Our Secret American Security State
The New York Review of Books, February 9, 2012
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
Little, Brown, 296 pp., $27.99
Intelligence and US Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform
by Paul R. Pillar
Columbia University Press, 413 pp., $29.50
Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda
by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker
Times Books, 324 pp., $27.00
What is the American intelligence bureaucracy good for? The question is difficult to ask in a serious way in Washington because it risks raising the hackles of career intelligence professionals and their political sponsors at a time when spy agencies remain under pressure to combat resilient if diminished international terrorist groups and to monitor and check Iran’s nuclear program, among other challenges. Yet a serious, transparent review of the intelligence system’s strengths and limitations is overdue.
The past decade has witnessed one of the most egregious misuses of intelligence in American history—the Bush administration’s distortion of information about Saddam Hussein’s terrorist ties and unconventional weapons, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. It has also seen a surge of paramilitary activity and covert action that has included the operation of secret prisons, the use of torture, and targeted killing. The Obama administration ended officially sanctioned torture, but it has refused to allow official inquiries into how it occurred, and the administration has increased the number of covert, unacknowledged targeted killings through the use of armed, unmanned aerial drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
In all, a president who might have challenged the American intelligence bureaucracy and given it a new direction has instead maintained and even expanded what he inherited. Nor has Congress reviewed the hasty organizational reforms it enacted after September 11 or reckoned in depth with the problems exposed by the Iraq disaster. The vital questions that seemed to be begged after the Bush era—about the intelligence system’s scope, effectiveness, costs, outsourcing, legal justifications, and vulnerability to politicization—have remained largely unaddressed.
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After September 11, newspaper Op-Ed pages were full of recommendations for radical departures in American intelligence, changes that might place new emphasis on lean and adaptable operations. There was much talk of a long-term development of “human sources of information”; of the need for risk-taking and the bold penetration of what are known in the intelligence agencies as “denied areas,” such as Iran and North Korea. Some of that ambition has been fulfilled; it is difficult to measure how much, since so much of the detail of post–September 11 covert action and intelligence collection remains secret.
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What is plain, nonetheless, is that the larger story of the American intelligence system is one of continuity. The bureaucracy has defended itself from outside investigation and oversight and has followed many of the trajectories set during the Eisenhower years. The relative strengths of tactical American intelligence tradecraft today include innovative technology, vacuum cleaner–like collection of electronic data worldwide, computer algorithms that sort valuable information from noise, and the bludgeoning effects on adversaries of huge if wasteful spending. These methods look very similar to those of the anti-Soviet intelligence system. The bureaucracy’s weaknesses—inefficiency, ignorance of local cultures, revolving doors, self-perpetuation, vulnerability to political pressure, and an overall lack of accountability—are deeply familiar, too.
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Phi Beta Iota: The New York Review of Books is retarded. Search for the article to read the full piece without their demand for registration. We note with interest that most of these themes were clearly addressed by Robert Steele in ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World (AFCEA, 2000), but “blacked out” by the sycophantic media including Steve Coll and David Ignatius. It is a rare day when a mainstream media person gets this real–Mr. Coll now administers the New America Foundation, a front for the Obama Administration that receives taxpayer funding it has not earned. This sudden “conversion” by Mr. Coll may be a preamble to a very large but still insufficient and ineffective cut of secret intelligence just prior to the election. Neither Mr. Coll nor the Obama Administration are interested in intelligence with integrity–only profiteering from the commonwealth while flim-flaming the public with theatrics.
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