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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Basic Instincts, Not the Truth: Iraq War Product of Neocon Philosophy of Intelligence

(The first in a series of investigative reports on influence of a web of right-wing organizations and individuals--chiefly associated with the...

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(The first in a series of investigative reports on influence of a web of right-wing organizations and individuals–chiefly associated with the Project for the New American Century–in setting radical new directions in U.S. foreign and military policy.)

“The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say well that’s basically what we see as the situation..”

— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, June 6, 2002 (1)

The deepening quagmire in Iraq and the failure of the Bush administration to produce evidence to back its arguments for invading Iraq have stymied the neocons’ agenda for preventive war and regime change around the world. But the right’s assault on what it regards as the “liberal establishment” in foreign policy has not completely stalled.

Neocon groups such as the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and the Center for Security Policy (CSP) have seized on the report by U.S. weapons inspector David Kay to advance their decades-old campaign to reform U.S. intelligence operations. They have adroitly brushed aside critiques that Kay’s statement that “we were all wrong, probably.” They have attempted to focus the deepening concerns about faulty U.S. intelligence on the CIA alone.

The neocons, along with the Republican-controlled Congress and the president himself, regard the failure to find the purported stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as another opportunity to push ahead with their agenda to overhaul the U.S. intelligence apparatus. In announcing the creation of a bipartisan commission in the wake of the Kay Report, President Bush said that the investigation would recommend reforms that would enable the U.S. government to do a better job in fighting the war on terrorism.

It’s not that intelligence reform isn’t needed or that the CIA isn’t due for some serious housecleaning. But the right wants to permanently disable the CIA as the government’s main intelligence agency. Over the past four decades, the ideologues of the right have repeatedly charged that the CIA has routinely underestimated threats to U.S. national security. It’s been their contention that the CIA is so caught up in the minutiae of intelligence that they are unable to see the big picture of actual and future threats. The CIA is thus being set up as the main institutional fall guy in the Iraq WMD scandal. However, the true problem rests with the very type of intelligence that right-wing groups such as the National Strategy Information Center (NSIC) and PNAC are now hoping to institutionalize.

In a maddening and bizarre twist of the Iraq invasion scam, the neocons are attempting (and may likely succeed) to have the U.S. intelligence apparatus overhauled–not so that it provides more fact-based intelligence to policymakers but to further decentralize intelligence gathering and to further politicize intelligence.

Trust Our Basic Instincts Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, argues that what counts in intelligence is not so much correct information but basic instincts. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed on the findings of weapons inspector David Kay and the Iraq Survey Team, Schmitt acknowledges that the Bush administration was wrong in making the case that Iraq had an ongoing program to develop weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, Schmitt, a longtime critic of the CIA, says that “our basic instincts were sound.” What’s more, he contends, we would risk the country’s security if we backed down now in what President Bush this week called “the war against weapons of mass destruction.”

Instead, as they pursues reform in intelligence operations, U.S. policymakers and the presidential commission “should understand that what we lack in detailed intelligence about weapons is more than offset by our strategic intelligence about particular countries’ intent.” In other words, our instincts about the intent rather than the actual capacity of countries such as Iran and North Korea should be the true guide for future foreign policy. This is what intelligence reformers and hawks like Schmitt call “strategic intelligence.” (2)

Thus, the neoconservatives, who were the leading strategists and cheerleaders for a new war against Iraq, are among the strongest supporters of plans to overhaul U.S. intelligence operations–not because they believe that the CIA doesn’t get its facts right. On the contrary, neocons like Schmitt, Richard Perle, David Brooks, and Frank Gaffney say the CIA is too focused on the facts while giving short shrift to “strategic intelligence” that pays more attention to threat assessments based on instinctual understanding of the intent of enemy nations. “It is premature to think that military preemption can be taken off the table completely,” says Schmitt, simply because we didn’t have all the facts right. Given that basic instincts were sound about “Hussein’s intentions and history,” we would be “missing the forest for the trees” if we were to back down from a war against weapons of mass destruction, concludes Schmitt.

Echoing Schmitt, Frank Gaffney, a protégé of Richard Perle and director of the militarist Center for Security Policy, also seized on the Kay Report as an opportunity to bash the CIA. Gaffney, who recommended that Kay be named new director of central intelligence, has called for the dismissal of CIA director George Tenet. (3) As a moderate conservative and part of the circle of realpolitikers close to the president’s father, Tenet has long been considered by neocons as an obstacle to their designs for reshaping the U.S. intelligence community.

Perle, like Gaffney and Schmitt, believes that the Iraq invasion was the right policy even if the administration’s arguments for the war were based on faulty intelligence. In fact, he uses the Kay Report to underscore his long-running contention that “our intelligence in the gulf has been woefully inadequate”–in a reprise of his past attacks on the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State Department’s intelligence operations for underestimating threats and having an Arabist prejudice. (4)

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist close neocon political camps both inside and outside the Bush administration, also jumped into the right’s slash-and-burn campaign against the CIA. Like Schmitt, Brooks is an advocate of “strategic intelligence.” He charges that the main problem with U.S. intelligence is not that it cannot get the facts right but that its intelligence gathering “has factored out all those insights that may be the product of an individual’s intuition and imagination.” At the CIA, contends, Brooks, “scientism [is] in full bloom.” Brooks describes scientism as an old-school approach whereby intelligence is obtained through a scientific method that sidelines policy analysis and psychological assessments of foreign regimes as well as a Dostoyevsky-like understanding of the forces of good and evil, crime and punishment. (5)

Setting the Agenda for New Intelligence Paradigm Two longtime advocates of the type of flexible intelligence operation put in motion by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith are Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, senior associates at the National Strategy Information Center (NSIC) in the 1990s. (See sidebar profile.) The NSIC along with a half-dozen other think tanks and committees produced reports in the mid-1990s that recommended intelligence reforms. (6) As it turns out, the NSIC’s recommendations had the most influence in shaping the intelligence practices of the George W. Bush administration.

In 1996 the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, a project of the NSIC, produced a report entitled The Future of U.S. Intelligence, whose recommendations prefigured the new forays into intelligence operations by the Pentagon and the vice president’s office. Coauthored by Shulsky and Schmitt, the report argued that the intelligence community should adopt a new methodology aimed at “obtaining information others try to keep secret and penetrating below the ‘surface’ impression created by publicly available information to determine whether an adversary is deceiving us or denying us key information.” The document recommended the establishment of “competing analytic centers” with “different points of view” that could “provide policymakers better protection against new ‘Pearl Harbors,’ i.e., against being surprised.” Rather than a narrow focus on information collection, “intelligence analysis must … make it more relevant to policymakers by emphasizing the forces that shape a given situation,” the authors contend.

The study’s overall conclusion was that the “future of intelligence” depended on building a new model that would offer “greater flexibility in the collection process” and produce the “big picture” of security threats. (7) Ultimately, Shulsky and Schmitt concluded, the purpose of analysis is to help the policymaker shape the future, not predict it. Intelligence analysis should go beyond simply identifying security threats and assessing the military capabilities of a present or future enemy or a competitor nation; it should be “opportunity analysis” that anticipates chances to advance U.S. interests. (8)

Conclusions and Recommendations of NSIC’s Future of Intelligence Report

  • The centralization of intelligence under the CIA should not be extended to post-cold war circumstances.
  • Intelligence analysis should focus more on opportunities to shape situations rather than concentrating on predictions of the future.
  • Covert action operations should be reintegrated into foreign policy and should be considered an instrument to foster democratic transitions and to counter efforts that frustrate these transitions.
  • A “new paradigm for intelligence” would closely integrate a more decentralized intelligence community with policy and military sectors. No longer would the CIA’s national intelligence estimates be considered superior to policy-driven intelligence.
  • The timeliness, accessibility, and focus of an intelligence product can be as important as its scholarly quality.
  • Greater flexibility and a more diversified structure are necessary in the intelligence collection process.
  • Counterintelligence should be a wholly integrated part of the new intelligence paradigm and should extend beyond counterespionage to include a collection and analytic process that penetrates and manipulates the intelligence efforts of U.S. adversaries.

Source: Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, The Future of U.S. Intelligence (National Strategy Information Center, 1996).

Citations

Tom Barry, "Basic Instincts, Not the Truth: Iraq War Product of Neocon Philosophy of Intelligence," IRC Right Web (Somerville, MA: Interhemispheric Resource Center, February 12, 2004).

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