November 16, 2010
A First Intelligence Reform: Fire John Brennan
The intelligence community has impaled itself on the horns of a strategic dilemma. On the one hand, the tactical collection, surveillance, and targeting matrix represents a real-time, global capability -- arguably a "gold standard" of technology (see National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). On the other hand, the analytical side of Intelligence seems to have been suborned by politics and political correctness. Indeed, our technical intelligence capabilities are hostage to a national assessment process that cannot, or will not, provide a clear picture of the enemy or the threat.
There are more than a few symptoms of this malaise. Most obvious are appointments like Leon Panetta (CIA) and Janet Napolitano (DHS), more notable for their political connections than any background in intelligence or national security deliberations. Both were selected, no doubt, for their political reliability, not their expertise or management skills. Yet analytical corruption is not limited to obvious politicians. The decay seems to have infected the ranks of professional Intelligence officers as well. John Brennan, National Security Advisor for Counter-Terrorism, could be a poster child for the problem.
Brennan is an Arab specialist, a product of Fordham University and the American University of Cairo. He claims to be fluent in Arabic. While with CIA, Brennan served in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Back at Langley headquarters, Brennan became the agency briefer to the Clinton White House. During the Bush administration, he was elevated to be George J. Tenet's chief of staff. After leaving the government, Mr. Brennan became a national security advisor to the Obama presidential campaign. By any definition, background, or proximity, John O. Brennan is the most influential professional intelligence officer in the Obama administration.
Since formally joining the Obama team, Brennan has written two significant papers with enough political spin to qualify as carnival rides. The first, entitled "Conundrum of Iran," was published during the campaign to change the vector of policy towards Tehran. The second, entitled "A New Approach to Safeguarding Americans," was delivered in the form of a speech the summer before last at CSIS in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the "new approach" was to illuminate the Obama strategy for confronting an enemy who would remain nameless.
The "Conundrum" paper had four principal recommendations: lowering the volume of criticism towards the Persians, direct talks with Tehran, "assimilation" of Hezb'allah into Lebanese governing machinery, and accommodating Iran's local concerns. Presumably, the last would mean throwing the Kurds under the bus. The most inflammatory suggestion concerned Hezb'allah (literally the "party of God"), which, if enacted, would improve the chances that Lebanon would become another link in the Shia theocratic crescent and aggravate the military threat to Israel. Of all terror groups dedicated to the destruction of Israel, Hezb'allah, funded by Syria and Iran, is the most proximate and potent.
The post-election "New Approach" paper and speech were an expansion of the "Conundrum" theme to include the larger Muslim world. First, the reader is admonished to alter the terms of the threat debate. Terms like jihad, jihadist, Islamist, and Islam are to be stricken from future discussions of the threat. Brennan asserts that jihad, a "legitimate tenet of Islam," simply means "to purify," which is a little like defining the ritual splashing outside a mosque as an actual bath. This semantic sleight of hand is similar to that which claims that Islam means "peace" when the most common meaning is in fact "submission."
Unless Mr. Brennan slept through Arab history and comparative religion at Fordham, he must know that there are several historical and contemporary meanings of the term jihad, the most worrisome of which is jihad al saif or jihad bis saif: holy war of, or with, the sword. Muslim "purification" (jihad al-galb), or hygienic practices, are not national security concerns. Indeed, the crossed swords of theocratic mayhem adorn much of the heraldry, flags, and banners of militant Islam. If we are not to fret about the sanguinary versions of jihad, then there would be little need for a national security advisor on counter-terrorism or two NATO armies deployed to dar al Islam.
Brennan's twisted logic supplements his distorted facts. The reader is told that the problem is not Islam; rather, the problem is the perversion of Islam by extremists. How an infidel might distinguish the good believers from the bad is not explained. And why is it that whenever apologists speak of the bloody "misuse of religion," the individuals referred to ares usually Muslims, and almost never Lutherans or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Catholics? Brennan goes on to suggest that any association of terror or holy war with Islam "plays into the hands of extremists." Such logic suggests that the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin might have been defeated without any debate on the merits of Fascism and Communism.
John Brennan is no stranger to "cooking the books." In 2002, he was George Tenet's chief of Staff as the notorious Iraq National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was prepared in the run-up to the second campaign against Saddam Hussein. This infamous "weapons of mass destruction" assessment was subsequently used by then Secretary of State Colin Powell as the basis for a briefing to the U.N. in 2003. The Iraq NIE was proven fatally flawed as fact and analysis.
Powell's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) was one of the few Intelligence agencies, other than Air Force Intelligence, to footnote (take a dissenting view) the 2002 estimate. Nonetheless, Powell ignored his own Intelligence Bureau after having conferred with Tenet and then proceeded to embarrass the Bush administration before the U.N. Security Council. Brennan may not have had a direct hand in this analytical fiasco, but as he was the front office Mid-East expert and CIA Chief of Staff, the draft NIE surely crossed his desk more than once.
More recently, Brennan addressed the Islamic Center at NYU in New York and referred to Jerusalem as "al Quds," the Arabic name for the Israeli capital. Such a signal from an American Arabist working in the White House could not be accidental, and instead comes off as a clear sign of an Arab tilt, a slight not lost on the Israelis. Underlining the anti-Israeli spin, the president just completed a trip to Indonesia, another visit to another major Muslim capital. Obama has yet to visit Israel.
Brennan's twisted facts and tortured logic on the Islamist threat again raise some profound questions about the integrity of Intelligence Community threat analysis. Presumably, Brennan's office and the president have access to the best thinking of that costly sixteen-agency complex. Several interpretations of Brennan's behavior are therefore possible; he's a buffoon, he's cooking the Intelligence books, or he is a victim of Stockholm Syndrome.
In any case, the continuing failure of the intelligence community and the administration to provide a candid picture of the threat, and a coherent national security response, raises more than a few questions about the prudence of throwing 60 billion dollars at a collection and estimative process that doesn't work or has become just another beltway spin machine.
There are at least two obvious remedies to the analytical dilemma. The first would be to fire the likes of John Brennan and fellow travelers. The second would be to remove the analytical process and related budget from the Executive Branch. Indeed, privatize the NIE system under an independent, nonpartisan agency. What's the point of buying technological silver bullets for a national assessment community that cannot or will not shoot straight?
The author served for 25 years as a military intelligence officer. He writes also at G. MurphyDonovan and Agnotology in Journalism.