A while ago, I promised a series on intelligence agencies and how they work. This isn’t it. I’m still wading through a ton of material, finding whatever I can of it that’s online (I’m trying to emulate Seattle, which is bloody hard, and source as much as I can), and organizing my notes. But after reading a piece in today’s NYT on Doug Feith and his Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group (C-TEG), there are a few comments I wanted to make that you can consider a lead-up to the Intelligence series. Call it a “Preface”. Or “An Extended Preliminary Note”. Or a “Watermelon.” Whatever floats your boat.
Most of this material was originally unearthed by Sy Hersh and published in The New Yorker (I’ll be quoting a LOT of it in the series) over several issues of the mag some months ago, so the NYT is, as usual, a little late getting on the bus. Nevertheless, reporter James Risen’s portrait of C-TEG and the controversy that swirled around it inside the IC is reasonably accurate. You should go read it. However, I’m not going to deconstruct this article now. What I want to do is call your attention to a few fundamental facts of intelligence-gathering before you read it so you have a context in which to put it.
C-TEG consisted of only two men–Michael Maloof and David Wurmser–and they were charged by Feith, Def-Undersec for Policy, with “re-evaluating” raw intelligence data. Feith, one of Newt Gingrich’s cadre of neocon altar boys, was convinced that the standard intelligence services were hiding or downgrading important information about Saddam’s links with Mid-East terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, and the strength and sophistication of his WMD program either because they were filled with Democratic holdovers or because they were, as Gingrich said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in the fall of 2002, simply and irretrievably incompetent.
Gingrich has no experience in intelligence; neither has Feith; neither have Maloof and Wurmser, two more Gingrich accolytes. So how did they know all this “vital information” was being withheld by the IC? They “knew it” because they were all devotees of and True Believers in Laurie Mylroie’s conspiracy theory that Hussein was the Professor Moriarty of terrorism–that he was the planner, motivator, and funder of every Islamic terrorist group in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and AQ, and that he was even behind the bombing of the Murra Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Here’s Maloof showcasing a classic example of neocon naivete in action:
“We discovered tons of raw intelligence,” said Michael Maloof, one of the pair. “We were stunned that we couldn’t find any mention of it in the C.I.A.’s finished reports.”
Stunned. “Raw intelligence” consists of unconfirmed reports, unsubstatiated rumors, gossip, and outright lies told by informers to gain some desired advantage. It isn’t included in finished reports because most of it–as much as 95%–is plain, unadulterated garbage, inaccurate and meaningless. But Mr Malloof clearly didn’t know that. What’s worse, he didn’t care.
“I don’t have any problem with them bringing in a couple of people to take another look at the intelligence and challenge the assessments,” said Patrick Lang, a former Middle East analyst for the D.I.A. “But the problem is that they brought in people who were not intelligence professionals, people brought in because they thought like them. They knew what answers they were going to get.”
Feith responds to the charges with a challenge:
“I would be happy to have anybody come in and examine the quality of the work, whether it is supported by the data, whether it is logical, whether it is well-reasoned,” he said.
Here’s the problem: that “anybody” needs to be qualified and Feith doesn’t know that. “Anybody with intellegence experience” who looks at that data is going to be searching for confirmation and corroboration; when they don’t find it, they’re going to do what the IC has already done: label the C-TEG analysis worthless and throw it in the circular file. But if “anybody without intelligence experience” looks at that data, it might on the surface seem to be relevant, even significant, and they’ll wonder why it wasn’t in the reports.
What we have here is the worst possible combination of weaknesses for intelligence analysts: a pre-ordained agenda, a startling degree of naivete, a total lack of experience or training in the field, zero knowledge of how intelligence-gathering works–they didn’t even know as much as you would know if you read a couple of books–and a level of gullibility that strains belief. These guys were prepared to believe virtually anything that seemed to fit or confirm Mylroie’s wacked-out fantasies and to pass it on as if it were the Gospel. Which is, in fact, exactly what they did.
Mr. Feith said his group was not set up as a rival to the C.I.A. “This is what policy people do all the time, they read the existing intelligence,” he said. “We were not bypassing, we were not being secretive, we were not cutting the intel community out of this.” (emphasis added)
But you weren’t reading “the existing intelligence”, Mr Feith. You were reading the existing gossip, rumors, innuendos, and lies in a raw data file. Not quite the same thing.
But you didn’t understand that, did you, Mr Feith? And you still don’t.
These are the nincompoops, the naifs, the extraordinarily gullible James Bond wanna-be’s who justified this war for Junior. These are kids playing at being spies in the backyard, adolescents whose only knowledge of the grown-up intelligence world came from Ian Fleming, Matt Helm, and–gawd help us–Newt Gingrich.
No wonder they made such a mess.