Judith Miller, who earned a reputation as a BushCo shill by trumpeting Ahmad Chalabi’s fantasies on behalf of Perle and Wolfowitz in the months leading up to the Second Gulf War, hasn’t been seen much in the NYT since the blogosphere blew the whistle on her. When she has appeared, it has been as the junior member of a team. The Times apparently felt it necessary to re-train her as an actual journalist. Smart of them. I would have canned her sorry ass.
But now she’s back and writing on her own again, only not in the news section; in Arts: she’s reviewing a book by Sir John Keegan, a British military historian.
Keegan’s book, which seems to rely heavily on the 19th century (Britain’s Golden Days of Empire), advances the idea that intelligence isn’t really all that important in warfare, at least not compared to overwhelming military force:
“War is ultimately about doing, not thinking,” writes Sir John, the author of 16 other books about war and military tactics, including the instant classic, “The Face of Battle.” In his latest offering, “Intelligence in War” (Alfred A. Knopf), he insists again and again, “Only force finally counts.””Decision in war is always the result of a fight, and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge,” he argues. “Let those who disagree show otherwise.”
A thesis like that would seem tailor-made for a Bushie to use as justification for the pre-emptive war in Iraq, but surprisingly Miller doesn’t take the bait this time. She actually does her homework (something she consistently failed to do when reporting the neocon/Chalabi version of history previously) and talks to more up-to-date experts for a bit of balance:
Bruce Hoffman, director of RAND’s Washington office and a terrorism analyst, said that although Sir John analyzed the role of intelligence in countering Al Qaeda, most of his examples were drawn from 18th- to 20th-century wars rather than 21st-century conflicts. “Keegan is largely right on the role of intelligence in conventional wars,” Mr. Hoffman said, “but he is not right about counterinsurgencies in any century, when intelligence is the sine qua non of success.” Modern wars, he argued, are not fought only with military tools. “So intelligence has a very different role today. You can no longer fight, much less win them just with military strength.”Mr. Hoffman maintained, for instance, that poor intelligence on the radical jihadists and pro-Saddam Hussein loyalists who are killing both Iraqis and American soldiers today “is one of our major problems in Iraq.”
Roger Cressey, the former chief of staff to President Bush’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Board and a former director for transnational threats at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, agrees, noting that America is being forced to fight modern wars under far greater constraints than ever before. “Intelligence isn’t particularly important if you have a scorched-earth policy or are spending a lot of time in the Soviet archives,” Mr. Cressey said. “But if you are trying to win hearts and minds by killing as few civilians as possible, good intelligence on, say, where insurgents, as opposed to noncombatants, are located, is hugely important.”
Sir John is concerned about the Western reliance on high-tech intel-gathering, and while his suggestion that it can be dispensed with entirely may be a bit loopy, he isn’t wrong about its weaknesses:
In the war against terrorism, good intelligence may be extremely hard to obtain, particularly against Al Qaeda. A “coalition of like-minded but separate groups” despite its name, which in Arabic means “the base,” Al Qaeda is a diffuse target, and one that has thus far been fairly resistant to America’s high-tech, electronic surveillance prowess, he says. The United States, he warns, will have to rely on old-fashioned spies rather than gadgets. But in this regard the America he so obviously admires is decidedly weak.On this point Edward N. Luttwak, a maverick defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, shares Sir John’s concern. For all its electronic surveillance wizardry, the “humint” or human intelligence needed to combat Al Qaeda’s terrorism is not America’s strength, Mr. Luttwak argues. “Overhead technical means of collection do you no good,” he said. “And Al Qaeda members have learned how to evade intercepts. Humint over the past years has yielded virtually nothing. It doesn’t suit Americans.”
“To be a case officer you have to be a poet,” he continued. “You need to romance and seduce. You need to be able to learn Urdu in six months.” Woefully short of language skills, many American intelligence officials, “can’t even ask for a cup of coffee.”
Some of us have been saying for years that the official preference for gadgets and the corresponding starvation of programs aimed at training intel agents for running on-the-ground networks was a huge mistake. Noticing the flaws of high-tech intel-gathering isn’t new outside the higher levels of the IC, but inside those levels raising these questions has just begun for almost the first time since the days of the U-2 spy planes. Satellites and wireless interceptions are fine as aides, but they’re of little use in penetrating the minds of enemies who don’t have armies to shift around and who may be smart enough to either encrypt their communications or use low-tech means that aren’t subject to electronic eaves-dropping.
Most of this one-note-Johnny dependence on electronics is the result of an even more basic mistake: the concentration of resources on the Soviet Union and Cuba to the exclusion of all other considerations during the Cold War. That concentration gutted our intel capabilities in every other area of the globe for so long that networks in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America simply faded away for lack of attention. Efforts in those regions tended to circle around the identification of “Communist” insurgencies (which were often not Communist at all but populist uprisings as in Chile and Nicaragua) and the propagation of pro-American or pro-govt propaganda (which rarely had any effect at all on the populations at which they were aimed, good, bad or indifferent).
We relied on the Israelis for our Middle East intel, on our connections with Latin American dictatorships for intel in that area, and on military juntas in Asia. Our concentration on the Soviets didn’t allow either the time or the money to develop our own intel resources, which left us at the mercy of the private agendas of “allies” whose interests were not always synonymous with our own. They fed us what they wanted us to know, and we based our policy decisions on that totally skewed information.
It isn’t all that much better now, but if we’re beginning to re-examine our assumptions about the efficacy of electronics, this can only be good.
And for a change, Ms Miller may actually have helped that discussion. Will wonders never cease?