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Beinhart's Body Politic: Secrets 

click to enlarge Larry Beinhart
  • Larry Beinhart
The sun rises. The sun sets.

Some things that are plainly true are actually false.

It appears to be inarguably true that the United States needs secret intelligence services for national security.
So we spend $40 billion a year on it. And even though everything that Bush has done with his already vast secret powers—ignore terrorism before 9/11, fail to get bin Laden, a war with the wrong country, lose that war—has led to abject failure, when he asks for more secret powers, he gets them.

The basic concept has never been questioned.

We did not discover that the Earth rotates—creating the illusion that the sun moves—directly.

It was part of a whole perceptual system that put the Earth at the center of the universe, based, it should be noted, on realistic observations and sound reasoning. However, there were certain details where the model didn’t quite work.

Those anomalies nagged at few people who picked away at it. Some, like Tycho Brahe, who kept a pet moose and a clairvoyant dwarf named Jepp as a jester in his castle, gathered data, without changing the concept. Others, like Copernicus, searched for a new idea. Still others, like Galileo and Kepler, put the two together and developed concepts that turned out to be accurate when we ultimately got into space and were able to look back.

There are two parts: data and concept.

Common sense, certain events, and most of the great theoreticians make it seem self-evident that secrets are crucial in war.

The quintessential example is the Battle of Midway in 1942. Much of the American fleet had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto wanted to draw what remained into a trap and destroy them, leaving Japan the sole naval power in the East.

Imagine two fleets maneuvering blindly in the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean.

Except that US Admiral Nimitz wasn’t blind. The Allies had broken the Japanese code. They knew the Yamamoto’s intentions. Nimitz grabbed every ship and plane he could get, even two heavily damaged carriers, and was waiting when Yamamoto arrived.

The Americans won. It was the turning point in the war with Japan.

That’s pretty convincing and damn hard to argue against.

After the defeat of the Axis, the world split in two again. The primary players, America and Russia, were unwilling to engage head-to-head.

Instead, the battle was engaged in smaller countries with advisors, money and propaganda, subversion, revolutions, and coups, and in by-proxy shooting wars.

Both sides made great commitments to the use of secret forces and intelligence services.

The US, as represented by the CIA, had several notorious failures. However, the theory was that only its failures became known; but there were lots more successes, which were secret.

There was no data. So the theory could not be argued.

That’s no longer the case. A file compiled 30 years ago that the CIA called “The Family Jewels” was recently released under the Freedom of Information Act ( More important is the publication of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter.

Now there’s enough data to develop a scorecard.

The secret intelligence services have two missions.

The first is analysis, to gather data and make projections. Success is getting it more accurately and extensively than what’s on CNN. Failure is not getting information, getting it wrong, allowing information to be misused, or deliberately transmitting bad information.

The intelligence community’s record of failure in analysis is astonishing.

Their prediction of Russia’s nuclear capability was off by four years. They missed the Korean War, predicted China would not enter that war just before 300,000 Chinese troops crossed the border and almost drove American forces into the sea. Missed the Suez Crisis. Misjudged Castro’s communism, then his ability to hang on. Failed to predict the collapse of the Dominican Republic. Then told Lyndon Johnson that it was the work of Castro’s agents. The US invaded. The Cuban story turned out to be false and created LBJ’s “credibility gap.”
Missed Lon Nol’s coup in Cambodia, the “Colonels’ Coup” in Greece, the Greek invasion of Cyprus, and the Yom Kippur War. They predicted that the USSR would never invade Afghanistan, missed their decision to pull out, and never considered what would follow—the rise of the Taliban.

They didn’t anticipate the fall of the Shah, the rise of the Ayatollah, and the return of religion as a political force.

They didn’t believe that Gorbachev wanted to end the Cold War. They had no clue that the Soviet Union had rotted from within and that it was going to fall. They said Saddam Hussein was too weak to invade Kuwait. They believed the Iraqi dissidents and encouraged the revolts against Saddam that failed. They believed the same dissidents that democracy would spontaneously arise after Gulf War II. They helped massage the intelligence about WMDs to justify that war. They failed to predict Iraqi resistance to the occupation and, even now, barely understand who we’re fighting.

There are two known successes. They predicted Israel’s Six Day War. They tried to tell Johnson he couldn’t win in Vietnam. He wouldn’t listen.

The scorecard cries out that the failures are systemic.

Yet belief remains set in stone. To say there is something fundamentally wrong with secret intelligence is like telling a 16th-century pope that there’s no heaven in the sky. Before we do we have to examine the rest of the data: the second mission of intelligence services, covert operations and the corrupting effects of secret intelligence on national policy.

We have to explain why the flaws are inherent and can’t be fixed. Then offer a better alternative. All that coming up. Stay tuned to this publication.

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