2004/09/18

The utter uselessness of the interrogations at Abu Ghraib

So exactly how good is our intel in Iraq?

At the height of the Cold War, the US intelligence community, then consisting of about 12 agencies, had a total budget of about US$10 billion per annum to contend with its communist adversaries; today, with 15 agencies, it has $30 billion plus, thanks to Osama bin Laden and the horde of jihadi terrorists confronting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the world. Despite all this, the US does not have a clue as to who are its adversaries in Iraq.

Resistance fighters? Terrorists? Domestic? Foreign? Al-Qaeda? Pakistanis? Chechens? Arab volunteers from other countries? Ex-Ba'athists? The sacked soldiers of Saddam Hussein's army? Shi'ites? Sunnis? Plain criminals? US intelligence does not seem to have the least inkling of it. The more of the resistance and terrorists the US kills, the more the number of Iraqis and foreign Muslims take to arms against the US. The total number of resistance fighters and terrorists, domestic and foreign, operating in different parts of the country is estimated to have increased fourfold since the beginning of this year from about 5,000 to about 20,000, despite the estimated death of nearly 5,000, if not more, at the hands of US troops.

Is there a common command and control of this rainbow coalition of anti-US elements? If so, how does it function? Where and in whose hands is it located? Which are the organizations involved? Is there a supreme leader? There are visible and invisible enemies. Enemies like Muqtada al-Sadr, who are seen commanding and fighting for the benefit of TV cameras, and enemies like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who orchestrates terrorist incidents unseen and unnoticed. Audible and inaudible leaders. Leaders who brag and make claims. Others who operate silently.
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After 18 months of occupation, the US continues to grope in the dark. Its technical intelligence agencies find themselves totally helpless in the absence of the use of modern means of communications by the terrorists and resistance fighters. Its human intelligence (HUMINT) agencies are as clueless as ever, despite their claimed capture of dozens of alleged terrorists and resistance fighters. Their interrogation, despite the use of shocking techniques of mental and physical torture, has hardly produced any worthwhile intelligence. One does not need a mole in the US intelligence to know this. Had there been any worthwhile intelligence, one would have seen the results on the ground.

And why is that? Why can't our intelligence agencies make head or tail of the situation there? Why are they so clueless?

The Americans did not understand the Iraqi people before they invaded and occupied their country, deceiving themselves into believing that the Iraqis would come out and sing and dance in the streets as the Parisians did when Paris was liberated from the clutches of the Nazis. They do not understand the Iraqi people even after 18 months of occupation. They are unlikely to understand them even if the occupation extends to eternity. The ability to understand others is not part of the American psyche.

There are long-term reasons for this and the outlook for truly understanding the Iraqis is quite dim. I spoke with a workmate a few months back about whether Saddam Hussein was allied with Osama bin Laden. She cited her father, who was convinced that Hussein had funded the families of the 9/11 highjackers who had piloted the passenger jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. I hadn't heard anything about their families at all from any source and then realized he was referring to the families of the Palestinian suicide bombers, a different group entirely. There is indeed a record of Hussein promising to fund these families, a promise which by the way, the Palestinian families accuse Hussein of not keeping. My workmate looked at me like I had two heads. The idea that there were different kinds of Mideastern terrorist/enemy groups with different goals was an absolutely astonishing notion to her.

Okay, so there are serious long-term problems here. As one of my favorite lines from the movies goes, Field Marshal Erwin (The Desert Fox) Rommel is listening to Adolf Hitler ranting and raving about the glorous new weaons that will be coming off of German assembly lines in a few short years. Hitler is brought up short by an abrupt question from Rommel: "That's all very fine and well, but what do I tell my troops tomorrow morning?"

In that spirit, my answer is to create the OSA. Yes, in addition to the 15 agencies we already have, we need yet another agency. Basically, the CIA keeps too many secrets. Far too much of what it does is kept under wraps. This makes it difficult for people to share information and learn from each other and to provide checks against false or mistaken information. In order to provide a complete picture, the CIA presently has to gather information from open public sources as well as from clandestine agents, interrogations and electronic sources. A book I read once described buying an expert a lunch and picking his brains on a particular subject as an in-between source of information. Not precisely public, but not really confidential.

My suggestion is to separate the gathering of publicy availabe information (Hence OSA = Open Source Agency) from the gathering of secret information by assigning particular modes of information-gathering tasks to each agency with the questionable cases being solved by having the sources sign a one-page document saying roughly "I have no objection to being revealed as your source of information". When Congress gets a briefing, the OSA makes the first presentation, giving the Congresspeople publicly available, unclassified information. The OSA leaves the room, the CIA enters and then fills in the Congresspeople on all the secret information, which may or may not contradict anything in the OSA briefing and may just supplement it.

What America ends up with is the best of both worlds. Comprehensive, focused information gathered by the best folks, the best experts on particular subjects and secret information from the folks who are producing it today. Congreepeople will be fully aware that these sources may in fact contradict each other and might in reality reach different conclusions. Producing a briefing where the briefer promises to provide all the answers is a perfectly awful idea and leaves the Congresspeople shocked and disoriented when the information turns out to be wrong after all, which has happened countless times.

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