Jul 12th 2010

The Spy Who Bored Me

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

The "Comatose Sleeper Cell" mystery shows us that the ability of the country's security services to waste resources is matched only by the media's ability to dramatize trivial material. The only surprise is that the exchange did not take place at a Checkpoint Charlie scene set in the presence of Attorney General Holder intoning that the United States remains ever vigilant to safeguard us from enemies domestic and foreign. But mainly foreign types, such as Russians whose evil ways we recall from the last film. I suspect that "the redhead" is destined to reemerge as a centerfold pin-up in some gentlemen's magazine - published in both English and Russian, of course.

Does this skepticism imply that all espionage is passé? I think not. Human intelligence is a necessary complement, if not antidote to excessive reliance on our omnivorous electronic and video surveillance. We supposedly learned that lesson from Iraq and Iran. I am not in a position to know what we have done to fill the void and how effective that has been. Still, this latest bit of hyped spy cum security threat does require us to ask the question: what is the value of "intelligence" in the national security equation?

"Intelligence" failures often are failures of intelligence. Operation Barbarossa; the German airborne assault on Crete; the Yom Kippur War; the Iranian revolution; 9/11; the great financial meltdown of 2008 - 2009. In every instance, there was ample information available to have anticipated and to have forestalled the resulting disaster for the parties affected. The causes lay with leaders who were blinded by hubris and/or dogma, distracted, disorganized or simply lacking in the awareness and perception needed to make sense of what they knew.

This is not to say that rigorous "intelligence" gathering is insignificant. At the tactical level, it can be crucial on the battlefield or in tracking down elements of a serious conspiracy. It also can provide the raw data that senior decision-makers need to digest, e.g. the two reports from FBI field officers that Arab men with green cards were learning how to fly jet aircraft without regard to take-off or landing. In that case, neither the digestive system nor the neurological system was working.

The United States' two most immediate security problems - Afghanistan, and Iran - illustrate the greater importance of intelligence. As to the former, President Obama had two millennia of data to draw on that underscored the improbabilities of success in reaching the audacious goal of remaking the country so that al-Qaida and the Taliban would disappear forevermore. He had more recent data about the Pakistan-Taliban connection; and he had direct experience of the Iraq fiasco in so-called nation-building. Yet he went ahead for electoral reasons and a weakness of character that made him prey to the Pentagon hawks and the Washington punditocracy. Moreover, as soon he made it clear that Afghanistan was slated to be his war, the foreign policy community swung en masse behind him to make sure that they weren't left out of the game.

On Iran, there is a similar phenomenon wherein those "intelligence" people (and intelligent people) with knowledge of the country have been nearly unanimous in the judgment that Tehran never will foreclose the nuclear option unless there were an historic understanding reached about all aspects of security in the region - an agreement that afforded them a legitimate place in such a regional system. All the rest, on our part and their part, has been posturing designed to avoid meeting an exceedingly difficult diplomatic challenge. Here again, the current standoff after years of sterile policies should have come as no surprise. Here again, the failures have been ones of faulty strategic intelligence, political timidity and group think. Yes, it would be helpful to know the exact disposition of all the country's nuclear relevant facilities (and the same for their missile program). Still, if we had that knowledge there would remain wide confidence margins on answers to the key questions of what their future intentions are, what are reasonable time horizons and what repercussions we should expect from military action.. Hence, the same critical strategic judgments would have to be made.

Reflective thinking is out of fashion in Washington. It soon will qualify to be placed on the endangered species list. No compensatory measures or mechanisms exist or can be devised - certainly not better "intelligence" gathering. Our senior foreign policy people can fly unceasingly in swarms to Baghdad, to Kabul, to Islamabad or to wherever without their wanderlust changing the harsh realities one iota. They can play word games about "obsessing with withdrawal dates," about "Iranian intransigence having consequences," that "Iran must stop interfering in Afghanistan and Iraq" - two neighboring countries we invaded and occupy ; about "making future generations of Americans safe from terrorism" as long as their breath and political mandate hold out without changing the harsh realities one iota.

Perhaps what we need is to designate one day a week when Washington - official and unofficial -is required to observe absolute silence and to go nowhere except for incursions to the deeper reaches of their minds

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Mar 5th 2021
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Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
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Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "