The Neocon Philosophy of Intelligence

“The 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 stalled.

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.

Trust our basic instincts

Gary 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 protg 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.

Setting the agenda for a new intelligence paradigm

Two 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 authors contend.

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.

Conclusions of “Future of Intelligence” report

  • The centralization of intelligence under the CIA should not be extended to post–Cold War circumstances.
  • Intelligence 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.
  • Greater flexibility and a more diversified structure are necessary in the intelligence collection process.
  • Counterintelligence 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.

(Source: Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, “The Future of U.S. Intelligence” (National Strategy Information Center, 1996).)

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 migr, 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."

Targeting the liberal mindset at the CIA

During 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 regimes.

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.

Web helps spin tall tales

Before 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 for aggression.

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," not intelligence.

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.

“Intelligence 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.

February 19, 2004

Tom Barry is policy director of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). Posted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.