and Iran.

Because the CIA felt the need to push back against the Bush administration's constant pressure to find incriminating evidence about Iran, the Agency issued an NIE that basically slapped the administration in the face--creating a headline that rendered U.S. policy on Iran's uranium enrichment program all but inert until 2009. The Bush administration started this cycle of recrimination, and the end result is that Iran continues to enrich uranium--the most difficult part of making a nuclear bomb--and the U.S. has been helpless to pressure Tehran to stop, to the point where the Europeans were so alarmed they decided to take up the slack.

If the Bush administration had taken a pragmatic approach to Iran's activities, rather than cooking the books to fit its own views, we would have been able to have a substantive, gradual policy that increases pressure on Iran in proportion to its progress on uranium enrichment. And the IC and the administration wouldn't be looking over their shoulders at each other, so suspicious that it's near-impossible for the U.S. to figure out, and devise a rational response to, the true situation on the ground.

So there we have it. Partisans and agenda-mongerers within the IC produced in the latest NIE a deeply flawed, politicized, and intentionally distorted assessment of Iran’s nuclear aims and programs, as a tit-for-tat for earlier politicization. And Barron concludes, as does Obama, Democrats, and TNR, that it’s all Bush’s fault. If he hadn’t been trying to push his foreign policy objectives against their better judgment and advise, he only had himself to blame when they responded with a political missive that short-circuited US foreign policy.

And if Iran acquires functional nuclear weaponry as an unintended consequence? That will be Bush’s fault, too. Natch.

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