Tom Engelhardt: The Fog of Intelligence, or How to Be Eternally ‘Caught Off Guard’ in the Greater Middle East

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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. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. Originally published at” rel=”nofollow”>TomDispatch

That figure stunned me.  I found it in the 12th paragraph of a front-page New York Times story about “senior commanders” at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) playing fast and loose with intelligence reports to give their air war against ISIS an unjustified sheen of success: “CENTCOM’s mammoth intelligence operation, with some 1,500 civilian, military, and contract analysts, is housed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, in a bay front building that has the look of a sterile government facility posing as a Spanish hacienda.”

Think about that.  CENTCOM, one of six U.S. military commands that divide the planet up like a pie, has at least 1,500 intelligence analysts (military, civilian, and private contractors) all to itself.  Let me repeat that: 1,500 of them.  CENTCOM is essentially the country’s war command, responsible for most of the Greater Middle East, that expanse of now-chaotic territory filled with strife-torn and failing states that runs from Pakistan’s border to Egypt.  That’s no small task and about it there is much to be known.  Still, that figure should act like a flash of lightning, illuminating for a second an otherwise dark and stormy landscape.

And mind you, that’s just the analysts, not the full CENTCOM intelligence roster for which we have no figure at all.  In other words, even if that 1,500 represents a full count of the command’s intelligence analysts, not just the ones at its Tampa headquarters but in the field at places like its enormous operation at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, CENTCOM still has almost half as many of them as military personnel on the ground in Iraq (3,500 at latest count).  Now, try to imagine what those 1,500 analysts are doing, even for a command deep in a “quagmire” in Syria and Iraq, as President Obama recently dubbed it (though he was admittedly speaking about the Russians), as well as what looks like a failing war, 14 years later, in Afghanistan, and another in Yemen led by the Saudis but backed by Washington.  Even given all of that, what in the world could they possibly be “analyzing”?  Who at CENTCOM, in the Defense Intelligence Agency, or elsewhere has the time to attend to the reports and data flows that must be generated by 1,500 analysts?

Of course, in the gargantuan beast that is the American military and intelligence universe, streams of raw intelligence beyond compare are undoubtedly flooding into CENTCOM’s headquarters, possibly overwhelming even 1,500 analysts.  There’s “human intelligence,” or HUMINT, from sources and agents on the ground; there’s imagery and satellite intelligence, or GEOINT, by the bushelful.  Given the size and scope of American global surveillance activities, there must be untold tons of signals intelligence, or SIGINT; and with all those drones flying over battlefields and prospective battlefields across the Greater Middle East, there’s undoubtedly a river of full motion video, or FMV, flowing into CENTCOM headquarters and various command posts; and don’t forget the information being shared with the command by allied intelligence services, including those of the “five eyes“ nations, and various Middle Eastern countries; and of course, some of the command’s analysts must be handling humdrum, everyday open-source material, or OSINT, as well — local radio and TV broadcasts, the press, the Internet, scholarly journals, and god knows what else.

And while you’re thinking about all this, keep in mind that those 1,500 analysts feed into, and assumedly draw on, an intelligence system of a size surely unmatched even by the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Think of it: the U.S. Intelligence Community has — count ‘em — 17 agencies and outfits, eating close to $70 billion annually, more than $500 billion between 2001 and 2013.  And if that doesn’t stagger you, think about the 500,000 private contractors hooked into the system in one way or another, the 1.4 million people (34% of them private contractors) with access to “top secret” information, and the 5.1 million — larger than Norway’s population — with access to “confidential and secret” information.

Remember as well that, in these years, a global surveillance state of Orwellian proportions has been ramped up.  It gathers billions of emails and cell phone calls from the backlands of the planet; has kept tabs on at least 35 leaders of other countries and the secretary general of the U.N. by hacking email accounts, tapping cell phones, and so on; keeps a careful eye and ear on its own citizens, including video gamers; and even, it seems, spies on Congress.  (After all, whom can you trust?)

In other words, if that 1,500 figure bowls you over, keep in mind that it just stands in for a far larger system that puts to shame, in size and yottabytes of information collected, the wildest dreams of past science fiction writers.  In these years, a mammoth, even labyrinthine, bureaucratic “intelligence” structure has been constructed that is drowning in “information” — and on its own, it seems, the military has been ramping up a smaller but similarly scaled set of intelligence structures.

Surprised, Caught Off Guard, and Left Scrambling

The question remains: If data almost beyond imagining flows into CENTCOM, what are those 1,500 analysts actually doing?  How are they passing their time?  What exactly do they produce and does it really qualify as “intelligence,” no less prove useful?  Of course, we out here have limited access to the intelligence produced by CENTCOM, unless stories like the one about top commanders fudging assessments on the air war against the Islamic State break into the media.  So you might assume that there’s no way of measuring the effectiveness of the command’s intelligence operations.  But you would be wrong.  It is, in fact, possible to produce a rough gauge of its effectiveness.  Let’s call it the TomDispatch Surprise Measurement System, or TSMS. Think of it as a practical, news-based guide to the questions: What did they know and when did they know it?

Let me offer a few examples chosen almost at random from recent events in CENTCOM’s domain.  Take the seizure at the end of September by a few hundred Taliban fighters of the northern provincial Afghan capital of Kunduz, the first city the Taliban has controlled, however briefly, since it was ejected from that same town in 2002.  In the process, the Taliban fighters reportedly scattered up to 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces that the U.S. has been training, funding, and arming for years.

For anyone following news reports closely, the Taliban had for months been tightening its control over rural areas around Kunduz and testing the city’s defenses.  Nonetheless, this May, based assumedly on the best intelligence analyses available from CENTCOM, the top U.S. commander in the country, Army General John Campbell, offered this predictive comment: “If you take a look very closely at some of the things in Kunduz and up in [neighboring] Badakhshan [Province], [the Taliban] will attack some very small checkpoints… They will go out and hit a little bit and then they kind of go to ground… so they’re not gaining territory for the most part.’”

As late as August 13th, at a press briefing, an ABC News reporter asked Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, the U.S. deputy chief of staff for communications in Afghanistan: “There has been a significant increase in Taliban activity in northern Afghanistan, particularly around Kunduz.  What is behind that?  Are the Afghan troops in that part of Afghanistan at risk of falling to the Taliban?”

Shoffner responded, in part, this way: “So, again, I think there’s been a lot of generalization when it comes to reports on the north.  Kunduz is — is not now, and has not been in danger of being overrun by the Taliban, and so — with that, it’s kind of a general perspective in the north, that’s sort of how we see it.”

That General Cambell at least remained of a similar mindset even as Kunduz fell is obvious enough since, as New York Times reporter Matthew Rosenberg reported, he was out of the country at the time. As Goldstein put it:

“Mostly, though, American and Afghan officials appeared to be genuinely surprised at the speedy fall of Kunduz, which took place when Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander of coalition forces, was in Germany for a defense conference… Though the Taliban have been making gains in the hinterlands around Kunduz for months, American military planners have for years insisted that Afghan forces were capable of holding onto the country’s major cities.

“‘This wasn’t supposed to happen,’ said a senior American military officer who served in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity. ‘The Afghans are fighting, so it’s not like we’re looking at them giving up or collapsing right now. They’re just not fighting very well.’”

It’s generally agreed that the American high command was “caught off guard” by the capture of Kunduz and particularly shocked by the Afghan military’s inability to fight effectively.  And who would have predicted such a thing of an American-trained army in the region, given that the American-backed, -trained, and -equipped Iraqi Army on the other side of the Greater Middle East had a similar experience in June 2014 in Mosul and other cities of northern Iraq when relatively small numbers of Islamic State militants routed its troops?

At that time, U.S. military leaders and top administration officials right up to President Obama were, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “caught off guard by the swift collapse of Iraqi security forces” and the successes of the Islamic State in northern Iraq.  Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt of the Times wrote in retrospect, “Intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the speed of the extremists’… advance across northern Iraq.” And don’t forget that, despite that CENTCOM intelligence machine, something similar happened in May 2015 when, as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius put it, U.S. officials and American intelligence were “blindsided again” by a very similar collapse of Iraqi forces in the city of Ramadi in al-Anbar Province.

Or let’s take another example where those 1,500 analysts must have been hard at work: the failed $500 million Pentagon program to train “moderate” Syrians into a force that could fight the Islamic State.  In the Pentagon version of the elephant that gave birth to a mouse, that vast effort of vetting, training, and arming finally produced Division 30, a single 54-man unit of armed moderates, who were inserted into Syria near the forces of the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front.  That group promptly kidnapped two of its leaders and then attacked the unit.  The result was a disaster as the U.S.-trained fighters fled or were killed.  Soon thereafter, the American general overseeing the war against the Islamic State testified before Congress that only “four or five” armed combatants from the U.S. force remained in the field.

Here again is how the New York Times reported the response to this incident:

“In Washington, several current and former senior administration officials acknowledged that the attack and the abductions by the Nusra Front took American officials by surprise and amounted to a significant intelligence failure.  While American military trainers had gone to great lengths to protect the initial group of trainees from attacks by Islamic State or Syrian Army forces, they did not anticipate an assault from the Nusra Front. In fact, officials said on Friday, they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.

“‘This wasn’t supposed to happen like this,’ said one former senior American official, who was working closely on Syria issues until recently, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence assessments.”

Now, if accurate, this is wild stuff.  After all, how anyone, commander or intelligence analyst, could imagine that the al-Nusra Front, classified as an enemy force in Washington and some of whose militants had been targeted by U.S. air power, would have welcomed U.S.-backed troops with open arms is the mystery of all mysteries.  One small footnote to this: McClatchy News later reported that the al-Nusra Front had been poised to attack the unit because it had tipped off in advance by Turkish intelligence, something CENTCOM’s intelligence operatives evidently knew nothing about.

In the wake of that little disaster and again, assumedly, with CENTCOM’s full stock of intelligence and analysis on hand, the military inserted the next unit of 74 trained moderates into Syria and was shocked (shocked!) when its members, chastened perhaps by the fate of Division 30, promptly handed over at least a quarter of their U.S.-supplied equipment, including trucks, ammunition, and rifles, to the al-Nusra Front in return for “safe passage.” Al-Nusra militants soon were posting photos of the weapons online and tweeting proudly about them.  CENTCOM officials initially denied that any of this had happened (and were clearly in the dark about it) before reversing course and reluctantly admitting that it was so. (“‘If accurate, the report of NSF [New Syrian Forces] members providing equipment to al-Nusra Front is very concerning and a violation of Syria train-and-equip program guidelines,’ U.S. Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said.”) 

To turn to even more recent events in CENTCOM’s bailiwick, American officials were reportedly similarly stunned as September ended when Russia reached a surprise agreement with U.S. ally Iraq on an anti-ISIS intelligence-sharing arrangement that would also include Syria and Iran.  Washington was once again “caught off guard” and, in the words of Michael Gordon of the Times, “left… scrambling,” even though its officials had known “that a group of Russian military officers were in Baghdad.”

Similarly, the Russian build-up of weaponry, planes, and personnel in Syria initially “surprised” and — yes — caught the Obama administration “off guard.” Again, despite those 1,500 CENTCOM analysts and the rest of the vast U.S. intelligence community, American officials, according to every news report available, were “caught flat-footed” and, of course, “by surprise” (again, right up to the president) when the Russians began their full-scale bombing campaign in Syria against various al-Qaeda-allied outfits and CIA-backed opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  They were even caught off guard and taken aback by the way the Russians delivered the news that their bombing campaign was about to start: a three-star Russian general arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to offer an hour’s notice.  (Congressional lawmakers are now considering “the extent to which the spy community overlooked or misjudged critical warning signs” about the Russian intervention in Syria.)

The Fog Machine of American Intelligence

You get the point.  Whatever the efforts of that expansive corps of intelligence analysts (and the vast intelligence edifice behind it), when anything happens in the Greater Middle East, you can essentially assume that the official American reaction, military and political, will be “surprise” and that policymakers will be left “scrambling” in a quagmire of ignorance to rescue American policy from the unexpected.  In other words, somehow, with what passes for the best, or at least most extensive and expensive intelligence operation on the planet, with all those satellites and drones and surveillance sweeps and sources, with crowds of analysts, hordes of private contractors, and tens of billions of dollars, with, in short, “intelligence” galore, American officials in the area of their wars are evidently going to continue to find themselves eternally caught “off guard.”

The phrase “the fog of war” stands in for the inability of commanders to truly grasp what’s happening in the chaos that is any battlefield.  Perhaps it’s time to introduce a companion phrase: the fog of intelligence.  It hardly matters whether those 1,500 CENTCOM analysts (and all those at other commands or at the 17 major intelligence outfits) produce superlative “intelligence” that then descends into the fog of leadership, or whether any bureaucratic conglomeration of “analysts,” drowning in secret information and the protocols that go with it, is going to add up to a giant fog machine.

It’s difficult enough, of course, to peer into the future, to imagine what’s coming, especially in distant, alien lands.  Cobble that basic problem together with an overwhelming data stream and groupthink, then fit it all inside the constrained mindsets of Washington and the Pentagon, and you have a formula for producing the fog of intelligence and so for seldom being “on guard” when it comes to much of anything.

My own suspicion: you could get rid of most of the 17 agencies and outfits in the U.S. Intelligence Community and dump just about all the secret and classified information that is the heart and soul of the national security state.  Then you could let a small group of independently minded analysts and critics loose on open-source material, and you would be far more likely to get intelligent, actionable, inventive analyses of our global situation, our wars, and our beleaguered path into the future.

The evidence, after all, is largely in.  In these years, for what now must be approaching three-quarters of a trillion dollars, the national security state and the military seem to have created an un-intelligence system.  Welcome to the fog of everything.

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  1. Nick

    In these years, for what now must be approaching three-quarters of a trillion dollars, the national security state and the military seem to have created an un-intelligence system. Welcome to the fog of everything.

    Of course, fog is a feature of the system, not a flaw. With Obama committing to Afghanistan beyond 2016, procurement budgets are safe for a plethora of programs. Similarly, record US arms deals are being sealed across the region, $60 billion for the Saudis, billions more for Egypt, significant strategic support for UAE and others. You get the picture. With oil prices projected to remain low for 2016, a continued strong USD, resurgent spending will buttress the defense industry. Just think, before Putin’s foray into Syria, budgets were poised to be slashed, thankfully, that isn’t happening. ;)

  2. MikeMcMack

    It seems that the phrasing in most mass media is always intended to keep us all in a state of constant fear. Iraqi security forces didn’t magically collapse, they were destroyed by the invasions by the USA. As terrible, awful, evil as Saddham was, the outcome over the past 12 or 13 years was entirely predictable. The US invaded, then someone in the US government, no one knows who, went in and ordered the Iraqi army, and police disbanded. W.T.F did anyone think would happen? it was, the entire thing, planned to come out the way it did. Eternal, perpetual wars, that require the USA to march in and “fix things”. We should all, every one of us, be sick of this.

    1. Will

      It seems that the phrasing in most mass media is always intended to keep us all in a state of constant fear.

      Yes, this. Create unstable environments so they’ll need to be “secured” by pouring MIC contract dollars into them, and tell everyone back home about it in terms designed to make people a) glad they don’t live in such awful places and b) terrified of what might happen if Those People aren’t “contained.” It’s a very efficient system for doing horrible things.

  3. MikeMcMack

    Yves, re ” In these years, for what now must be approaching three-quarters of a trillion dollars, the national security state and the military seem to have created an un-intelligence system. Welcome to the fog of everything.” Recall the then defense secretary Rumsfeld’s speech given, surprisingly on 09/10/2001, that “up to $2.3 trillion in transactions by the Pentagon were missing.”. Those were pre 2001 dollars. The actual dollar amount is many, many, many trillions.

  4. Bill Smith

    While I agree that the taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s, to quote the two generals about Kunduz says very little. There may have been many intelligence reports saying that there was a danger about the Taliban over running Kunduz. Those many reports where likely drowned out by the many more reports saying it wouldn’t happen. It’s just that the wrong reports were believed by the people higher up.
    Perhaps due to the words of estimative probability? There are a number of articles on this dating back to the founding of the CIA.

    That the 54 ‘moderate’ rebels failed is no surprise to people inside or outside the intelligence community. That program was driven by the White House. They simply refused to allow anything else by the military – which is even stranger given the CIA program that has been reasonably successful in its limited program. So this is not so much a problem of intelligence but the people at the top.

    It makes you wonder how the intelligence reports vetted after the fact. Though if you believe what was written in the “Signal and the Noise” about what happens to analysts after they become an ‘expert’ it may not matter?

  5. ltr

    Brilliant essay and really worrying. The White Hoiuse and general media may laud our intelligence, but it is obviously shocking lacking.

  6. oho

    *** Then you could let a small group of independently minded analysts and critics loose on open-source material, and you would be far more likely to get intelligent, actionable, inventive analyses of our global situation, our wars, and our beleaguered path into the future.***

    If any of you would like playing “fantasy sports” but with current events predictions, check out gjopen dot com — mentioned in this op-ed

  7. oho

    I’d bet that an “overton window” mentality pervades the intelligence community—-meaning that in your work you don’t want to stick out as “that guy”.

    So to cover your own ass, you generate a paper trail that is implicitly agrees with whatever the consensus is for the community.

    So if you’re wrong, you shrug and feign that “no one could’ve predicted that!”

    1. Gio Bruno

      …actually the groupthink comes from the fact that most of these “analysts” know they’re unqualified and deadweight, but the gravytrain of a paycheck and pension is eminently more attractive than admitting their eunuch status.

      1. Michael

        I have not known anyone in that field since about 2009. At the time the range of experience and understanding was staggering. Essentially top-secret clearance means nothing. I can’t recall the level that actually has meaning but top-secret is meaningless. Foreign newspaper accounts are considered top-secret if an employee writes a comment.
        I doubt a quarter of the analysts could tell you the differences between Sunni, Shia and Wahabbi let alone the branches of Islam in the ‘Stans. Or the difference with in the Shia community. Since many do not know or willingly have no interest in knowing these important distinctions then the analysis is flawed.
        The accurate work, the work we occasionally get to see after its leaked, is ignored because it does fit US policy.

  8. jgordon

    So American officials were stunned, surprised, and caught off guard. Multiple times of each. In fact they seem to be flabbergasted every time reality fails to accord with what their little imaginations had worked out. They are clearly so good at fooling (American) people with their bullcrap that they even managed to fool themselves.

    you could get rid of most of the 17 agencies and outfits in the U.S. Intelligence Community and dump just about all the secret and classified information that is the heart and soul of the national security state. Then you could let a small group of independently minded analysts and critics loose on open-source material, and you would be far more likely to get intelligent, actionable, inventive analyses of our global situation, our wars, and our beleaguered path into the future.

    These people may be useless (or worse than useless) but sir you have gone too far! What you are proposing is austerity, and that is unwelcome in these parts. Just think of the families of these well-paid entrenched bureaucrats. My God, their families. These people have utterly no skills (come on, they aren’t even good at war and that’s supposed to be their job for God’s sake) whatsoever. Take away their government employment (uselessly) spying on everyone or (uselessly) chasing down suspected militants with armed drones, and their families will be out on the street. That’s just heartless.

    1. Just Ice

      “Just think of the families of these well-paid entrenched bureaucrats. “

      Indeed we should and the just* solution is asset redistribution. Then we can all do much more of the work we find important and not be so dependent on a jawb.

      *Because those assets were largely developed with PUBLIC credit due to the nature of our banking and money system.

      1. jgordon

        I absolutely agree. Though that does bring up the uncomfortable reality that most of the government’s assets that need to be redistributed are worthless garbage, so who would want them? Air craft carriers? Garbage. Utah Data Centers? More garbage. F35? I almost choked from laughing too hard. It’s doubtful that the scrap metal returns would even pay for the labor costs of safely dismantling this junk. In fact I think it’s entirely possible that when everything is added up the US is in an asset hole. And redistributing less than nothing to the people means that the people will have less than they do now after your asset redistribution plan is implemented.

        Anyway, whose brilliant idea was it to poor the entire military budget into worthless boondoggles? I mean granted, we need to lavish all this fiscal stimulus moola on something to get the Economy growing, but using it to enfeeble the military with one albatross after another can’t be a good idea.

        1. Just Ice

          I’m talking private assets too.

          As for boondoggles, they do provide incomes, though not necessarily productive work.

          So maybe we need to focus far more on the ability of the population to WORK (including land reform) and much less on jobs?

          Note that the rich can work when, how and how much they want to. Then the same would be true, to at least some extent, for the entire population after asset redistribution.

  9. fresno dan

    My experience on the ground when I was in the Air Force working for NSA is that every group (and there are lots and lots and lots of groups) is led by someone who wants to be promoted, and they justify that claim that they are doing critically important work by the volume of their work. This generates an avalanche of bullsh*t.
    (you may ask, “what about quality?” – you may as well ask, “what about success?” – is lack of success changing anything?).

    When it fails, as it always does, the solution is always MORE. It is how government, and particularly the pentagon operates.

    Don’t worry – its eventually self correcting – just like the lemmings…..

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      My godfather was a CIA “spy” in Kenya, and he could fit in real well with his Irish last name. All he did was collect public media and government reports and send them in home everyday. His general view was the wire services could get actual news through newspapers to the relevant agencies faster than the intelligence gathering operation. He’s been out for over 40 years, but he’s seen nothing to suggest the bulk of the intelligence community operates any differently just on a grander scale. For him, the biggest Snowden revelation wasn’t from Snowden, but that the NSA had no idea how Snowden had so much access.

      Without constant oversight, these organizations only exist to beget themselves.

  10. fresno dan

    “My own suspicion: you could get rid of most of the 17 agencies and outfits in the U.S. Intelligence Community and dump just about all the secret and classified information that is the heart and soul of the national security state. Then you could let a small group of independently minded analysts and critics loose on open-source material, and you would be far more likely to get intelligent, actionable, inventive analyses of our global situation, our wars, and our beleaguered path into the future.”

    Mostly agree, (change “most of the 17 agencies” to ALL of the 17 agencies) but its simpler than that.
    Our allies are not allies in any meaningful sense of the word. We can no more win than we could when we were in Vietnam – we have just gotten more insaner since than…

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘The American high command was “caught off guard” by the capture of Kunduz and particularly shocked by the Afghan military’s inability to fight effectively. And who would have predicted such a thing of an American-trained army in the region?’ — Tom Engelhardt

      This prediction will serve for every foreign war until the U.S. troops’ checks bounce:

      “You will kill ten of us, we will kill one of you, but in the end, you will tire of it first.” ― Hồ Chí Minh

      One could quote Santayana to these five-time losers, but they wouldn’t know who he is … or remember the same damned thing happening a half century ago as the ARVN fell.

      American exceptionalism (which Generalissimo Obama believes in with every fiber of his being, and taints the edumacation delivered in our elite military colleges) precludes the ability to analyze a conflict from the opponent’s point of view. Result: whipped again.

      1. Carolinian

        I’m sure HRC will be shocked and surprised when those Russian ICBMs come flying over the North Pole after she takes her challenge to the new Hitler (Putin–her comparison) a bit too far. This is what Steve Cohen keeps saying in the Nation and elsewhere–the people stirring up trouble with Russia don’t realize what a dangerous game they are playing. As a result many in the foreign policy elite are treating him as a pariah.

        BTW Hillary was all for the surge in Afghanistan. Biden opposed.

        1. James Levy

          I heard some imbecile talking about “stopping Putin” and a “No Fly Zone” over Syria the other day. Less than a year ago these people were announcing that ISIS was an existential threat and the worst thing since the rise of Fascism in the 1930s. Now, they want to risk World War III because Putin has the temerity to step into the war they demanded we fight! It’s lunacy. The idea that the Russians can be bullied is insane. The utter incoherence of these arguments, and the lack of any understanding of other nations and their capabilities is jaw-dropping. When confronted with any unpalatable scenario, my guess is the automatic response in Washington is “They wouldn’t dare.” This mantra is endlessly repeated, often shown to be worthless, yet is still invoked as an incantation against anything going wrong with our plans for the inferior peoples of the world. It scares me.

        2. fajensen

          No Need for missiles crossing the North Pole and all that, just one good kick to the US right in the nut sack and Down she Goes, I.O.W.: Put Ghawar, Saudi Arabia, out of action and Wall Street is Gone and with that about 1/3 of the US GDP.

          Best part is that it’s the middle east; there is so much heavy weaponry sloshing about in the hands of all colours of crazy that just about anyone at all could have dun it!

  11. BigStupid

    Well written article, good support, some interesting facts (yet to be checked). That said, the whole argument relies on the premise that the publicly stated goals of military action in the middle east (or any region for that matter) match the actual goals of military action in the middle east – quite a stretch at this point in time. If i pay someone to burn down my house when I’m out to collect the insurance, go out for a beer and come back to a raging inferno of course I’m surprised and outraged publicly.

    The threat that’s posed by the alphabet agencies is much more insidious than wasted money and a perceived incompetence. Senior management, directors – all of the play callers – are lifers within the military/intelligence (MI) community, elected representatives are only in place for a few years. Under a system such as this there can be no effective oversight. When you’re playing the long game (10y+) why would you share your actual playbook with a group of politicians who have near zero chance of being around at the end?

    The threat is not so much that the MIs are bloated, incompetent and aggressive, but rather that they are frighteningly competent, dangerously calculating and outside of the reach of democratic control – they will not be shut-down until they close themselves down. What we see through the media is only a veneer of truth, carefully scripted for public consumption. Conclusions reached from incomplete data are generally meaningless.

    1. Jim Haygood

      Case in point (hat tip Lambert):

      The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), the UK body that hears complaints about intelligence agencies, has ruled that the communications of MPs and peers are not protected by the Wilson Doctrine, which was thought to exempt them from surveillance by GCHQ and other intelligence agencies.

      If parliament were in charge of the intelligence agencies, rather than vice versa, parliamentarians would promptly clip the wings of those responsible for these brazen, contemptuous intrusions.

      But they can’t, and won’t. Meanwhile in America, back benchers dutifully rubber-stamp an opaque $50 billion black budget, artfully salted into an unauditable defense budget. Good little gerbils!

    2. tiresoup

      Yes. The real goals are hidden from average folks, including many of those working diligently to “keep us safe.” Success can look like failure, and failure success. Incompetence can be a cover story, and it’s my suspicion it’s one of the favorites, because it works so well. We are really, really, trying to take out ISIS but we are just incompetent! But if the real goal, as others have noted, is to use ISIS to take out Assad, then our incompetence looks a little different. But why him? I know, brutal dictator, blah blah blah, but that is almost certainly not the real reason we want him out. Plenty of other brutal dictators who are still our best friends. It pisses me off that Putin, without a doubt, knows more about what the US is doing, and why, than the American people.

    3. FluffytheObeseCat

      “The threat is not so much that the MIs are bloated, incompetent and aggressive, but rather that they are frighteningly competent, dangerously calculating and outside of the reach of democratic control”

      In any large, well-funded and highly respected bureaucracy there will be a small number of men who are competent, calculating and outside the reach of their superiors. There will usually be far larger numbers who are just barely keeping up, and who net out to incompetent when viewed as a whole.

      It’s the “outside the reach of…” part that matters. In my lifetime there has never been adequate civilian official oversight of the military or intelligence communities. Since 9-11 they’ve become hugely expensive. If you consider them together with stateside penal and policing services (much of which aren’t federal), the total amounts we spend on “security” dwarf what little we spend on forward-looking activities like STEM research, civilian infrastructure, education, etc. Only transfer payment programs like ss or SNAP, plus healthcare, outmatch our “security” outlays.

      We will soon destroy ourselves — like the USSR — with the cost of our “security” efforts. They don’t just drain our wealth, they siphon young people away from truly productive pursuits, and wreck our wealth-generating capacity for decades going forward.

  12. TedWa

    I think it might have been FDR who said something along the lines of – that you don’t confer with war mongers or the MIC for advice on if there needs to be a war or not. Of course they’re always going to say yes. Is it capture by the MIC or is it just stupidity and cowardice in our leaders that’s leading us down this primrose path and putting on global display America’s “exceptionalism” as mediocrity and worse in action? Someone please hold up a mirror to these idjuts and show them how unexceptional they really are ! Oh wait, Obama is aggressively against that kind of thing – ie.. whistleblowers. And so it continues… the search not for solutions to the problems, but rather ways to avoid any answering questions about them and allowing the “exceptionalism” to create more. Because, “exceptionalism”. That’s a really serious security issue, isn’t it. Blechhh.

    1. blert

      You are factually incorrect.

      When General Marshall was asked about supporting the Nationalist Chinese — he turned the idea down FLAT.

      MacArthur was SICK of war.

      The MIC wants peace. The funding is fat and easy — and no-one is embarrassed by failure.

      ( See “The Aviator” for how many War Department project went belly up during WWII.)

      The DREAM for the MIC is a cold conflict — like the Cold War.

      The problem with a real war is that many weapons programs are actually brought to a halt… ’cause they didn’t work !

      That could not only ruin your day — it could ruin your career — inside or outside the military.

      When the President withdrew from Iraq — the Pentagon had strictly mixed feelings.

      “The Sand Box” term ought to give you an idea of just how unpopular the entire Middle East is for Americans in the Services.

  13. J7915

    Same old, all over again.
    Their…, beat our…,
    How about we only send in folks who are fluent in the local language, understand the local culture, and can analyze the motivations of the local players on both sides? Theirs and ours?

    Sect Dulles was quoted as being surprised many a time in his day. Amazing when his brother was head spook.

  14. Michael

    TomDispatch is one of the best sites for foreign policy information. I’m surprised that the acknowledged fact of the FSA acting as a intermediary for weapons is not discussed. The FSA acts as a funnel for heavy arms to Al Nursa/Al Qaeda. MoonofAlabama regularly discusses this link. There is very little if any overlap between NakedCapitalism and MoonofAlabama otherwise I would not mention that blog by name.

    Fundamentally I think that the intelligence agencies were used to give cover for policy in the public arena. The real analysis would still make it to the upper levels but when a decision was made the useless info would get leaked into the public domain to cover their asses for making a bad decision. It seems that upper management only wants to have their preconceived notions confirmed so that information makes it too them even if its of poor quality.
    I know that Wolfowitz used this to get the proper information for the Iraq war. I’m not sure if Clinton’s team followed suit. I doubt Bush the Greater would have pulled this since he was/is a CIA man.

    1. blert

      The FSA DOES NOT EXIST. It never did.

      It’s a Western propaganda construct.

      No jihadi has EVER fought under its banner.

      Secularism during a religious war – – ’tis to laugh.

      Both ISIS and al Nusrah are known, publically acknowledged al Qaeda fronts.

      ISIS morphed out of Zarqawi’s brutal AQ in Iraq ‘brigade.’

      Al Nusrah lost control of ISIS, which was originally under its wing. Their dispute was mediated by Dr. Zawahiri. He is STILL in written correspondence with both.

      ALL of the American weapons have been promptly delivered to al Nusrah — which is deemed the MOST loyal to Dr. Zawahiri.

      The critical weapons — TOW missiles — are ENTIRELY responsible for Assad’s military reverses of late.

      Yes, these are the infamous TOW missiles that were at the center of Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal.

      Obama is Iran-Contra times 1,000 — as these ‘diversions’ are transparently obvious to ALL of the players — and are infuriating Putin, Assad, and the mullahs.

      Giving these high tech weapons to al Nusrah — in such a transparent manner — has to be judged high treason in wartime.

      You can flip to YouTube for an endless stream of al Nusrah TOW strike videos any time of the day.

      Like the Stinger// Blowpipe campaign (Wilson’s war, heh) the President is replacing spent TOW missiles when the containers are returned.

      You might note that Putin destroyed ISIS and al Nusrah ammo bunkers ( with TOW ) right from the outset. He is also quite reluctant to advance Russian armor onto a battlefield littered with jihadi fanatics packing TOW missiles. It’s just too risky… both to his tanks and their reputation.

  15. blert

    The “Five Eyes” is bunkum — aka a “limited, partial, hang-out.”

    It was launched in late 1942 — to defeat the Axis Powers.

    The founding members were FDR and Churchill.

    The real reason for the syndicate — oft known as Echelon — is that during WWII the signals technology — bouncing radio waves off the ionosphere — largely required multiple listening stations around the Pacific, around the Atlantic.

    The UK found that the US was breaking its codes.

    The US found that the UK was breaking its codes.

    Why that was so uniquely easy for each other I will leave to crypto experts. Suffice it to say that it was simple Simon for both powers.

    Strange, but true, listening stations in America could pick up tank to tank chatter broadcast in North Africa. (Rommel) Whereas, Britain couldn’t hear a word, nor could Germany. Hence the Germans and Italians had absolutely no idea that America was receiving un-coded radio transmissions all the way to Rhode Island.

    What was true for Europe was doubly true for the vast Pacific.

    So, Echelon — during WWII — also included Holland ( Dutch East Indies) and Nationalist China. Because of post war events, the vast Chinese contribution to code breaking has never been talked up. But, once you think about it, who could possibly have more intercepts than a nation being invaded by multiple land armies?

    Echelon was ENTIRELY behind the Battle of the Atlantic. Even all of the admitted technological wonders, sonar// ASDIC, 10cm Radar// B-24 ultra-long range patrols// acoustic homing torpedoes were not effective until the electronic intercepts (Enigma// Ultra) narrowed down the search patterns to something practical.

    Various ‘wasted’ patrols were launched so as to keep the airmen in the dark as to why they were sent thither and yon.

    Less than six-months after Echelon was ramped up in the Atlantic, the U-boat threat had been crippled.

    Lastly, the Americans had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code — and very efficiently, too. The machines (Purple) worked using Western Electric (AT&T) ‘wipers’ to set the various coding connections. The American machine was drastically slicker than anything the Japanese or British had. So FDR sent the Purple machine that had been built for Pearl Harbor off to London. (GCHQ)

    With it, the British were able to listen in on Baron Hiroshi Ōshima’s detailed transmissions to Tokyo. He had become a very close buddy of Adolf Hitler, who proceded to spill every manner of critical intention.

    This intel decided Patton’s fate. Hitler informed the Baron that the main Allied thrust into Europe would certainly be led by Patton, which he would look for. Any lesser commander was, in Adolf’s opinion, certainly landing only as a feint. !!!

    Adolf’s opinion made it impossible for Patton to be nominated the Overlord commander. It was the basis for creating FUSAG out of whole cloth. Once Patton was announced as leading 3rd Army, Hitler threw everything and the kitchen sink at him.

    In contrast, Japanese diplomatic transmissions meant nothing to the Pacific War.

    So, you see, victory entirely depended upon the network.

    Holland is still a part of Echelon. The key nations are located on top of all of the world’s oceanic telephonic land links.

    Echelon is the British Empire on steroids.

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