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Archive for June, 2006

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006


How does intelligence affect decisions for peace and war ? This has been a subject of much partisan rancor regarding the case made by President Bush and his administration for war in Iraq but the Iraq War was hardly the first war in which intelligence and its accuracy played a critical but disputed role. Intelligence as a factor in decisions for war has generally been ignored or underplayed by diplomatic historians until recent times. The opening of Soviet and Eastern Bloc archives, and lesser efforts at declassification on the American side during the Clinton years, have caused historians to begin to take a second look at well known events.

The CIA’s new issue of Studies In Intelligence has an interesting review of What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa by David E. Murphy, a former CIA Sovietologist. The reviewer, CIA historian Dr. Donald P. Steury, correctly frames the historical questions:

” The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. It transformed the Second World War and led, perhaps inevitably, to the Cold War and the half-century domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. It was, furthermore, one of the most brutal campaigns of modern times, bringing unspeakable atrocities and the near-annihilation of whole nationalities. The Nazis probably bear the principal responsibility for the character of the campaign, but the Soviet regime must shoulder some of the blame.

The sheer enormity of the event long has cried out for explanation on the strategic, political, economic, and even cultural level. At the heart is the question of why it happened at all. Why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union, thereby virtually abandoning his war with Britain and France at the very moment that he seemed about to achieve victory? Why did the attack come as such a surprise to the Soviet Union? How was Stalin, the canny, ruthless Realpolitiker in Moscow, flummoxed by the half-crazed ideologue in Berlin? Why did Stalin ignore the yearlong military buildup in eastern Europe and the (by one count) 87 separate, credible intelligence warnings of the German invasion that he received during 1940–41?”

If you pick up any decent biography Stalin, the chapters on the events of 1936-1941 will usually be among the most interesting. A period that saw the convergence of Soviet foreign policy with the internal policy of Stalinist terror – the dictator’s unholy mixture of brutal realpolitik with ideologically paranoiac mass-murder. As Operation Barbarossa approached however, Stalin’s rejection of unwelcome news about Hitler’s intentions extended even to Stalinist insiders in the secret police hierarchy like Dekanazov ( then also Soviet ambassador in Berlin), not just to foreign statesmen, professional Soviet diplomats and militay officers and spies like Richard Sorge.

Steury describes the evidence in What Stalin Knew:

” Murphy massively documents the in-pouring of intelligence from all over Europe and even Japan, warning of the German military buildup for invasion. Insofar as this intelligence was used at all, it was to avoid any action that might be seen as a provocation. German aircraft were allowed to fly reconnaissance missions deep into Soviet territory; German troops were allowed to violate Soviet borders in search of intelligence. All this was intended to remind the Germans of the depth of Soviet resolve, while demonstrating that the Soviet Union was not about to attack. Moreover, Stalin was absolutely convinced that Hitler would attempt nothing until he had resolved his conflict with Great Britain. He was encouraged in this preconception by a well-orchestrated German deception operation—including the two letters to Stalin—that was, at least in part, personally directed by Hitler. Thus it was that Stalin was able to ignore the massive military buildup on his borders and to dismiss every warning of a German attack as disinformation or provocation, right up until the morning of 22 June.

In describing how intelligence was collected and reported to Moscow, Murphy chillingly documents what it meant to be an intelligence officer under Stalin by following the careers of three men. NKVD foreign intelligence chief, Pavel Fitin, whose agents reported on German plans for BARBAROSSA right up to the attack, served throughout the war, but was in disgrace afterward. Ivan Proskurov, an air force officer and head of military intelligence during 1939–40, insisted on telling the truth to Stalin. He was shot in October 1941. Proskurov’s successor, Filipp I. Golikov, suppressed or altered intelligence reporting that did not meet the Soviet dictator’s preconceptions. He prospered under Stalin.”

This self-imposed isolation and distortion under which Stalin received intelligence and acted as his own analyst was replicated by Saddam Hussein in 2003, himself an admirer of the Soviet dictator’s methods, to even worse consequences. Foreign Affairs has published an excerpt, “Saddam’s Delusions“, from the Iraq Perspective Project that demonstrates that in comparison to Saddam’s fantasy world, Stalin’s decision making in 1941 was the epitome of rationality and clear thinking. The position and perspective of leadership inherently contains an element of distortion but it is evident that totalitarian, hyperviolent political systems like those created by Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein magnify the distortions a thousandfold.

Interestingly enough, Steury points to the possibility that even completely accurate information might not sway megalomaniacal dictators. His source is Adolf Hitler, reflecting upon the errors in German intelligence prior to Barbarossa:

In closing, it is worth noting that there was another failure of judgment in BARBAROSSA, that of Adolf Hitler. Hitler, like Stalin, was a victim of his own preconceptions, but, in contrast to Stalin, he was ill-served by his intelligence services. Suffering from what the Japanese, from bitter experience, would call “victory disease,” the Germans overestimated their own capabilities, even as they underestimated the Soviet capacity to resist. In July 1942, one year after the start of the campaign, Hitler admitted as much to Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish military leader, on a visit to Helsinki—Finland then being a cobelligerent with Germany in its war with the Soviet Union. “We did not ourselves understand— just how strong this state [the ussr] was armed,” Hitler told him, “If somebody had told me a nation could start with 35,000 tanks, then I’d have said, ‘You are crazy!’ . . . [Yet] . . . We have destroyed—right now—more than 34,000 tanks . . . . It was unbelievable . . . . I had no idea of it. If I had an idea—then it would have been more difficult for me, but I would have taken the decision to invade anyhow . . . .”[8] History does not record Marshal Mannerheim’s reaction.”

[ Emphasis mine ]

Statesmen who deal with information from a variety of sources, including intelligence, need to step back a bit and assess the limitations and gaps, the potential for error, self-referential bias and outright lies. Everything needs to be questioned and taken with a grain of salt. Yet in the end, decisions have to be made and neither credulity nor paranoia will serve.

Monday, June 26th, 2006


My friend Bruce Kesler, at Democracy Project, has a sober and overdue examination of secrecy, leaking and national security in the wake of The New York Times intentionally perverse outing of a critical intelligence program designed to track the financial transactions of terrorist groups. “Transparency Needed To Control Leaks” cuts to the heart of the problem – some excerpts:

“The furor over the New York Times and other newspapers’ publication of national security secrets disguises a larger problem: the media and government knowingly collude in leaking secret information. There is a federal law against leaking communications intelligence (U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 37, Paragraph 798) that has not been enforced. For those who wonder why there are not prosecutions of leakers of national security programs, this wider collusion between the media and government officials may be partly responsible

…However, leaking is a two-edged sword, as the administration and those close to it employ leaks to get their side of stories published or to lead discussion of selected issues. The revelation of the secret briefing by General Casey about the proposed draw down schedule of U.S. troops in Iraq, subject to events and negotiations with the Iraqi government, may be aimed at defusing Democrat calls for setting a rigid timetable.

…One can point to a long tradition of presidents and senior administration officials “speaking off the record” to reporters on sensitive issues. However, one can also point out that self-restraint by the media on matters of national security was greater in previous times. This means of communication to further the public’s understanding of issues and to build mutual trust was useful to the government, to reporters, and the public.

…What is required is new legislation that broadens the existing U.S. Code to include all matters of national security, applicable to all present and former government employees and officials, Congressional members and staff, and the media, coupled with confidential prior judicial consideration and enforcement mechanisms, and strict prosecution of those not abiding.

If this or any administration has something worth keeping secret, it should be willing to seek prosecution of its own employees who break that trust. If Congress needs more information to perform its representative functions, it must be willing to be policed for those who break trust. If media are to be a “fourth estate” instead of a “fifth column,” it must respect judged national security and be willing to be restrained. “

Read it in full here.

I have to second much of Bruce’s argument, though with less eloquence.

The leakage in Washington is an elite bipartisan effort to use the products of the IC as political clubs with which to beat one another, costs to the rest of us be damned – Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, reporters, editors, Republicans, Democrats – no one has clean hands here. A major part of the problem is that the Federal government is to the designation ” top secret” what the Weimar Republic was to money. The hyperinflation in secrecy classification is mostly used to hide that which is politically embarrassing or, frequently, rather trivial, for decades. Additionally, it is applied to what can only be described as a cosmic number of documents. This mindboggling expansion of what is considered “secret” radically degrades respect for what ought be considered, and kept, truly secret.

A reduction of official secrecy by about 90 % would do national security no harm but democracy a whole lot of good.

Speaking as a historian, even most of even what should be considered ” secret” – for example, time sensitive information related to diplomatic negotiations – can be safely published in just a few years time. Far less time, in fact, than what is currently used to declassify papers for each new edition of FRUS. Intelligence sources and methods – especially those of ongoing covert operations like the one destroyed by the editors of the Times – are another matter. Publication here does serious damage to U.S. interests and in some instances, endangers lives. Other than in cases of alerting the public to grave wrongdoing by government officials, this behavior is both unethical and illegal and should be subject to prosecution, as Bruce suggests.

Can we trust administration officials -this one or any other – to make the right call here ? Or the Congress ? Or bureaucrats ? Unfortunately not, as history shows that officeholders have a natural inclination to hide as many activities as possible from public view. For its part, a media that feels professionally inclined to be “neutral” between apocalyptic terrorists and their own government that is trying to defend them is no safe guardian either.

A law, narrowly defined to relate only to intelligence operations that have been properly reported to Congress, should suffice to protect that which should be truly kept secret but the political will to punish leakers and the wisdom to use it wisely must come from the American people themselves.

Their elected representatives, their journalists, left to their own devices, are self-serving and faithless.

Monday, June 26th, 2006


Watched Steven Spielberg’s Munich last night.

What struck me most was the amateurish, almost primitive, level of the terrorists and the Israeli deep undercover assassins who hunted them down. The fanatical nihilism of today, present in terrorists like Zarqawi, was absent in the Black September hostage takers. We view them as bad men or enemies but as understandable ones and not as incomprehensible aliens.

Also missing was the cool, high-tech, hypertrained, professionalism of modern counterterrrorism units. Things are figured out on the fly, bombs are jerry-rigged from WWII surplus, basic tradecraft (in terms of espionage, mission security) are ignored. For example, after Avner is approached by an attractive “swallow” in a hotel bar and realizes that his group’s cover is blown, instead of getting everybody out of the hotel and disappearing, he lets one of his team members go hang with her while he goes to his room and places a direct call to the apartment in New York where he is hiding his wife and child. Not something I wager many intelligence or counterterrorism agents would do today.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the film, which has been criticized by former members of both Black September and the Mossad but it is dubious that Spielberg could have satisfied both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute plus neutral historians and still produced a watchable, entertaining, film. I give it…three stars !

Saturday, June 24th, 2006


President Bush makes my day !

Sure, executive orders can be repealed by any future administration but the move isn’t entirely symbolic either; legally, Federal agencies must now err a little closer to respecting property rights under the 5th amendment. A rare gesture these days.

It was also a nice political rebuke to SCOTUS for their nod toward oligarchy in Kelo v. City of New London.

Saturday, June 24th, 2006


Some interesting things for interesting times:

Sonny at FX-Based has Part III of “In Defense of EBO” up. Sonny’s series is written as a refutation of “Bloodless theories, bloody wars; Easy-win concepts crumble in combat“, a highly critical piece by Ralph Peters.

Steve DeAngelis of ERMB explains “Development -in-a-Box” in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Earl of Prometheus6, unlike most of us, has some firsthand experience with the big IC/NYT story of the day.

This next one was fun. At least for me, and highly recommended:

Curzon of Coming Anarchy unsheathes dagger and sword to avenge Coming Anarchy’s patron saint, Robert Kaplan, from a somewhat prissy and and faux-intellectual attack job. Defending Kaplan brings out Curzon’s more creative powers of rebuttal and this post does not disappoint.

Bill Petti of The Duck of Minerva and I probably would not agree on all aspects of foreign policy but I like the way he chooses to frame his analysis.

PurpleSlog coins a phrase that will create instant arguments, regardless of the merits of the underlying issue. On the other hand, however you care to phrase it, he’s discussing an intellectual phenomenon we have seen before.

That’s it!

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