Quasi-review: The Way of the Knife

2013-04-25 20:54:58 by chort

I'm not really good at book reviews, but this one is worth jotting a few things down.

Two troubling trends are revealed by the book: The CIA is becoming increasingly militarized, and the DoD is aggressively building spying capabilities.

In the CIA's case they're losing their focus on intelligence in a quest to become an assassination apparatus. This should be profoundly disturbing, not just due to their reckless abandon in extra-judicial killings, but also because their already degraded HUMINT capabilities are being damaged by short-term thinking. My impression is the agency has been so narrowly focused on counter-terrorism that it's losing sight of long-game strategic issues. China is flexing, Iran continues sabre-rattling, Russia isn't going away, and meanwhile we're myopically engaged in blowing up mud huts in Pakistan.

In other news, the CIA apparently still hasn't learned that throwing money and guns at local thugs in an attempt to overthrow regimes the US doesn't like isn't really an effective strategy. The tales of mis-adventures in Somalia and Libya had me shaking my head. Really, we haven't figured this out yet? Will we hear similar stories about Syria in a few years? This must be a uniquely American problem--trying to get instantly gratifying results, without having to do a lot of hard work and thoughtful consideration.

Speaking of painfully short-sighted, in the now very-public operation to find ObL, the CIA hired an infamous doctor to run shoddy immunization programs as a dragnet for DNA. Unfortunately he didn't give the required number of injections to many patients, meaning they aren't actually immunized. Sadly that wasn't an exceptional circumstance, as the CIA apparently made use of other humanitarian and aid projects to provide cover for covert projects. While we did eventually get ObL, these callous compromises of outreach programs may end up causing immense of amounts of harm in the court of public opinion, reinforcing beliefs that Americans have a sinister hand in all kinds of disasters.

Enough CIA-bashing, what about the DoD? Funny you should ask. It turns out various loose-cannons were running around doing things like moving illegal databases filled with data on US citizens to foreign countries, to avoid pesky things like congressional investigations. They also hired foreign tech companies to write mobile phone games targeted at youths in middle eastern companies. The stated goal was to conduct propaganda operations, but an additional benefit was the ability to collect information on the mobile phone users and the people they communicated with. It wasn't clear from the book whether the information collection was ever included in the programs, but the game projects were apparently approved.

Many other DoD projects were carried out by contractors with dubious skills and delusions of grandeur. There are plenty of stories about private firms promising all kinds of intelligence collection, much of which ended up being low quality, or never even materialized. One of their contractors appears to have tried profiteering from the Somali pirates, by acting as a negotiator for their ransom demands and taking a service fee out of the payments.

While it's easy to point fingers at unaccountable federal agencies, remember it's the incredible pressure to produce results that lead to many corners being cut. That pressure came from elected officials who were afraid voters or political opponents would blame them for "not doing enough." In a very real way, the US public sentiment was a driving force behind the reckless course of action. That's not to say the agencies are blameless, but we should be aware these are the consequences we get for demanding instant gratification when our national pride is wounded.

Speaking of wounded national pride, Pakistan is a mess. I got the impression they have a deep inferiority complex as a nation. With India, China, and former Soviet states mostly encircling them (with much stronger militaries and economies), they're loath to allow an unfriendly regime on their western flank. For Pakistan, they'd much rather keep ties to terror groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan than keep the favor of the USA. When push comes to shove they'll always side with regional militants rather than US interests. They may offer temporary cooperation to keep financial and military aid flowing in, but they know the US will cease aid as soon as we're out of Afghanistan, so it doesn't make sense to pander to the US as a long-term strategy.

My take-away from the book is that US strategic interests would probably be much better served with a massive number of CIA and State Department employees in the field, supporting outreach programs around the world (but not co-opting NGOs for covert ops!) and keeping close tabs on public opinion. To do that well, the CIA needs to give up it's assassination powers so it's only in the collect and report business. The CIA also needs to setup better communication channels to the military, so relevant information is shared in a timely manner.

Conversely, the pentagon should give up their human spying operations. Turning the US military into a cloak and dagger organization carrying out shadowy operations in countries we aren't at war with is a recipe for disaster. We've already sown enough ill-will around the world where superstitious people are willing to believe all kinds of crazy anti-US conspiracies, we don't need to back that up with real conspiracies. The Defense Department should be just that: Defense.

Basically it's time we acted as a country like laws matter again, and doing illegal things because they're convenient is not a valid excuse. The longer we erode the rule of law the less meaning it has, and the closer we become to the despotic states in which we're blowing people up.

We must remember that terrorism is not an existential threat to the USA and never was. People got carried away because it was a populist cause at a time when there wasn't much to believe in. It became a massive distraction from domestic issues, which are now coming home to roost. As if that wasn't bad enough, the global economic and political situations have changed greatly while our national attention was diverted. Our national security depends on a strong, sustainable economy and long-term alliances in strategic regions. Massive piles of rocks pushing up poppies will not be relevant 50 years from now.

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