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America’s Defense Amnesia

(by Adam Elkus)

Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.

The age of “dirty war”  became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.

In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.

Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.

My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.

That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.

The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.

Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.

Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.

7 Responses to “America’s Defense Amnesia”

  1. larrydunbar Says:

    I don’t know. Can you really say someone has amnesia when their memory was wrong to begin with? In other words, you are trying to get the American public to remember something that didn’t even happen. The Iraq War quickly turned into a civil war, and as late as 2008, when the Civil War was in full bloom, it was still being presented to the American public as a war against America. 
    So now, of course we need the big data mining by the NSA, because that Civil War has the possibility of spredding through out the rest of the world, and is spredding the fastest through the internet.
    Plus an insurgency has started here at home, as its followers are willing to strap on the suicide vest of defaulting on our debt and blowing themselves up.
    It is amazing what people will do under real amnesia.

  2. TomPaine Says:

    “(with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.” In other words, commercial espionage, which #TeamNSA on Twitter has sought to either dismiss by…

    1) saying those “dirty Papist Frenchies”(no that quote is not made up, Prof. John Schindler at the Naval War College actually used that term, lucky for him the Catholic Defense League is not as powerful when it comes to pressuring Dept. of Defense as the ADL or CAIR)

    2) besides ‘everybody else does it’, pretend commercial espionage is simply broad support for negotiating trade agreements ‘protect American jobs’ bla bla bla not a co-opting of the NSA’s taxpayer-funded vast spy power by specific corporations. For example, it’s very likely a significant share of the 66 million phone calls a month recorded in Spain not only came from Spanish government officials to eachother and relatives but also between mid-managers/engineers at CASA, bankers at Bankia nervously discussing whether the Deutsche Bank derivatives default could take down their bank, etc.  

    The blowback is twofold, regardless of whether the blame can be put entirely on that dastardly Russian spy Eduard Snowden. One, the next time Boeing derives a widget or a German finance minister has a call with a Deutsche Bank executive and the ‘secret’ disclosed leaks out or Goldman Sachs makes a big short of DB that appears to be based off NSA collected data, can you say class action lawsuits in London court?
    The second blowback of course, is what we’re already seeing with calls for Germany and Brazil, both nations on fairly friendly footing with the U.S., to create their own encrypted commercial and government networks using open source software that is not so easy to ‘backdoor’ bug. #TeamNSA defenders on Twitter won’t be able to insist only child pornographers and credit card stealing hackers need encryption forever… 

    Besides that, as someone tweeted to ZP on Friday, the Naval War College itself may soon be under investigation for HatchAct violations. Advocacy for NSA to the point of 100 average tweets a day might not be a violation in of itself, but when you pepper said advocacy with insults of Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Rep. Justin Amash that would have one’s uniformed NWC students at least told to tone it down if not reprimanded for violating DoD regs against contempt and open partisan (taxpayer funded/office space/computer using) activity…well that’s a different kettle of fish.

  3. larrydunbar Says:

    “In other words, commercial espionage”

    So far we got two strategies, Counter Terrorism and Counter Insurgency. Even someone as powerful as Joshua Fouts (I heard he is a Saint) can’t just makeup a third one. 

  4. TomPaine Says:

    What’s been amusing larrydunbar is watching the cat fights on #TeamNSA between ‘Prokofy Neva’, who is publically known as Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, @LibertyLynx, she of the suspension proof Twitter account no matter how many million tweets she send to @ggreenwald, @ioerror (who blocked her ages ago) and Foust.

    The latter two along with the University of Houston Prof. Craig Pirrong (whom I affectionately refer to as Pirwrong) blast Foust for allegedly lifting their material and talking points in support of NSA against Ed-Satan.

    Unfortunately for them, there are two problems with their objections.

    1 Foust can honestly say there’re only so many ideas out there about how the FSB is exploiting Snowden or what he done did, so some overlap is inevitable on all talking points.

    2 @LibertyLynx being anonymous sort of deflates whining about not getting enough credit, does it not? Anonymity is about getting in and out like a guerrilla and waging idea insurgency, not about who gets the credit (and it’s amazing what anonymously spread ideas can accomplish, just ask ‘Publius’, so long as we don’t get too worried about who gets the credit, to paraphrase President Reagan).

    I apologize for some typos in the above blog comment. You all get my drift. The WordPress gremlins have been chewing up my attempts to republish the following, perhaps there’s a WP app that detects duplicates of someone else’s posts even when the author has no objection to republication and/or reproducing it is in the public interest.

    No charge, of course, should be made without substantiation against those who might very well be Kevin Bacon distant mil-strat acquaintances of ZP and B&B Conference participants, so I leave this link:

    and this:

    regarding the alarming politicization even partisanship (at least anti-Tea Party GOP, pro-status quo partisanship) now publically rearing its ugly head at one of our War Colleges, undermining their credibility and mission.


    more broadly, this post connects the dots between the annullment of the Smith-Mundt Act that had barred DoD and intelligence agencies from unleashing domestic propaganda (though evaded through CIA’s Operation Mockingbird and FBI’s COINTELPRO) and broader attacks on NYT James Risen, his Fox News buddy who used to get missent emails James Rosen, and the like.

  5. Grurray Says:

    The old saying, no plan survives contact with the enemy, should be amended to say no plan survives contact with the public (particularly if the plan ultimately digs us into deeper holes with reconstituting enemies.
    “For example, it’s very likely a significant share of the 66 million phone calls a month recorded in Spain not only came from Spanish government officials to eachother and relatives but also…”
    A couple weeks ago Gates used some of his MS money to buy a minority stake in Spain’s largest construction company. Curious deal considering the state of the Spanish economy.
    I wonder how much it was either NSA -aided or related. 

  6. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Part of spreading “Success of Failure” culture is privatizing of the gov by for-profit companies is that they realize they can make more money off series of failures in lieu of immediate success. Congressional investigation resulted in putting the agency on probation and not allowed to manage its own projects (which may have just been ploy for more for-profit companies … since congress effectively gets kickbacks from the large beltway bandits)

    Spies Like Us

    Private contractors like Booz Allen now reportedly garner 70 percent of the annual $80 billion intelligence budget and supply more than half of the available manpower.

    … snip …

    it would also seem to be irresistible for the for-profit companies to leverage the resources for industrial espionage and their own profit.

    NSA Spied on World Bank, IMF, UN, Pope, World Leaders, and American
    Politicians and Military Officers

    The NSA conducts widespread industrial espionage on our allies. That has nothing to do with terrorism, either. And the NSA’s industrial espionage has been going on for many decades.

    … snip …

  7. Grurray Says:

    Gates has two tranches of capital – his MS money of which a large amount goes into these private equity investments and his
    FU money in his charitable trust.
    Increasingly, both are getting directed at the same general area – Africa.

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