Sep 15

You might have two thoughts after reading the title to this post. First, if you’re a truly dedicated On V disciple, you might be thinking, “Didn’t you already debunk this word three years ago in "Getting Orwellian: Contractors, Mercenaries, Private Security and Terrorists’?” Second, you might be thinking, “What’s wrong with the word ‘terrorist’?”   

To the first question, I (Eric C) didn’t remember writing about it. And that post was about the American media applying the word “terrorist” to every combatant in an active war zone. (In short, a soldier/insurgent probably isn’t a terrorist in an active war zone. Especially a civil war.)

To the second question, there’s nothing wrong with using the word “terrorist”, if you’re describing the actions of terrorists. A terrorist is someone who uses extreme acts of violence to achieve political, religious or ideological goals, usually targeting civilians. It’s someone who, outside of warzones, engages in ideological violence. Simple, right?

Except, in a two week span, I saw three anti-democratic world leaders use the word “terrorist” to delegitimize legitimate political opponents.

First, Egypt:

“Egypt is set to put 20 journalists, including four foreigners, on trial Thursday on terror-related charges in a case with ominous implications for freedom of expression under the military-backed interim government.”

The interim cabinet in Egypt labeled journalists--who weren’t using violence--as terrorists. Is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? I mean, yes, at times. They were also the ruling government of Egypt before a military coup, which throws the whole thing on it’s head. I mean, a government wouldn’t use terrorism against itself, right? What would that even look like?

Next up, Ukraine:

On January 22nd protesters hungry for action and tired of empty talk from both the government and the opposition clashed with the police, lobbing Molotov cocktails...Russian state television portrayed the protesters as Western-sponsored radicals and terrorists…

“... Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to Mr Putin on Ukraine, openly called on Mr Yanukovych to use force against “terrorists” to prevent chaos.

Again, anti-government protesters, some of which were violent, were labelled as terrorists, both by the Kremlin and eventually by the ousted president. But the vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. And ethnic Russians, protesting Kiev, eventually used violence themselves. Why didn’t Russia label them as terrorists?

Finally, Syria. As CBS wrote it up in their interview with Bashar al Assad, “Instead of civil war, Assad said, Syria is facing ‘terrorism through proxies,’ referring to foreign backing of the rebellion against his regime.” And that’s completely wrong--wait, no, that may be completely accurate. Islamic extremists associated with terror groups are fighting in Syria. And many of them are backed by Saudi Arabian donors. Then again, some fighters opposing Assad are legitimate freedom fighters engaged in a civil war.

(The amazing thing about the rise of ISIS is how so many of the things we thought we knew about the world since 9/11 had to be reversed. If America had intervened against Assad, we’d have been fighting alongside Sunni extremists (terrorists) who saw fit in the last few weeks to chop off the heads of journalists held hostage. Also, when does a terrorist group become a nation state? Do nation states count as terror groups?)

What matters isn’t that world leaders have misused the word “terrorist”; it’s why. Like every other Kanye album, 9/11 changed the game. Terrorism became America’s first concern, especially internationally. Because America cared so much, and because we hold so much sway, terrorism--instead of larger, economic global progress--became the number one concern of the rest of the world as well. We made it matter.

And now that word is being used against us. We only have ourselves to blame.

May 27

No, the title isn’t a reference to an unwritten Robert Ludlum novel, though, in fairness, every thing in the world would be better if they had Ludlum-esque titles. Instead, I want to talk about why--with the passage of time--the U.S. shouldn’t have attacked Syria last fall.

To do so, I will delve into a topic I briefly mentioned two years ago with Iran: decision trees. As a historian, I was trained to think of the world in a fairly deterministic way. Take X cause, link it to Y effect. Treat it like a forgone conclusion that because X existed, Y would have occurred. The media loves to use this type of logic. (For example, why did crime go down? Abortion. Or stop and frisk. Or fill-in-the-blank-subject-of-news-report.)

One of my primary missions/goals with my series on Iran two years ago was to describe all the various options Iran could use when responding to an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. At business school, I learned to go against my historical training and think probabilistically. Though many of the options at Iran’s disposal had a low probability of success, they were still a probability. Ask anyone who’s played Risk: roll the dice enough times, and you are bound to hit a low probability event.

So when it came to Syria, last fall, I went through the same exercise. In short, while the U.S. likely would have emerged unscathed, in some cases, the war could have spiraled out of control. Those “spiraling out of control” events are why in hindsight we can be glad we didn’t start a war that Americans don’t care about now.

Here are the viable options I foresaw. For “viable”, I mean any situation with above a 1% possibility of occurring.

1. The most likely outcome. Playing the odds, if the U.S. had launched cruise missiles at Syria, it most likely wouldn’t have lost any soldiers. In most cases, the U.S. and its allies would emerge unscathed from military action. This is why Secretary of State John Kerry went to Congress and testified that this wasn’t war. He meant that the U.S. wouldn’t experience significant casualties. In most cases, he would be right. I’m honest about that.

What are the odds that this strategy would have disarmed or dethroned Bashad? We don’t know. But we do know that the strategy America did take--not intervening--achieved the same goals, without American involvement.

2. Syria attacks Israel in retaliation. Simply put, Syria has the ability to attack Israel. If the U.S. military campaign threatened the regime too much, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad could easily find it in his interest to attempt to deter the U.S. by firing missiles or using terrorist proxies to target Israel. Israel, then, could find itself beset by terrorist enemies.

3. Israel attacks Iran. I saw two ways this could’ve happened. In the above case, where Syria attacks Israel, in the fog of war—in this case an accurate description of the events—Israeli intelligence could rightfully or mistakenly believe that Iran had prompted the terror attacks on its territory.

Or--and this doesn’t require too huge a leap--Israel could decide to adopt the oft repeated maxim to “never let a good war go to waste”. (I won’t cite a source because that quote is in most cases a quote behaving badly.) Israel’s primary foreign policy aim for the last twenty years has been to maintain its position as sole nuclear power in the Middle East, which means preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Thus, as the U.S. started firing missiles at Syria, Israel could suddenly launch attacks at Iran to bomb their nuclear facilities. They could also do this if they accused Iran of sponsoring terror attacks against it.

Then, President Obama would have a legitimate problem as Iran could attack U.S. warships in the Persian/Arab gulf in response. Or they could not, but the U.S. could have to finish off Iranian nuclear facilities if Israeli war planes failed to complete the job.

4. The U.S. has to put troops on the ground. This is the least likely possibility, but still more realistic than 1%. If the U.S. lost a warplane, as it did during the war in Libya, it would have to send in ground troops. Those troops could be attacked, or worse. Or it could have to send in U.S. troops to secure chemical weapons. Either way, the U.S. could quickly see its commitment escalating.

Add up the probabilities and an “escalation scenario” is unlikely. It requires Syria attacking Israel in response to U.S. attacks, or Israel blaming Iran and counter-attacking (or simply deciding to attack Iran anyways) and Iran attacking the U.S. in response. In total, that’s an unlikely chain of events, in that more times than not, it doesn’t occur.

But there is that chance. I pegged it at about 2% at the time. If 2% doesn’t seem high, try to remember the first World War. Adding up all the factors required for that war to spin out of control, it was probably about a 2% chance that World War I started. But boy oh boy did that 2% have a huge impact on Europe.

And that 2% is why I opposed the war in Syria and will oppose most wars of choice in the future.

May 20

Here’s a rough outline of my foreign policy beliefs:

- The U.S. spends too much on defense. (I’d link to an On V post, but I couldn’t choose just one; we’ve written dozens on this topic.)

- Conversely, it spends way too little on diplomacy. The U.S. should increase the number of diplomats--and their overall quality--around the globe, focusing on better language skills.

- The U.S. government should also sign on to a host of international treaties to date it has not yet agreed to, including the International Criminal Court, the ban on cluster munitions, and the ban on land-mines (and support the efforts to classify white phosphorous as a chemical munition), along with too many environmental treaties to name.

That’s just for starters and it’s an incredible expansion of the U.S. position globally. I will take this internationalism even further:

- I believe the U.S. should begin donating (for free) U.S. troops to U.N. peacekeeping operations. That’s right. Take the current missions staffed by Brazil, Pakistan and other countries, and bolster them with U.S. brigades on two year deployments. The U.S. military would get peacekeeping training; the U.N. missions would get increased visibility, technology and support.

- I believe America--as soon as we emerge from the current financial crisis--should spearhead an effort for a “Global Marshall Plan” to support the U.N. Millenium Development goals to eradicate global poverty. This would significantly increase U.S. spending on foreign aid by tens of billions.

- I also think the U.S. government should encourage private individuals to donate even more of their wealth to charities working outside our borders.

To cap off these extraordinarily international and involved efforts:

- I believe the U.S. government should try to renew diplomatic relationships with Iran to decrease the likelihood of war. At the same time, the U.S. should signal to the world that it will slowly stop supporting vicious dictatorships, including American allies like Saudi Arabia and the rest of the gulf states.

Despite believing all of these things, according to Secretary of State John Kerry and Sebastian Junger, I’m an isolationist...because I didn’t want the U.S. to start a war with Syria.   

As you probably read last year, I opposed U.S. missile strikes in Syria. I opposed them because I didn’t think they were about the use of chemical weapons, but instead about the ongoing civil war in Syria. This, according to Sebastian Junger in his op-ed, “When the Best Chance for Peace means War” in The Washington Post, makes me an “isolationist” (emphasis mine):

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

I understand Sebastian Junger’s larger point, but, like most fruitless debates, each side on the Syria issue talked past each other. I didn’t and don’t deny the slaughter of innocents in Syria. Then, as now, though, I don’t want the U.S. embroiled in a civil war when I simply don’t trust our military to actually slow or ebb the bloodshed. I also want to know why this civil war--as opposed to the one in Sri Lanka that went through 2008, the ongoing violence in and around the Central African Republic, or the burgeoning conflict in South Sudan--requires our intervention, and most importantly moral outrage, when those did not. (And I could have listed a dozen or more additional conflicts for which Sebastian Junger lacks similar moral indignation.)

But what outraged me most was both John Kerry and Sebastian Junger’s casual use of “isolationism” during the attempted run up to war in Syria. They weren’t alone. Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post used the label. So did Bill Keller in the New York Times. So did countless others.     

Isolationism is a real term. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a genuine political movement supported by Republican politicians. Now it has been bastardized to label anyone who doesn’t want to start another war in the Middle East. Like myself.

Most learned people on foreign policy hold complicated views and simple reductionism don’t do them any justice. For example, I don’t want a militarily-interventionist foreign policy, but I do want a robustly democracy-promoting, free-trade-encouraging, internationally-focused interventionist foreign policy. The difference is I want to intervene before conflicts erupt, not after.

When pro-Syrian interventionists like Junger, Rubin and others label Americans who oppose the strikes in Syria as abject isolationists or naive pacifists, they are abusing those terms and smearing their opponents. If the anti-isolationists really want more peace in the world, they should find the policies that encourage peace in the long run. Unfortunately, military power doesn’t create peace; economic growth, international institutions, international laws, international norms, the spread of democracy, the spread of trade and other parts of foreign policy liberalism create peace.

And to support those policies requires more involvement in the world, not less. Which is why I’m not an isolationist; just someone who rejects unnecessary wars.

May 15

Last fall, Eric C and I were so worried about a possible new war with Syria--specifically, an authorization of force vote by Congress--that we violated one of our core rules and “chased the news”. We posted a few articles opposing the war and analyzing the media coverage, and wrote an open letter to our representatives in Congress recommending that they didn’t start a new war in the Middle East.

And the U.S. didn’t go to war. Media coverage moved past Syria and on to better, newer, brighter news stories, like a Malaysian airplane crash, the government shutdown of 2013 (Glad we weren’t fighting a war during that!), Obamacare’s failure (then not failure), and another foreign policy crisis in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the civil war in Syria continues on...and Syria has actually destroyed some of their chemical weapon stockpiles.


Syria, another war that wasn’t.

At the time, President Obama’s failure to intervene symbolized his lack of leadership, the ascendence of Russia, the failure of Americans to protect the innocent, and the decline of American power and global leadership...all in one small crisis. If you had turned on Fox News, CNN or even The Daily Show, you would have seen coverage bemoaning President Obama deciding not to start another war. You would have heard countless pundits warning that America’s security had never been more at risk than the present.

Does any of that seem weird, in hindsight? I mean, eight months on and Syria hasn’t made the news for weeks. (Unless you watch PBS or read The Economist cover to cover.) At the time--and for the record, the conflict in Syria hasn’t stopped--Syria seemed like the most important news story ever. I mean, thousands died in a chemical gas attack.

Americans have a billionaire racist to obsess over now.

There is an important takeaway in this episode: The media hyper-charges foreign policy crises with its 24/7 coverage. In the weeks during a crisis, the U.S. over-analyzes and tears apart the President’s every decision. In hindsight, it’s hard to remember why every crisis seemed so dire.

This wasn’t the first time--or second time--we got duped into opposing a war that never happened. Two years ago, we wrote a whole series on war with Iran--we’re still proud of that work, by the way--that never happened. Last year, we wrote a series on “The War that Wasn’t”, about North Korea and that war that never happened. At various points this year and last, war with Iran seemed inevitable, and now we have talk of intervening in the Ukraine. (Maybe Nigeria?) But all of these “wars” eventually fall by the wayside.

This week and next we plan to run some posts we wrote last year related to Syria. With the Ukraine figuratively “blowing up” in the mean time, we plan to lump in the whole host of avoided wars during the Obama presidency into one chunk. In hindsight, we hope to offer what most of the media fails to in a bid to grab page counts: thoughtful, reflective analysis on a series of crises.

Sep 12

We don’t like chasing the news. We don’t like just offering gut reactions. We don’t want this to be a reactive blog, regurgitating other people’s content as so many media pundits accuse bloggers of doing.

But I have to write something about the media coverage of Syria. I spent four hours on September 1st catching up on all things Syria by watching the Sunday political talk shows, and I (Eric C) got this nagging feeling that the coverage, for lack of a more eloquent word, sucked.

The media would rather debate domestic politics (Is President Obama a lame duck president? How will Syria affect Obama’s legacy?) than, say, the question of whether or not we should go to war. Take, for example, this fairly typical passage from a Wall Street Journal article on the debate over the intervention:

“President Barack Obama is gambling his presidency on the proposition that he can achieve the very goal that has proved most elusive to him for more than four years: a bipartisan consensus in a bitterly divided Congress…

...The cost of failure would be high, nothing less than a blow to the proposition that a war-weary and economically strained U.S. is still capable of, or even interested in, leading the world.”

Re-read that excerpt. First, Obama’s legacy doesn’t hang on this military intervention. It just doesn’t. When Obama’s term ends, he’ll have led the country through an economic recovery, one of the most active periods of legislation (2008 to 2010) since Lyndon Johnson, and, as of now, a relatively scandal-free presidency. As far as foreign policy goes, Syria would be just one of four military conflicts in Obama’s presidency. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Libya intervention will have just as much an impact as a Syrian intervention, if not more.

Oh yeah, he also killed Osama bin Laden.

Addressing America’s international reputation, does anyone seriously think that by not invading Syria America will no longer be “capable of...leading the world”? We’re on our fourth military intervention in twelve years. We still have the world’s largest military by a mile. A mile. If one thing defines America’s foreign policy this century, it is a willingness to use that military. (This was written before Assad offered to turn over his chemical weapons, which, arguably, was prompted by his fear of an American military strike.) And Obama did very little to create the conditions for a “war-weary” or “economically strained U.S.”. His predecessor laid the groundwork for that.

The above excerpt exemplifies the national debate our country has (or hasn’t) been having about Syria. Too much of the Sunday talk show discussion revolved around whether or not Obama (or America) looked weak going to Congress for approval as opposed to whether or not we should go to war. As Jon Stewart pointed out, we’re conducting diplomacy on the level of eighth graders.

Before we debate legacies and lame-duck-ness, the media needs to answer very important questions about the Syrian civil war. Questions like...

- How do we know Assad used chemical weapons? Do we know that Assad ordered them to be used? We’ve been burned on this exact issue before, less than ten years ago.

- Who will take power if Assad loses? As Dexter Filkins pointed out, the al Qaeda branch in the region changed their name from “al Qeada in Iraq” to “al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria”. (Though we know how inaccurate that label is anyway.)

- What will happen if we leave a power vacuum in the region?

- Doesn’t Egypt show us the perils of taking sides in these conflicts? We don’t really know who’s going to gain power and what they’re going to do with it.

- Don’t foreign interventions usually prolong civil wars?

- Finally, what is our long term strategy? When, where and how will we use cruise missiles and bombings? Will they even be effective?

I’d like to hear the answers to all these questions before we even begin debating Obama’s legacy or America’s international reputation.

There are some good options out there in the media at large, and we’ll share some of them on Monday. But I have one last feeling that I just have to put out there. In the end, the coverage of Syria felt very pro-war to me. The media doesn’t invite anti-war activists onto their shows at nearly the same rate that they invite former generals and national security pundits, though I’d argue that former generals are just as biased.

Even if the coverage isn’t pro-war, it isn’t very critical either, which is tantamount to the same thing. Over 60% of the country opposes a war in Syria, but instead of asking if Obama will lose popularity by leading the country into a war it doesn’t support, the media asks if he will look weak. Seems odd, doesn’t it, to frame the criticism that way?

America would get into less wars if its populace and media maintained default skepticism over military interventions, not the opposite view. In the end, our country should ask itself why it has fought so many wars when so many other countries haven’t, and we should look to this media coverage to find out why.

Sep 10

If we had to retitle On V, I would probably call it, "The Skeptical Soldier". If you gather all of our posts, from Clausewitz to memoirs to intel is evidence to Iran to, most recently, data, constant skepticism about the conventional wisdom of the U.S. military ties them all together.

This applies to the media coverage of America's wars and its military. For example, the media--prompted by interest groups--loves big, impressive, round numbers. As the Syrian death toll slowly crept up, so did my guard. When I first heard that the civil war in Syria had killed 100,000 people, I threw my BS flag. (If you are curious, I always keep it in my back pocket.) I even tweeted @OnTheMedia asking, “Any chance the "100,000 dead in Syria #" doesn't hold up a la sex drugs and body counts?”.

To understand why, listen to this On The Media story on the uber-excellent, Sex, Drugs and Body Counts, a collection of essays analyzing the conventional wisdom behind widely cited numbers in various criminal and war-related international stories. In short, bigger and rounder is better:   

"We're not only more likely to remember the first number that we've heard, but we're likely to remember a big round number. So, for example, when the United Nations announces, as it did several decades ago, that the global drug trade was worth 500 billion dollars, that’s a memorable number. They later lowered that estimate to 400 billion, and an economist within the UN started questioning why that number. And apparently they rounded it up from 365 because it would, well, play better in the media and be more memorable.”

The biggest "debunking" in terms of war casualties comes from the number of dead cited by the media during the conflict in Bosnia. Initial reports from the U.N. placed the number of dead at over 250,000. Later, social scientists and historians dropped the number down to half that, 100,000. However, the first number remains lodged in the collective conscious. Eric C used to tell people that five million people died in the generally ignored Congolese Civil War. Researching the civil war in Congo, he found out that the real number was probably two million, if not much, much lower.  

Combining my skepticism with the knowledge that the media exaggerates death counts, naturally, I had my guard up when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told the world that the U.N. Commission on Human Rights had determined that over 100,000 Syrians had died since fighting started. The press later repeated this figure without citation or reference, only referring to the U.N. Secretary General, not the scientists, data analysts, journalists or officials who created the number.

That number just didn’t sit right with me.

I decided to find if anyone could verify that 100,000 number. The shocking, good news: We can trust this number. Most bad statistics come from poorly informed or unplanned estimates or the high end of a range of estimates. Not this number.

This number comes from the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, who relied on research from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). This group actually enumerated the number of dead, meaning each person has a name and as much other information as possible. If anything, 100,000 is probably too low, since it doesn’t capture missing or nameless bodies. Though the exact number of dead will clearly fluctuate over time, on first blush, this number is not wildly inaccurate.

I don’t want to undersell HRDAG’s efforts. They are spending a significant amount of time in a rigorous process to identify duplicates, mistakes and fraudulent entries. The researchers also explain their methodology, along with its flaws, limitations and weaknesses. As they write in The Pacific Standard, they strive to be apolitical, guided only by good social science practices. Or read the report itself. 

Unfortunately, not all the numbers from this conflict are created equal. I am still skeptical of the number of dead Syrians by the chemical gas attacks. From The Economist:

“Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity, said three clinics it supports in the area treated 3,600 patients in a matter of hours, 355 of whom died. The Violations Documentation Centre, a Syrian organisation meticulous in its compilation of reports of death and injury, now puts the death toll at 457 or more. Other credible estimates range as high as 1,300. Harrowing videos—a man begging his two dead children to get up and walk; a girl repeating in wonder “I’m alive, I’m alive”—brought the atrocity home to the world.”

Which number do you think proponents of war will cite? Secretary of State John Kerry put the number as high as 1,400, which has since been endlessly repeated. If it eventually turns out to be much, much lower, few Americans will learn or remember that.

I am also skeptical on the numbers on Syrian refugees. The previously cited Sex, Drugs and Body Counts cites multiple examples of U.N. agencies using exaggerated numbers to gain political support. The U.N. Commission on Refugees itself tends to rely on huge, round numbers. Thus the Syrian conflict has created 2 million refugees, which seems too high. Apparently, the numbers come from individually registered Syrians, but I have a feeling that isn’t the case, and some estimation is in play. They also cite that 5 million Syrians have been “displaced” within Syria, which is very high and round too. Also, their use of the term “7 million refugees” is designed to mislead potential donors into thinking all 7 million Syrian refugees have left Syria, which isn’t the case.

As with all intelligence, trust but verify. In this case, we can rely on estimates that at least 100,000 Syrians (from both sides) having died, because they come from science and meticulous work. Great job, Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

Sep 09

(On Violence believes that one of the things which makes America great is the ability to hold elective representatives accountable. With an impending vote in Congress on President Obama’s desire to use military force in Syria--which we both oppose--we emailed our elected representatives to voice our opposition.)

To Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, Representative Brad Sherman and Representative Karen Bass,

We are writing to urge you to vote against the use of military force in Syria or the surrounding countries because of the ongoing civil war and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s possible use of chemical weapons.

Before we explain why, we would like to commend both the Congress and President Obama for seeking legislative approval of this action. Though we wish this discussion had started sooner, we appreciate that the legislative branch is debating the issue.

That said, you should adamantly oppose U.S. military action in Syria. First, the U.S. cannot hold up international norms--the ostensible reason for war--without gaining broad international support. Ideally, this means getting the United Nations, NATO or the Arab League on board, as President George H.W. Bush did before the Persian Gulf War. To maintain America’s leadership in the world means not just having the military power to attack other countries, but building, maintaining and then using our diplomatic power to build coalitions.

Second, the U.S. has not exhausted all other options. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should initiate talks between all interested parties, including Turkey, Russia, China and Iran, before the U.S. goes to war. If the U.S. truly cares about protecting the people and children of Syria, then it should let in Syrian refugees, increase funding to aid groups in Syria and pledge to financially and logistically support any peacekeeping forces the U.N. might send if a cease fire can be reached. It should not launch cruise missiles before taking these actions. Dropping bombs and firing missiles could kill many more people than Bashar al Assad killed with chemical weapons.

Third, a war in Syria has a small but not statistically insignificant chance of spiralling out of control. With multiple parties involved, including Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, starting an air war could easily escalate.

Finally, the use of cruise missile strikes has very little chance of succeeding at any of its goals. Academic research shows that the intervention of outside nations--except under terms of a ceasefire or peace keeping arrangement--tend to prolong civil wars.  It won’t signal anything to Iran or North Korea. And it will do little to ease the suffering in Syria.

Taken together, we urge you to vote no on authorizing military force in Syria.


Michael Cummings

Former Captain in the US Army and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan

Eric Cummings

Aug 27

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Browsing the interwebs for our series on Benghazi, I came across this paragraph on the blog “The XX Committee”:

“And let it be said that the IC has lots of smart, dedicated people, who protect you, dear citizens, while you sleep, and prevent Bad Things from going down, more often than not. As they unfailing point out, the public usually hears only about the ball-droppings, when something gets screwed up like Benghazi, while a dozen big successes that same season stay secret for decades.”

The above statement is repeated so often it has become axiomatic in political discourse. In short, you--the public--never hear about most of the good things the CIA does. You only hear about the bad things. As David Brooks said once about the CIA, “They’re all doing it in secret, and no one will ever know what they do.” As Eric C wrote about last week, O’Donnell tells Mendez in Argo, “If we wanted applause, we would have joined the circus.”

I call it the CIA’s “excellence in anonymity” argument, which even the CIA itself believes. In the DCI’s annual report from 1999 they wrote,

"During FY 1999, the IC made critical and important contributions to advance our national security strategy...This report includes only those achievements that can be described without risk to sensitive sources and methods."

I am officially calling this out as a “Fact Behaving Badly”. If anything, the opposite is true: the CIA loves to hype itself to Hollywood; it also buries its worst screw ups behind a giant wall of federally-enforced secrecy.

Let’s start with the first part, “you never hear about all the good things the CIA does.” Sure we do. And who do we hear it from? The CIA’s PR machine. On The Media covered this a few months back with Ted Gup. The CIA really cares about its image:

“I saw a significant shift beginning in the nineties, where the agency's concern for its public image here at home became increasingly expressed and its campaign to win over the American public increasingly sophisticated. And that's when you saw this profusion of memoirs written by former operatives.

“I saw a tremendous amount of leaking, and I know that my colleagues in the press have as well. They have their own liaison in Hollywood who works with filmmakers when the films are deemed not to be overtly hostile to the agency. Over the last 20 years, the agency that once simply invoked “neither confirm nor deny” has become something of a spigot for stories that continually flow to the press.”

Ted Gup described in a New York Times op-ed just how many memoirs are out there all approved by the CIA:

“What message did it send when George J. Tenet, its former director, refused to explain the intelligence debacle involving nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but later got a seven-figure book contract and became a highly paid speaker? How is it that Milton Bearden, a former covert operative, got agency permission to write a book (“The Main Enemy”) with a New York Times reporter? What of the many memoirs written by ex-spooks like Robert Baer (“See No Evil,” and, with his wife, another former C.I.A. operative, “The Company We Keep”), Tony Mendez (“The Master of Disguise”), Lindsay Moran (“Blowing My Cover”), Melissa Boyle Mahle (“Denial and Deception”) and Floyd L. Paseman (“A Spy’s Journey”)?”

The CIA always advertises its successes. Most notably, everyone on the planet knew within hours Osama bin Laden was dead. But it doesn’t stop there. The CIA, ironically, publishes press releases about dead terrorists in Pakistan, while denying its own drone program which killed the terrorist. Hell, not one but two (two!) of this year’s Best Picture nominees were about the CIA’s successes.

Surely, though, we hear about all the bad things the CIA does, like the Bay of Pigs disaster. Man, we all heard about that.

If only.

The CIA, for instance, detained about 70% of the wrong people in Guantanamo. As we wrote two years ago, Guantanamo had the lowest recidivism rate of all time, meaning...Guantanamo either scared all the potential terrorists straight...or it had rounded up the biggest group of innocent people on the planet. It also extraordinarily renditioned Khalid El-Masri, who had to go to 60 Minutes to tell his story. The CIA hasn’t officially acknowledged this. Nor would it openly, willingly or tranparently reveal this fact...until it had to.

There was also that whole “Iraq WMDs intelligence” thing, where German intelligence out-analyzed the CIA. If it were up to the CIA, we never would have heard about that. Only due to a congressional investigation did the colossal intelligence failure come to light. This begs the question, was that intelligence failure unique or does the CIA (and larger intelligence community) manage to hide or obscure most of its screw-ups, especially when they aren’t of national consequence? I would bet the latter.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that you don’t know when the Intelligence Community keeps you safe. You do; they’ll make a movie about it. And don’t believe them when you only hear the bad things; most of those things are so far classified you won’t ever probably hear about it.

But the CIA, NSA, JSOC and other intelligence agencies have fantastic pull with the press and (established over the few decades) excellent PR machines. So this fact won’t die. Unfortunately.