Tom Engelhardt: How American Intelligence Works in the Twenty-First Century

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By Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s His new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books), has just been published. Originally posted at TomDispatch

What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters.  You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities.  Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it.  Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.

You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet.  You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order.  You break into the “backdoors” of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts.  You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies).  Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt.  Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.

You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn’t make it into our world.  You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can’t say that their mouths have been shut).  You undoubtedly spy on Congress.  You hack into congressional computer systems.  And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you’re doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population).  You do everything to wreck their lives and — should one escape your grasp — you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.

As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex.

Think of the world of the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” or IC, as a near-perfect closed system and rare success story in twenty-first-century Washington.  In a capital riven by fierce political disagreements, just about everyone agrees on the absolute, total, and ultimate importance of that “community” and whatever its top officials might decide in order to keep this country safe and secure.

Yes, everything you’ve done has been in the name of national security and the safety of Americans.  And as we’ve discovered, there is never enough security, not at least when it comes to one thing: the fiendish ability of “terrorists” to threaten this country.  Admittedly, terrorist attacks would rank above shark attacks, but not much else on a list of post-9/11 American dangers.  And for this, you take profuse credit — for, that is, the fact that there has never been a “second 9/11.”  In addition, you take credit for breaking up all sorts of terror plans and plots aimed at this country, including an amazing 54 of them reportedly foiled using the phone and email “metadata” of Americans gathered by the NSA.  As it happens, a distinguished panel appointed by President Obama, with security clearances that allowed them to examine these spectacular claims in detail, found that not a single one had merit.

Whatever the case, while taxpayer dollars flowed into your coffers, no one considered it a problem that the country lacked 17 overlapping outfits bent on preventing approximately 400,000 deaths by firearms in the same years; nor 17 interlocked agencies dedicated to safety on our roads, where more than 450,000 Americans have died since 9/11.  (An American, it has been calculated, is 1,904 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.)  Almost all the money and effort have instead been focused on the microscopic number of terrorist plots — some spurred on by FBI plants — that have occurred on American soil in that period.  On the conviction that Americans must be shielded from them above all else and on the fear that 9/11 bred in this country, you’ve built an intelligence structure unlike any other on the planet when it comes to size, reach, and labyrinthine complexity.

It’s quite an achievement, especially when you consider its one downside: it has a terrible record of getting anything right in a timely way.  Never have so many had access to so much information about our world and yet been so unprepared for whatever happens in it.

When it comes to getting ahead of the latest developments on the planet, the ones that might really mean something to the government it theoretically serves, the IC is — as best we can tell from the record it largely prefers to hide — almost always behind the 8-ball.  It seems to have been caught off guard regularly enough to defy any imaginable odds. 

Think about it, and think hard.  Since 9/11 (which might be considered the intelligence equivalent of original sin when it comes to missing the mark), what exactly are the triumphs of a system the likes of which the world has never seen before?  One and only one event is sure to come immediately to mind: the tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden. (Hey, Hollywood promptly made a movie out of it!)  Though he was by then essentially a toothless figurehead, an icon of jihadism and little else, the raid that killed him is the single obvious triumph of these years.

Otherwise, globally from the Egyptian spring and the Syrian disaster to the crisis in Ukraine, American intelligence has, as far as we can tell, regularly been one step late and one assessment short, when not simply blindsided by events.  As a result, the Obama administration often seems in a state of eternal surprise at developments across the globe.  Leaving aside the issue of intelligence failures in the death of an American ambassador in Benghazi, for instance, is there any indication that the IC offered President Obama a warning on Libya before he decided to intervene and topple that country’s autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011?  What we know is that he was told, incorrectly it seems, that there would be a “bloodbath,” possibly amounting to a genocidal act, if Gaddafi’s troops reached the city of Benghazi.

Might an agency briefer have suggested what any reading of the results of America’s twenty-first century military actions across the Greater Middle East would have taught an observant analyst with no access to inside information: that the fragmentation of Libyan society, the growth of Islamic militancy (as elsewhere in the region), and chaos would likely follow?  We have to assume not, though today the catastrophe of Libya and the destabilization of a far wider region of Africa is obvious.

Let’s focus for a moment, however, on a case where more is known.  I’m thinking of the development that only recently riveted the Obama administration and sent it tumbling into America’s third Iraq war, causing literal hysteria in Washington.  Since June, the most successful terror group in history has emerged full blown in Syria and Iraq, amid a surge in jihadi recruitment across the Greater Middle East and Africa.  The Islamic State (IS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sprang to life during the U.S. occupation of that country, has set up a mini-state, a “caliphate,” in the heart of the Middle East.  Part of the territory it captured was, of course, in the very country the U.S. garrisoned and occupied for eight years, in which it had assumedly developed countless sources of information and recruited agents of all sorts.  And yet, by all accounts, when IS’s militants suddenly swept across northern Iraq, the CIA in particular found itself high and dry.

The IC seems not to have predicted the group’s rapid growth or spread; nor, though there was at least some prior knowledge of the decline of the Iraqi army, did anyone imagine that such an American created, trained, and armed force would so summarily collapse.  Unforeseen was the way its officers would desert their troops who would, in turn, shed their uniforms and flee Iraq’s major northern cities, abandoning all their American equipment to Islamic State militants.

Nor could the intelligence community even settle on a basic figure for how many of those militants there were.  In fact, in part because IS assiduously uses couriers for its messaging instead of cell phones and emails, until a chance arrest of a key militant in June, the CIA and the rest of the IC evidently knew next to nothing about the group or its leadership, had no serious assessment of its strength and goals, nor any expectation that it would sweep through and take most of Sunni Iraq.  And that should be passing strange.  After all, it now turns out that much of the future leadership of IS had spent time together in the U.S. military’s Camp Bucca prison just years earlier.

All you have to do is follow the surprised comments of various top administration officials, including the president, as ISIS made its mark and declared its caliphate, to grasp just how ill-prepared 17 agencies and $68 billion can leave you when your world turns upside down. 

Producing Subprime Intelligence as a Way of Life

In some way, the remarkable NSA revelations of Edward Snowden may have skewed our view of American intelligence.  The question, after all, isn’t simply: Who did they listen in on or surveil or gather communications from?  It’s also: What did they find out?  What did they draw from the mountains of information, the billions of bits of intelligence data that they were collecting from individual countries monthly (Iran, 14 billion; Pakistan, 13.5 billion; Jordan, 12.7 billion, etc.)?  What was their “intelligence”?  And the answer seems to be that, thanks to the mind-boggling number of outfits doing America’s intelligence work and the yottabytes of data they sweep up, the IC is a morass of information overload, data flooding, and collective blindness as to how our world works.

You might say that the American intelligence services encourage the idea that the world is only knowable in an atmosphere of big data and a penumbra of secrecy.  As it happens, an open and open-minded assessment of the planet and its dangers would undoubtedly tell any government so much more.  In that sense, the system bolstered and elaborated since 9/11 seems as close to worthless in terms of bang for the buck as any you could imagine.  Which means, in turn, that we outsiders should view with a jaundiced eye the latest fear-filled estimates and overblown “predictions” from the IC that, as now with the tiny (possibly fictional) terror group Khorasan, regularly fill our media with nightmarish images of American destruction.

If the IC’s post-9/11 effectiveness were being assessed on a corporate model, it’s hard not to believe that at least 15 of the agencies and outfits in its “community” would simply be axed and the other two downsized.  (If the Republicans in Congress came across this kind of institutional tangle and record of failure in domestic civilian agencies, they would go after it with a meat cleaver.)  I suspect that the government could learn far more about this planet by anteing up some modest sum to hire a group of savvy observers using only open-source information.  For an absolute pittance, they would undoubtedly get a distinctly more actionable vision of how our world functions and its possible dangers to Americans.  But of course we’ll never know.  Instead, whatever clever analysts, spooks, and operatives exist in the maze of America’s spy and surveillance networks will surely remain buried there, while the overall system produces vast reams of subprime intelligence.

Clearly, having a labyrinth of 17 overlapping, paramilitarized, deeply secretive agencies doing versions of the same thing is the definition of counterproductive madness.  Not surprisingly, the one thing the U.S. intelligence community has resembled in these years is the U.S. military, which since 9/11 has failed to win a war or accomplish more or less anything it set out to do.

On the other hand, all of the above assumes that the purpose of the IC is primarily to produce successful “intelligence” that leaves the White House a step ahead of the rest of the world.  What if, however, it’s actually a system organized on the basis of failure?  What if any work-product disaster is for the IC another kind of win.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking of those overlapping agencies as a fiendishly clever Rube Goldberg-style machine organized around the principle that failure is the greatest success of all.  After all, in the system as it presently exists, every failure of intelligence is just another indication that more security, more secrecy, more surveillance, more spies, more drones are needed; only when you fail, that is, do you get more money for further expansion. 

Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth.  That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history.  (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.)  However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.

You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so.  An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course.  If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?

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  1. David Mills

    The simple answer to the question at the end of the article is: #JobsForTheBoys. On a more conspiratorial note, my guess is that most politicians in the US are owned one way or another. A carrot-stick combo of campaign contributions and the background files that have been amassed on them.

    1. TheCatSaid

      my guess is that most politicians in the US are owned one way or another

      And key judges, and potential candidates to key positions (whether elected or appointed), and many government officials, not to mention private-sector players including journalists and scientists. In short, anyone whose “influence-ability” might be needed now or in the future.

    2. TheCatSaid

      @ DM:

      my guess is that most politicians in the US are owned one way or another

      And key judges, and potential candidates to key positions (whether elected or appointed), and many government officials, not to mention private-sector players including journalists and scientists. In short, anyone whose “influence-ability” might be needed now or in the future.

  2. John

    Oh this is easy. If you are John Clapper you ask for more money. Problem solved.

    And by the way just because a politician says the intelligence failed them, don’t believe them. More often is the case it is a political failure. Power corrupts.

  3. Yonatan

    I have a much cheaper system that protects me from terrorists. I always carry a small rock in my pocket. For as long as I have had the rock, I have not been the victim of a terrorist attack.

      1. R Foreman

        I use a special keychain that’s always brought me good luck. Never since I have been carrying this keychain have I once been attacked by a jihadist.

        I do however fear for my safety when I’m around US law enforcement officers.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        From what I’ve heard, you can pick your own rock from the ground. But remember, they are only good, per individual, for 100 years from the time they are picked up. After that, you have to pick up another one, and it is polite to put your old one back down so someone else can use it.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          I’ve also heard that the size of the rock matters for effectiveness based upon how much money one has. The more money one has, the bigger the rock needs to be. The .1%ers, for instance, need a rock about the size of a small school bus for it to be effective. We -the people- or average “folk” need one about the size of an aspirin. Fortunately for the wealthy, they can chain themselves to their rock and still get the protective quality as long as the chain is made of metal and the length does not exceed 30 centimeters or about 12 inches and the point of attachment is at the ankle. When getting the protection of the larger sizes, very dry arid areas are the most effective so if the CEO’s and sundry of great wealth of the US put their rock (and themselves) in the middle of one of the great American deserts along with the 1 foot chain attached securely to either one of their ankles, they should, in theory, be just as well protected as the rest of us.

  4. beene

    The article fails to mention the great strides made in severance of citizens which my be of value in some future criminal or anti-American case.

  5. The Dork of Cork

    Me thinks the linchpin of the control grid is to project the impression of omnipotence and thus change behaviour in a real manner.
    Thus conferring real physical power to the controllers.

    I remain deeply sceptical of of these NSA information superheros who break the cone of silence on this or that.
    Who really gives a toss if you wank off to Suzie Diamond.
    The honey trap is the oldest trick in the book but most people are currently not valuable enough as banking assets to justify a investment of time and capital.
    Yes we are banking assets to be used by the money elite in any fashion they see fit.
    But I question the value of giving them your moral credit.

    Just to repeat most people live inside internet la la land because they don’t have the purchasing power (it has already been extracted by the banks usury) to engage with the real world.
    Its not a choice most people would take given options elsewhere.
    Me – I would much prefer going to the pub and talking about anything other then economics with my mates.
    Sadly that is not a option – given my lack of cashflow and my refusal to work within the satanic mill of corporate America.(I should think it has taken enough of my lifeforce already.)

    The internet is mostly a product of the lack of purchasing power.
    Christ – you have Irish men now Fedexing Phillipino wives over simply because they can’t afford to run a native woman anymore.
    I guess it always comes down to this……..

    1. cnchal

      The internet is mostly a product of the lack of purchasing power.

      That is an interesting way of looking at it. A modern day “bread and circuses” for the masses to while away the hunger.

  6. David Lentini

    An excellent near-rant from Tom. And of course this is all a failure, but who pays attention to history since Francis Fukuyama and our academic geniuses declared it dead years ago. Of course, one possible explanation is that the whole enterprise is run by fools and true believers who are funded and supported by a few who enjoy the power of “security theater”.

  7. James Levy

    It sounds more like frightened, ignorant, talentless people acting like chickens with their heads cut off than a cunning conspiracy. I’m reminded of the scene in the car park in All The President’s Men where Deep Throat warns Woodward not to take the aura of the White House seriously: “these guys aren’t that bright, and things got out of hand.” We’ve bought these guy’s credentials. We’ve forgotten to look under the hood. Our government is dominated by cunning, ruthless, power-mad ignoramuses. They know little and could care less about the dynamics of Libyan or Syrian or Iraqi society. They have a cartoon vision of reality in which everything “we” do is justified and anyone who would flaunt their authority is an “evildoer.” We’ve got to stop pretending that the vast majority of these military, political, economic, and intelligence decision-makers know what they are doing but are all working to some diabolically clever hidden agenda. Most of them are not. They are small-minded ambitious people without the wisdom or understanding to make the decisions their money and power permit them to make.

    1. Synopticist

      They’re not cunning geniuses, they’re mostly blundering idiots who know Washington and nowhere else.

  8. GlassHammer

    “The question, after all, isn’t simply: Who did they listen in on or surveil or gather communications from? It’s also: What did they find out? What did they draw from the mountains of information, the billions of bits of intelligence data that they were collecting from individual countries monthly?”

    Shouldn’t the question be: How will they construct a coherent narrative from mountains of random information? And also: Since most people create an online persona that is drastically different from who they really are, how can someone gain insight using little more than the sum of another’s online comments, emails, posts, and musings?

    1. cnchal

      Shouldn’t the question be: How will they construct a coherent narrative from mountains of random information?

      Any narrative gleaned from the hoard of data collected is likely to be constructed as self serving lies.

      George Orwell wasn’t cynical enough.

      Secret laws, secret courts, and then make it a crime to reveal those secret laws and secret courts. A closed loop of government criminality.

      1. GlassHammer

        “Any narrative gleaned from the hoard of data collected is likely to be constructed as self-serving lies.”

        Or the narrative will fall prey to bias, motivated reasoning, and a bevy of other cognitive hurdles. And we can’t forget the limitations of human knowledge/intelligence.

        “Secret laws, secret courts, and then make it a crime to reveal those secret laws and secret courts. A closed loop of government criminality.”

        I fear human error and human limitations far more than I fear well designed government criminality.

        1. John Zelnicker

          Since the government criminality is created and implemented by humans with their errors and limitations, I wonder how well designed it really is. Perhaps you are making a distinction without a difference. I fear not only the human errors and limitations, but also the government criminality because it is illogical, incompetent, and self-defeating even within the realm of criminality. I think Tom’s article shows this is the case. Always a day late and an assessment short.

          1. GlassHammer

            “Since the government criminality is created and implemented by humans with their errors and limitations, I wonder how well designed it really is.”


            These systems are based on the idea that you need to build haystacks in order to find needles. They aren’t bad solutions to a problem, they are just non-solutions. Simply collecting information (or writing it down) doesn’t actually resolve an ignorance problem. It only results in a clueless person presenting information that they don’t understand.

            1. John Zelnicker

              Ok. I agree they are non-solutions. Maybe well-designed non-solutions? :-) I still think they are dangerous.

        2. cnchal

          The intelligence groups have all the instrumentation and gadgets they want, ie hardware. Sometimes it takes intelligence to make sense of what the instruments are telling you.

          A long time ago I read an article about NORAD and they had set up their long range radar to detect incoming Soviet missiles. The system had been operational for a few weeks when it showed a massive Soviet missile attack, and the Commander thought about what his instruments were telling him and decided that something was wrong and refused to fire back. It turns out the system was too sensitive and was picking up a rising moon for the first time. I wish more people in government were like that, and were allowed to use their intelligence without negative repercussions.

          Well designed government criminality is fearsome. Look at Hitler or Stalin. Mistakes are unintentional and can be corrected most of the time, although if that commander had trusted his instruments and fired at the moon, the odds are high that none of us would be here today.

  9. Jay

    I have one quibble with this post. Usama Bin Laden wasn’t captured/executed as a result of SIGINT–signals intelligence. A Pakistani general disclosed UBL’s location within Pakistan to someone in the U.S. Government, probably a Pentagon liaison, so the credit goes to old-fashioned HUMINT–human intelligence, not SIGINT.

    It would appear to this casual observer that so many of our intelligence failures are due to an over-reliance on SIGINT, and that our HUMINT operations have atrophied to the point where we are probably just bad at it. HUMINT is sloppy and dangerous, cultivating trustworthy people who speak foreign languages takes time, assessing sources and assigning credibility to intelligence reports to get a fair idea of what’s actually happening is a highly refined and risky endeavor. But if you aren’t even bothering, or you’re running that out of a Pentagon office, or you’re running it in a “civilian” Agency staffed entirely with ex-military jar heads, you can’t possibly be getting the full picture. And in an environment where everyone in the know, even pre-Snowden, is leery of using electronic communication for anything beyond calls to grandma or ordering pizza, what significant, actionable intelligence could be reasonably expected to derive from SIGINT? Only corporate and foreign government info, inasmuch as I can tell.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      When the Wilson Quarterly was still in print, they had an interview with one of the last bigwigs at the KGB when it was still named the KGB, and he said, despite American ineptitude and the equivalent of total surveillance by the USSR apparatus, the Americans always received better intelligence because they would get defectors or info from political reformers. He added that when money became the issue the outcomes were only good enough to get more money. The KGB after the 40’s largely had to pay for intelligence and wound up with nothing they couldn’t have found from newspapers.

      Because the intelligence industry operates in secrecy, there is no accountability versus a school principal overseeing an expansion.

      1. MG

        Starting with the ‘The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB’ and other further work based upon KGB archives that Western researchers had to in the 00s this isn’t necessarily true.

        The real turning event was really the Prague Spring in ’68 that made KGB HUMINT efforts especially in Western Europe a lot more challenging until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    2. RUKidding

      You raise some interesting points, which I’ve been pondering myself. I am ignorant as far as the Spy Game is concerned, except for what I read. John LeCarre, of course, can be informative, and his recent novels have been particularly scathing of the current “systems” in play. Well I take it all with a giant grain of salt, but I’ve read other things that confirm some of LeCarre’s points in his recent works.

      Just seems that the over-reliance on what is termed SIGINT has really brought us any further forward in terms of whatever? What’s the point of it all, anyway, other than to provide some Old Boys Network at lot of money. Really. What else? I don’t see the SpyGuys keeping the rabble anywhere across the globe “safer.” Safer from what? Most of the b.s. going on in the ME is ginned up by the PTB to increase US/UK hegemony across the planet, as well as snatching and grabbing resources, etc. If anything, the PTB have created enemies (yes, via the CIA, etc) in order to keep the very very lucrative War machine rolling ever onwards.

      My take is that a lot of SIGINT is used as a threat against those in govt (as highlighted by comments, above), plus other PTB across the globe, as well as for corporate espionage. And then finally: as “stick” to use against the rabble: we are spying on YOU, so don’t act out or we’ll come ‘n gitcha.

      I mourn the monumental waste of money, which could be better spent in so many other ways. I guess it provides some of the rabble with jawbs, but… at what cost. Most of the money goes, per usual, to the Fat Cats at the top.

      1. Jay

        It would appear to be more of a means of control to influence people the IC consider important.

        Look at European political leadership throughout the economic crisis and steady drumbeat for austerity. The PTB, through the IMF, ECB, and whatever other fellow-traveler organizations, appear to be using the same playbook on individual European governments that they played with South- and Central American governments, as well as Asian governments, in decades past. Create an economic catastrophe, usually through international debt obligations, replace political leadership, intimidate what’s left, then institute economic, labor, and legal “reforms” that hew closely to an international neoliberal colonial agenda.

        Intelligence is power. Gather enough of it and you can turn the heads of newly-elected “socialist” party or left-leaning leaders who campaign against these policies. Witness the leaders of Greece, Cyprus, France–campaign platforms are suddenly forgotten, new ways to sell the destructive policy emerge, and a confused voting public gets bank bail-outs (or bail-ins!), austerity, privatization under “socialist” governments. And it’s a neat trick, since by these actions an Hollande achieves their objectives while discrediting himself and his party, while paving the way for a much-prefered Le Pen who will make further, more drastic “structural reforms.” Win! Win! Win!

        But somebody needs to get to Hollande, or Blair, or Rajoy, or Obama, or the leaders of those countries. When it comes to getting business done there are no rules. They’ll play anything from the honey trap to threatening economic collapse, to burning everything to the ground and salting the earth. The leaders are always compromised in some way. Ever notice how Senate majority leaders always have close races? They get their positions *because* they’re vulnerable. And almost everyone gets their senate seats because they are compromised in some way to the leadership, the party donors, whomsoever has an interest. There’s a reason the guy who screws all the neighborhood pooches miraculously becomes your senator. Or prime minister. Or president.

  10. Paul Walker

    Producing sub-prime intelligence as a way of life.
    If only the IC were as adept as American sub-prime finance. Regardless, this analogy likely remains the best available for practiced observers and participants of those C/RRE realms to gain a grasp of IC’s functioning, or lack thereof. The bottom line is the sub-prime template is the de facto template for public and private institutional conduct of business, be it IC/Defense, C/RRE/FED/Treasury, foreign affairs/corporate partnerships with IC and related entities, civil litigation, criminal proceedings/incarceration, private prisons/detention et al ad nauseam. Gain a grasp of the fundamentals of one area and you’re likely 80% to success in the others.

  11. Peter Pan

    Collecting data on everyone everywhere looking for a terrorist(s) is like looking for a wooden toothpick in a wood-chip pile. The intelligence agencies end up with data overload. It probably doesn’t help that there are individuals like myself that intentionally create false identities on social media that is proliferate with misinformation and disinformation about the false identity and activities associated therewith.

    The intelligence communities response to this data overload is to fabricate wooden toothpicks (terrorists) out of the wood-chips in the pile.

    1. Sammie Sawee

      This is exactly what happened in East Germany. The Stasi supposedly had 2 million informers ( out of a population of 14 million ), but were caught by complete surprise when the Berlin Wall fell.

  12. Minor Heretic

    Two thoughts:

    How to predict the future of U.S. foreign policy: It will be done in the most expensive way possible. Effectiveness is irrelevant. Capital intensiveness is the predictor. This includes intelligence, military operations, humanitarian foreign aid, the works. Most of this money will be stuffed into the accounts of large corporations. Bombs are the ultimate in planned obsolescence. Political negotiations are labor intensive and capital light, and therefore undesirable to the military industrial complex.

    The “secret bombing of Cambodia” in 1968 was no secret to the Cambodians. It was specifically a secret to us because of our probable objections. “Dark sites” aren’t secret to those detained in them and secret killings aren’t secret to those near the blast zone. Injustices committed by the military/intelligence industry are supposed to be only semi-secret. Torture and extrajudicial killings have a salutary effect on political resistance when partially revealed.

  13. Veri

    It is not that the IC does not know its job. Many of them do. Most of them, don’t. The job is interpreting data and providing a cohesive picture on present and possible matters.

    We have an IC that is simply not dedicated to doing so. An IC that is proactive in engaging in plots and not so active in stopping them.

    We have an IC that is run by leadership in which the data must fit the narrative. An IC where information is power and powerful people made powerful by such information, do not want to share with others out of fear that they will lose their power. An IC where information is for use against others, to further one’s goals, or to enrich the leadership – financially or other.

    We have an IC that is perfect for serving the interests of a few, according to their own personal politics and machinations. And little else.

    Intelligence is rather boring work. Leadership does not want reality; that is the quickest way to make them angry at you. They want James Bond. Not the cleaning lady who already has all the keys to the office.

    It is not that the IC is incompetent. The IC overthrows governments, assassinates people, arranges for money, engages in money laundering, engages in drug smuggling, etc. The IC is very, very successful.

    Just not for you.

  14. Fiver

    For maybe the thousandth time, it is simply not possible to accept the ‘Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight’ theory of US policy-making and actions presented here as penetrating criticism, but all the while itself affirming the most important propaganda points that constitute the increasingly noxious Official Narrative of events as presented by successive Admins and their national intelligence agencies all this century. The so-called Great War on Terror could be over tomorrow if only the US and its regional allies got out of the terrorism business.

  15. reslez

    Spycraft is a fantasy game for the stupid, for people who watch James Bond movies and craft elaborate daydreams in their heads. Recommended reading for the NC crowd courtesy of the amazing Power of Narrative blog: You, Too, Can and Should Be an “Intelligence Analyst”

    Quoted there:
    Here I must reveal a trade secret and risk puncturing the mystique of intelligence analysis. Generally speaking, 80 percent of the information one needs to form judgments on key intelligence targets or issues is available in open media. It helps to have been trained – as my contemporaries and I had the good fortune to be trained – by past masters of the discipline of media analysis, which began in a structured way in targeting Japanese and German media in the 1940s. But, truth be told, anyone with a high school education can do it. It is not rocket science.

    And also:
    Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn “not upon available facts but upon judgment,” with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge “whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation.”

    …The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, “We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.” This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. “Foreign policy decisions,” concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, “are in general much more influenced by irrational motives” than are domestic ones.

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