The Neocon Philosophy of Intelligence
by Tom Barry
message is that there are no 'knowns'. There are things we know
that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are
things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown
unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know. So when
we do the best we can and we pull all this information together,
and we then say, well that's basically what we see as the situation
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, June 6, 2002
The deepening quagmire in Iraq and the failure of the Bush administration
to produce evidence to back its arguments for invading Iraq have
stymied the American neo-conservatives' agenda for preventive war
and regime change around the world. But their assault on what they
call the "liberal establishment" in US foreign policy has not completely
Neo-con groups such as the Project for the New American Century
(PNAC) and the Center for Security Policy have seized on the report
by US weapons inspector David Kay to advance their decades-old campaign
to reform US intelligence operations. They have adroitly brushed
aside Kay's statement that "we were all wrong, probably." They
have attempted to focus the deepening concerns about faulty US intelligence
on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) alone.
The neo-cons, along with the Republican-controlled Congress and
President George W Bush himself, regard the failure to find the
purported stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as another
opportunity to push ahead with their agenda to overhaul the US intelligence
apparatus. In announcing the creation of a bipartisan commission
in the wake of the Kay Report, Bush said that the investigation
would recommend reforms that would enable the US government to do
a better job in fighting the "war on terrorism."
It's not that intelligence reform isn't needed or that the CIA isn't
due for some serious housecleaning. But the right wants to permanently
disable the CIA as the government's main intelligence agency. Over
the past four decades, the ideologues of the right have repeatedly
charged that the CIA has routinely underestimated threats to US
national security. It's been their contention that the CIA is so
caught up in the minutiae of intelligence that they are unable to
see the big picture of actual and future threats. The CIA is thus
being set up as the main institutional fall guy in the Iraq WMD
scandal. However, the true problem rests with the very type of intelligence
that right-wing groups such as the National Strategy Information
Center (NSIC) and PNAC are now hoping to institutionalize.
In a maddening and bizarre twist of the Iraq invasion scam, the
neo-cons are attempting (and may likely succeed) to have the US
intelligence apparatus overhauled not so that it provides more
fact-based intelligence to policymakers, but to further decentralize
intelligence gathering and to further politicize intelligence.
our basic instincts
Schmitt, executive director of the PNAC, argues that what counts
in intelligence is not so much correct information but basic instincts.
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed on the findings of Kay and the
Iraq Survey Team, Schmitt acknowledges that the Bush administration
was wrong in making the case that Iraq had an ongoing program to
develop weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, Schmitt, a longtime
critic of the CIA, says that "our basic instincts were sound."
What's more, he contends, we would risk the country's security if
we backed down now in what Bush this week called "the war against
weapons of mass destruction."
Instead, as they pursue reform in intelligence operations, US policymakers
and the presidential commission "should understand that what we
lack in detailed intelligence about weapons is more than offset
by our strategic intelligence about particular countries' intent."
In other words, our instincts about the intent rather than the actual
capacity of countries such as Iran and North Korea should be the
true guide for future foreign policy. This is what intelligence
reformers and hawks like Schmitt call "strategic intelligence."
Thus, the neo-cons, who were the leading strategists and cheerleaders
for a new war against Iraq, are among the strongest supporters of
plans to overhaul US intelligence operations not because they
believe that the CIA doesn't get its facts right. On the contrary,
neo-cons like Schmitt, Richard Perle, David Brooks and Frank Gaffney
say the CIA is too focused on the facts while giving short shrift
to "strategic intelligence" that pays more attention to threat assessments
based on instinctual understanding of the intent of enemy nations.
"It is premature to think that military preemption can be taken
off the table completely," says Schmitt, simply because we didn't
have all the facts right. Given that basic instincts were sound
about "[Saddam] Hussein's intentions and history," we would
be "missing the forest for the trees" if we were to back down from
a war against weapons of mass destruction, concludes Schmitt.
Echoing Schmitt, Frank Gaffney, a protégé of Richard Perle and director
of the militarist Center for Security Policy, also seized on the
Kay Report as an opportunity to bash the CIA. Gaffney, who recommended
that Kay be named new director of central intelligence, has called
for the dismissal of CIA director George Tenet. As a moderate conservative
and part of the circle of realpolitikers close to the president's
father, Tenet has long been considered by neo-cons as an obstacle
to their designs for reshaping the US intelligence community.
Perle, like Gaffney and Schmitt, believes that the Iraq invasion
was the right policy even if the administration's arguments for
the war were based on faulty intelligence. In fact, he uses the
Kay Report to underscore his long-running contention that "our intelligence
in the Gulf has been woefully inadequate" in a reprise of his
past attacks on the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the State
Department's intelligence operations for underestimating threats
and having an Arabist prejudice.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist close to neo-con
political camps both inside and outside the Bush administration,
also jumped into the slash-and-burn campaign against the CIA. Like
Schmitt, Brooks is an advocate of "strategic intelligence."
He charges that the main problem with US intelligence is not that
it cannot get the facts right but that its intelligence gathering
"has factored out all those insights that may be the product of
an individual's intuition and imagination." At the CIA, contends,
Brooks, "scientism [is] in full bloom." Brooks describes scientism
as an old-school approach whereby intelligence is obtained through
a scientific method that sidelines policy analysis and psychological
assessments of foreign regimes as well as a Dostoyevsky-like understanding
of the forces of good and evil, crime and punishment.
the agenda for a new intelligence paradigm
longtime advocates of the type of flexible intelligence operation
put in motion by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith are Abram Shulsky
and Gary Schmitt, senior associates at the National Strategy Information
Center (NSIC) in the 1990s. The NSIC along with a half-dozen other
think-tanks and committees produced reports in the mid-1990s that
recommended intelligence reforms. As it turns out, the NSIC's recommendations
had the most influence in shaping the intelligence practices of
the George W. Bush administration.
In 1996 the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, a project
of the NSIC, produced a report entitled "The Future of US Intelligence,"
whose recommendations prefigured the new forays into intelligence
operations by the Pentagon and the vice-president's office. Co-authored
by Shulsky and Schmitt, the report argued that the intelligence
community should adopt a new methodology aimed at "obtaining information
others try to keep secret and penetrating below the 'surface' impression
created by publicly available information to determine whether an
adversary is deceiving us or denying us key information." The
document recommended the establishment of "competing analytic centers"
with "different points of view" that could "provide policymakers
better protection against new 'Pearl Harbors', i.e., against being
surprised." Rather than a narrow focus on information collection,
"intelligence analysis must ... make it more relevant to policymakers
by emphasizing the forces that shape a given situation," the
The study's overall conclusion was that the "future of intelligence"
depended on building a new model that would offer "greater flexibility
in the collection process" and produce the "big picture" of security
threats. Ultimately, Shulsky and Schmitt concluded, the purpose
of analysis is to help the policymaker shape the future, not predict
it. Intelligence analysis should go beyond simply identifying security
threats and assessing the military capabilities of a present or
future enemy or a competitor nation; it should be "opportunity analysis"
that anticipates chances to advance US interests.
"Future of Intelligence" report
- The centralization
of intelligence under the CIA should not be extended to postCold
analysis should focus more on opportunities to shape situations
rather than concentrating on predictions of the future.
- Covert action
operations should be reintegrated into foreign policy and should
be considered an instrument to foster democratic transitions and
to counter efforts that frustrate these transitions.
- A "new paradigm
for intelligence" would closely integrate a more decentralized
intelligence community with policy and military sectors. No longer
would the CIA's national intelligence estimates be considered
superior to policy-driven intelligence.
- The timeliness,
accessibility and focus of an intelligence product can be as important
as its scholarly quality.
flexibility and a more diversified structure are necessary in
the intelligence collection process.
should be a wholly integrated part of the new intelligence paradigm
and should extend beyond counterespionage to include a collection
and analytic process that penetrates and manipulates the intelligence
efforts of US adversaries.
Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, Consortium for the Study of Intelligence,
"The Future of U.S. Intelligence" (National Strategy Information
The views of Shulsky and Schmitt on intelligence reform and the
political philosophy of intelligence are now widely shared and expressed
by the right's web of think tanks, polemicists and administration
officials. Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff General Richard Myers, and other Bush administration officials
routinely employ the concepts, terminology and code words of the
neo-cons' agenda for overhauling the US intelligence apparatus.
In addition to the NSIC report, this neo-con agenda and philosophy
of intelligence is clearly articulated in other publications co-authored
by Shulsky and Schmitt, who argue that intelligence gathering and
analysis should be considered more as a philosophy than a science.
Their contention that intelligence needs to be more interpretive,
rely more on covert action, and accentuate counterintelligence operations
is developed in their book Silent
Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence. In their
1999 essay, Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which
We Do Not Mean Nous), Shulsky and Schmitt link their view of
intelligence reform to the controversial teachings of Leo Strauss,
a political philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago
from 1949 to 1967.
Strauss was Shulsky's mentor when he was a graduate student at the
University of Chicago. Strauss, a German Jewish émigré, developed
a new school of Machiavellian political philosophy contending that
the means justify the ends in governance as long as the regime has
a firm understanding of pre-modern natural laws such as the
eternal conflict between good and evil. In such a political philosophy,
truth is not necessarily an important value.
As Shulsky and Schmitt point out in Silent Warfare, their
own philosophy of intelligence sharply contrasts with the scientific
approach to intelligence gathering. Allen Dulles, director of Central
Intelligence under president Dwight Eisenhower, had adopted as the
CIA's motto the biblical verse: "And ye shall know the truth, and
the truth shall make you free." That might have been fine as a guiding
principle in biblical times or even as a useful piece of Cold War
propaganda. But as an operating principle for national intelligence,
it was inadequate and counterproductive, according to Shulsky and
Schmitt, who concluded their book advising that "truth is not the
goal" of intelligence gathering the goal is "victory."
the liberal mindset at the CIA
the Cold War, right-wing ideologues and militarists repeatedly charged
that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have routinely and
systematically underestimated Soviet military capacity and empire-building
ambitions. In their view, one of the main reasons for this intelligence
failure has been the liberal mindset that pervades the CIA and State
Department. According to Shulsky and Schmitt, this liberal belief
system corrupts intelligence gathering through mirror-imaging
"imagining that the country one is studying is fundamentally similar
to one's own and hence can be understood in the same terms."
This mirror-imaging, they wrote, has led US intelligence agencies
to disregard one of the fundamental principles of Straussian political
philosophy: the need to understand the nature of a regime in order
to predict its intentions. The neo-cons argue that by assuming the
universality of human political behavior, the liberals at the CIA
and State Department have blinded the US government to the real
capacities and intentions of tyrannical regimes like the Soviet
Union and Iraq , which think and operate differently from democratic
For this reason, Shulsky and Schmitt advocate the increased use
of a counterintelligence strategy guided by the principle that intelligence
is "part of a struggle between two countries." The two principal
corollaries of counterintelligence are that: 1) A country's intelligence
should "limit or distort" what its adversaries know about its capacity
and intentions; and 2) Each country must assume that it is being
deceived by its opponents and must therefore penetrate the adversary
to ferret out its capacities and intentions based on what is known
about the character of each regime.
Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Rumsfeld
and Wolfowitz created a new team to shape intelligence about Iraq.
Not trusting the CIA or even the Pentagon's own Defense Intelligence
Agency (DIA) bureaucracies, they put their own team on the job.
A common charge by right-wing analysts is that the State Department
"regards security threats largely as opportunities for diplomacy,"
and the CIA is similarly regarded as overly bureaucratic and cautious.
Rather than rely on the main intelligence agencies, the hardliners
in the Bush administration created an intelligence analysis group
housed in the Pentagon. At first an informal team, it later became
the Office of Special Plans. The OSP worked alongside the Near East
and South Asia (NESA) bureau, both of which reported to Under Secretary
of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. In late 2003, the Office of
Special Plans morphed into the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs.
helps spin tall tales
the Iraq invasion, Rumsfeld promised that the US government would
be acting on "good intelligence." However, only those who closely
followed the debates and theorizing about intelligence analysis
over the past three decades would have known that when the defense
secretary referred to "good intelligence" he meant what many intelligence
experts call "strategic intelligence." Good intelligence, in
other words, doesn't necessarily mean solid information about such
matters as offensive capability, support for terrorism, or plans
A few days before Bush delivered his 2003 State of the Union address
citing damaging (but false) evidence that Iraq was intent on producing
nuclear weapons, Wolfowitz told the Council on Foreign Relations
that the case for war against Iraq "is grounded in current intelligence that comes not only from sophisticated overhead satellites and
our ability to intercept communications, but from brave people who
told us the truth at the risk of their very lives. We have that;
it is very convincing." But General Myers explained in the aftermath
of the invasion: "Intelligence doesn't necessarily mean something
is true." Myers, who was appointed by Rumsfeld and who is highly
regarded by the Center for Security Policy and neo-con policy institutes
for his strong pro-missile defense, anti-China, and space weapons
positions, defined intelligence as merely an estimate. Contrary
to what many policymakers thought when they supported the Iraqi
war resolution on the basis of US intelligence about Iraq's WMDs
and terrorist ties, Myers said that intelligence "doesn't mean it's
a fact. I mean, that's not what intelligence is."
Alarmed by the takeover of the US intelligence apparatus by philosophers,
hawks and ideologues, former senior CIA analyst Ray McGovern formed
the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. The Pentagon's
claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were "an intelligence
fiasco of monumental proportions," said McGovern. He claims
that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz established their own intelligence unit
because the CIA wasn't giving the hawks the "correct answers."
Joining the chorus of criticism of politicized intelligence, Patrick
Lang, a former director of Middle East analysis at the Pentagon's
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said that Rumsfeld set up the
Office of Special Plans to undermine the CIA and DIA and then mounted
a threat-assessment campaign that was "political propaganda,"
So caught up were they in their conviction that successful politics
and intelligence must involve the arts of deception and counterintelligence
that the neo-cons like Shulsky and Wolfowitz and Republican Party
hardliners like Rumsfeld and Cheney ended up victims of their own
philosophy of intelligence. Their politicization and manipulation
of intelligence did succeed in winning public and policymaker support
for the Iraq invasion, but their lies certainly did not lead to
victory. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, it appears not only
did they attempt to manipulate weak intelligence to make the public
case for war, but that they also deceived themselves about the actual
capacities and real intentions of the Saddam regime. When they couldn't
find the hard evidence about the WMD stockpiles in Iraq, they saw
this as further evidence that Saddam was a master of deception.
In other words, the absence of good intelligence about the WMD capabilities
and terrorist connections was interpreted as proof that Saddam was
a liar and deceiver.
So convinced were the Bush administration's hardliners by their
own ideology and their agenda for restructuring the Middle East
that they could not accept the determinations of the CIA and the
conclusions of the UN inspectors that Iraq had indeed eliminated
most if not all of its stockpiles of WMDs. Rather than formulating
policy based on this intelligence, they sought to manufacture their
own intelligence through the Office of Special Plans and by cherry-picking
tidbits of gossip and unverified intelligence from the CIA that
would support their conclusions about what the intentions of the
evil Saddam regime must be.
Leo Strauss, who taught the neo-cons to look for the "hidden truth"
in politics, would surely have agreed with the assessment of then
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer who told reporters that "there's
a bigger picture here." The hardliners have repeatedly argued
that intelligence is not a science but a best guess.
will never be perfect," explained Rumsfeld to the Senate Armed Service
Committee following the release of the Kay Report. "We do not, will
not, and cannot know everything that's going on in this world of
ours," he explained.
Following the release of the Kay Report, Bush defended his decision
to launch a preventive war against Iraq based on what was known
about the "capacity and intent" of the Saddam regime. Asked about
the report, the president responded: "I don't know all the facts.
What we don't know yet is what we thought and what the Iraq Survey
Group has found, and we want to look at that." What the US public
and Congress should expect is that the president gets all the facts
before declaring war. The independent investigation should also
investigate why and how the intelligence that the president did
receive was so politicized to support a policy agenda that existed
prior to September 11.
Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center
(IRC). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy
© 2004 LewRockwell.com