What You Should Think About the Central Intelligence Agency

December 22, 2007

“Spies cannot be employed without a certain intuitive sagacity.”


People seeking fame and public honor are not well-served by careers in espionage. This is especially true for operatives, analysts, and support personnel employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. It is no false appeal for sympathy when CIA employees point out that their agency takes all the blame for bad work product yet normally takes no credit for good work product. After all, half the point of covert intelligence gathering is to remain covert. Public scrutiny of a fresh success only reduces the chance that it might be repeated.

For different yet equally valid reasons, the CIA and the Supreme Court have tended to be apolitical as institutions. After all, reality is what it is, regardless of what candidates may claim or a President may desire. In its best moments, neither the rhetoric nor the wishes of public officials alter the findings of the CIA. Alas, as with the Supreme Court, effective corporate dominion over the U.S. federal government has made bad politics an inescapable reality for all public servants performing particularly influential work in Washington D.C.

It may be that this is a quirk of perverted idealism. The context in which tax rate cuts actually generate revenue increases is extremely narrow. Yet this does not prevent many politicians, pundits, and their followers from clinging to the belief that tax rate cuts are always certain to generate enormous increases in productivity and revenue collection. Sex education focused so intently on abstinence messages as to deprive students of crucial factual information about human sexuality will tend to increase rates of teen pregnancy. Yet that reality does not prevent many public figures from endorsing the perpetuation of ignorance as a matter of public policy.

With that in mind, it seems less surprising that a Presidential administration eager to bring about Saddam Hussein’s execution should take action without regard for the underlying reality that his regime never belonged on any accurate top ten list of foreign threats to American national security. When Ambassador Joe Wilson undertook a viable, if not exactly covert, effort to gather intelligence related to allegations that Saddam Hussein’s government was intent on acquiring Nigerian uranium, it was predictable that White House officials would refuse to let any underlying reality trump their propaganda point on that issue.

Less predictable was that their effort to discredit his findings would take the form of gross misconduct that compromised the covert status of an experienced CIA operative. This had the immediate effect of endangering the lives of intelligence agents and collaborators ferreting out secrets from the tangled world of high finance in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations. Supervisors had no choice but to shut down that operation immediately. Now neither the public nor the intelligence community may ever get to the bottom of nefarious dealings between wealthy Saudi jihadists and international terrorist organizations.

Yet that political attack on someone who was, at that time, an apolitical public servant also had the long term effect of spreading fear throughout the ranks of the fearless. CIA field operatives are as well-trained as the most elite combatants in military special forces. Not only are they prepared to kill by surprise without hesitation, but they are also trained to face certain death without reservation. However, they are also trained to keep their work and their professional identities a secret. If anything at all scares a CIA operative, it is the thought of being outed to the public in a major media outlet.

Career field personnel with the CIA may well be our nation’s most precious human resource. The actual number of them is rightly regarded as a state secret, but details of recruitment and training procedures indicate they must be less numerous than Navy SEALs. The unnecessary loss of a single field agent can have negative consequences for national security. That all of them should be distracted or intimidated by thoughts of their greatest fear becoming a reality is a truly serious matter.

Thus we see the rush into the Iraq war not only being advanced by public attacks on the Wilson investigation into Nigerian uranium commerce, but also sustained by the implicit threat that raising doubts about White House misinformation would amount to career suicide. Though the circumstances of an analyst are not the same as those of a field operative, the interaction between the CIA’s pathological secrecy and this threat of publicity may explain why there was so little authoritative dissent in the wake of “mushroom cloud” rhetoric about Iraq.

History retains crucial facts. Saddam Hussein was a narcissistic tyrant deeply in love with his own skin — not some Hollywood villain obsessed with building a doomsday device. His interest in weapons of mass destruction prior to the first Gulf War was real, but so too was his interest in personal survival (not to mention retaining power) in the aftermath of that conflict. Only deep ignorance about the nature of Saddam Hussein, and perhaps human nature itself, could produce an analysis concluding that his regime persisted in developing weapons of mass destruction or that he would ever pursue an agenda that might justify a second American invasion of Iraq.

This view is confirmed by his actions during the rush to war. The imposition of UN weapons inspectors was no small thing. It amounted to a national humiliation. No doubt most U.S. Presidents would have no tolerance for similar intrusions into our most secure and secretive government facilities. Yet when American forces took up positions suitable for launching a large scale attack, Saddam Hussein immediately welcomed UN inspectors into Iraq. To them no territory was forbidden and no door was closed.

Preliminary assessments from people on the ground in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction indicated clearly that Hussein’s government was not working on such deadly devices. To people who were in touch with the realities of world events, this was entirely unsurprising. To people whipped into a frenzy of bloodlust by political hate media and other sources of misinformation, the findings of UN inspectors were beyond surprising — they were simply not to be believed. The facts on the ground, as assessed by people actually present on the relevant ground, took a back seat to the talking points of zealous warmongers.

Yet CIA Director George Tenet (presumably with some support from underlings) was complicit in this hoodwinking of the American people. Now thousands of brave Americans are dead, tens of thousands of Iraqi bystanders are dead, many more of each have been deprived of limbs or sanity, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, all to combat a threat that did not actually exist. It is not even clear if the people of Iraq today are better or worse off than they were living under the rule of a selfish and sadistic tyrant.

It is hard to assess just how well the CIA functions as 2007 comes to a close. No doubt Porter Goss did some damage, but it may also be the case that backlash against the politicization of intelligence gathering has done some good. Ultimately, when it comes to what you should think about the CIA, the most crucial insight is the legitimacy of that backlash. As a nation we are strong to the degree that our intelligence gathering resources, acting as our collective eyes, see as clearly and truly as possible. To the degree that this national vision is clouded by political pressures, it becomes impaired and diminishes our ability to develop sound foreign policy goals.

In the end, reality will be what it is, regardless of ideology or ambition. It is true that hopeful national leaders can rally vast resources to change the face of history. Yet this change can only take effect in the future. No amount of hope or fear can alter the reality of what has already occurred. A wise President will understand that gathering intelligence is about getting at the truth. It is extremely foolish to corrupt the best available means of seeking truth for purposes of propping up a false narrative. To do so promotes attempts to interact with that false narrative — attempts that are destined to turn out badly when plans based on lies crash headlong into incompatible realities

What You Should Think About Cetacean Intelligence

November 4, 2007

“. . . man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reason.”

–Douglas Adams

As self-aware beings, “are we alone in the universe?” is a question rich with intrigue. Though it is only one small part of that mystery, “are we alone on Earth?” merits more than the casual glance of traditional assumptions. For ages, our kind has assumed that the march of technology and the proliferation of our numbers were proof our intelligence is unrivaled on this world. Only in recent generations have people come to question if all our cultural and economic activity substantiates such a claim.

The creative and adaptive ways humanity explores, invents, and builds demonstrate great gifts resident in the human mind. No doubt these activities are proof of mental abilities clearly lacking in almost all other known species. Yet it is fair to question if agriculture, urbanization, etc. are inevitable consequences of intelligence. Might non-human thinkers, developing intelligence while pursuing much different survival strategies, manifest brilliance in ways not at all parallel to the rise of human civilization?

If we do not rely on the assumption that all roads of intelligence lead down the technological path we have followed, then we must look elsewhere to identify and quantify the phenomenon. There is no shortage of animal behavior that displays problem-solving ability. On the other hand, measuring this ability can be problematic. Creatures that almost certainly lack self-awareness may nonetheless be extremely sensitive to cues, even involuntary cues, provided by familiar handlers hoping for dramatic results. At least when it comes to gauging intelligence, a rapport between trainer and subject can masquerade as actual problem solving ability.

Still there are other avenues to consider. As much philosophy as psychology, one sensible theory of self-awareness holds that there is a “mirror stage” in which developing intelligence manifests as the ability to identify a reflection as the sight of oneself. This distinction is crucial in so many ways. Though many animals seem to exhibit emotional states, it is typically a projection of human self-awareness that causes us to feel empathy with these animals. Organisms incapable of, or not yet having reached, this mirror stage of development do not understand themselves to be distinct from nature. Primal imperatives and emotions, as complex as they may appear, are ultimately driven by pure stimulus-response mechanisms that do not involve a sense of self as a discrete being.

The best available understanding of all this means that even human infants do not initially understand themselves to exist as distinct entities. A wide range of supporting observations seem to reveal that newborns behave as if they thought of themselves as a physical extension of their mother or primary caregiver. Yet even that language is problematic, because the key distinction is that newborns simply do not think of themselves. Given normal development, human infants will acquire this fundamental component of intellect even before developing the coordination to walk upright.

Animal testing in this area is controversial for a number of reasons. Beyond the role of handlers intentionally or inadvertently encouraging successful results, there are other complications. Primate brains dedicate considerable resources to interpreting visual data. Some have argued that dogs could do much better in such a test if only a means existed to reflect scent as a mirror reflects light. While dolphins and whales possess useful eyesight, but it is often not the dominant sense. Predatory whales along with all dolphins rely much more heavily on echolocation. Thus it may be the case that presenting these creatures with visual reflections is not a legitimate test of self-awareness.

Also, there is the matter of interpreting cetacean behavior. A human (and some other primates,) marked with ink then presented with a mirror, can display understanding of the reflection by reaching to touch that mark on their own bodies as perceived in the reflection. Dolphins tested in this manner may twist and turn as if studying the mark, but this behavior is much more ambiguous than the self-touching behavior creatures with arms and fingers may exhibit. Thus one of the primary explanations behind the lack of evident dolphin technology also limits the extent to which dolphin self-awareness can be confirmed.

Then there is the matter of looking for specific variations within the cetacean community. After all, an extraterrestrial studying biological specimens recovered from Earth without any accompanying technology might require some effort to determine that we naked apes have minds so much more advanced than our furry evolutionary kin. It stands to reason that levels of intelligence may also vary from species to species within the cetacean branch of mammalkind.

Among whales, the largest varieties tend to have brains that dwarf those of other living beings. Yet much of that brainpower is required to provide fine muscle control and regulate complex biological processes in the bodies of whales. Comparatively speaking, bottlenose dolphins stand out as the brainiest of cetaceans.

Though the ratio of brain to body mass in bottlenose dolphins still compares unfavorably with humans, the margin of difference is not so vast as to rule out the prospect of dolphin intelligence. Alas, the evolutionary paths that lead to the present are so different that it is difficult to assess the role of dolphins’ prominent cerebral cortex. It is clear that feature’s growth played a vital role in the rise of hominid intelligence. It is also clear that bottlenose dolphins, pound for pound, actually have larger cerebral cortices than humans. It is not at all clear just what ramifications this has on dolphin cognitive ability.

Some analysts would resolve all this mystery by returning to the question, “if dolphins are so smart, why haven’t they developed writing or built cities or taken Jesus as their personal savior?” Focusing on what we know dolphins have not done draws the mind away from what dolphins may have done. Deciphering their complex social structures and intricate methods of communication is an ongoing process. New answers there tend to reveal deeper mysteries.

Various intriguing and provocative works of fiction have presented cetaceans as fantastic poets or well-meaning hedonists or even ancient allies of powerful extraterrestrial beings. Though so much uncertainty remains about the realities of cetacean intelligence, perhaps there is no finer way to close than with one of Carl Sagan’s observations about the subject, “it is of interest to note that while some dolphins have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”

What You Should Think About Torture

October 15, 2007

“Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.

–Umberto Eco

For its time, the Constitution of the United States was profoundly innovative. Contemporary regimes had acknowledged the importance of giving the public a voice in government. Yet in that time some electoral processes were regarded as ploys to maintain support for despots. Even the British system was more of a compromise to balance autocracy with democracy than it was the authentic process of self-government enjoyed by Britons today. In fact, the practice of royal involvement in selecting senior government ministers was only decisively curtailed years after the American Revolutionary War.

Real freedom requires that ordinary citizens be given strong protection against powerful authorities. After all, how free would free speech be if voices of dissent could simply be branded traitors and subjected to horrific punishments? American civil liberties are a complex web of interdependent legal guarantees. Eliminate the right to question witnesses offering testimony against you, and the right to a jury trial becomes much less meaningful. Permit enforcers to use brutal methods while conducting interrogations of indeterminate length, and it matters less if cruel treatment is excluded from official criminal penalties.

The Bill of Rights offers protection from just those sorts of abuses. Some of its architects had no qualms about exploiting slave labor, and several decades passed between emancipation and federal action to prosecute perpetrators of racially motivated lynching. Yet their desire to limit the role of hate and vengeance in criminal justice had a hand in establishing the newborn United States as a beacon of real liberty.

This century has seen far too many appeals to hate and vengeance. Perhaps some of the problems confronting our nation today cannot be solved without resorting to brute force. Even in these instances, crafting the most effective national response does not require indulging rage. I believe the best of our elite special forces would uniformly concur that violence dealt by a furious motions and inflamed anger is inferior to that dealt by steady hands under the guidance of a calculating mind. This cool rationality is even more vital far from the physical fight, where counterterrorism policy takes shape.

Thus it is all the harder to understand why a few key figures in the federal government are so intent on taking hatred and vengeance as far as an enfeebled system of checks and balances will permit. Though this may have yielded short term political dividends, serious long term problems reverse a popularity surge even as they also weaken our nation’s position in the world. An ethical high ground is abandoned whenever respect for principles of due process, especially in the area of treating captives humanely, is abandoned.

Even if the Constitution’s strictures are not applied to American government’s treatment of foreign nationals, failure to respect the underlying universal principles undermines any attempt to wield moral authority. To make matters worse, the sitting administration has rewritten the rules to circumvent international standards related to either civilian or military detainees. By sidestepping a clearcut either/or method of classifying prisoners (not to mention casting an extremely wide net in the initial Afghani roundup,) the President established a legal basis for captive abuse without limit.

Alan Dershowitz, deservedly regarded as a great legal scholar, has argued that even the most brutal sort of torture should be legally sanctioned in a ticking bomb situation. It is clear that he was speaking literally, but it seems as if the White House decided to heed his words in the context of “ticking bomb” as a metaphor for a wide variety of suspected terrorist threats. Using statements like those of Dershowitz for political cover, the administration ignored the relevance of immediacy and credibility in evaluating what suspected dangers might justify the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners languishing in our legal black holes.

As an aside, it is interesting the role the television series 24 has played in this debate. The President himself has made reference to the lead character, Jack Bauer, in discussing approaches to stopping terrorism. However, that character’s annual involvement in fictional ticking bomb situations highlights an important point. A hero placed in such dire straits should be able to transcend the law for the good of the nation.

I disagree with Dershowitz’s position that torture should take place within a legal framework. Keeping it out of a legal framework does nothing to prevent a national savior from demanding the right to explain his extralegal action to a jury. It is hard to imagine any collection of twelve Americans who would sentence a man to imprisonment for brutalizing an actual terrorist as a necessary measure to successfully avert some mass casualty event that was otherwise inevitable and mere hours from actually occurring. On the other hand, it is not so hard to imagine a military or covert interrogation expert, actively encouraged to practice brutality by directives from superiors, torturing human beings for no good purpose whatsoever.

Though basic human decency goes to the core of this issue, there is more to it than that. Effective torture can be a quick way to get answers from an otherwise unresponsive captive. These quick answers may not be truthful answers, particularly when those subjected to torture may not actually know relevant facts. Tens of thousands of Europeans (and thanks to our Puritan heritage, more than a few early Americans) were publicly executed after confessing under torture to the crime of wielding unholy supernatural powers. Of course none of these people actually could fly on broomsticks or cause pestilence through ritual magic or perpetrate any other such fairy tale villainy. It was the real ability of torture to produce misleading information, and not any real manifestation of black magic in Renaissance Europe, that prompted so much horrific carnage.

In efforts to neutralize terrorist threats, a high price must be paid for acting on misleading information. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible explores this theme in great detail. Based closely on historical accounts of the Salem witch trials, it dramatizes how torture and threat of torture caused innocent people to incriminate other innocent people. Wider and wider the Satanic conspiracy seemed to spread. Initial false accusations snowballed as almost everyone subjected to torture sought relief by telling cruel authorities whatever it seemed they wanted to hear.

In the absence of an actual ticking bomb, there is time enough to conduct far more effective interrogations than torture permits. The right mix of psychology and pharmacology, supplemented with patience as needed, can get at the signal of valuable intelligence without producing the noise of false confessions compelled by extreme duress. After all, assuming a suspected terrorist is in fact a terrorist, which offers greater value to society — the security provided by reliable extraction of organizational and operational knowledge, or the sadistic satisfaction of having vented wrath on a helpless prisoner? Should that initial assumption be in error, all the more reason exists to abstain from decidedly brutal methods.

It would be nice if there were no fringe of radical firebrand clerics in the Middle East sermonizing about the evils of America as the Great Satan. Piling wet blankets onto that incendiary rhetoric would diminish the extremes of zeal from which terrorist fanatics emerge. Why then is it the policy of our government to do just the opposite — taking one opportunity after another to validate the venom of our enemies’ spiritual leaders? I do not know if it is because advocating torture was thought to pay some domestic political dividend or if it is because framers of today’s national policies are simply too ignorant to recognize that torture has no redeeming value outside the rarest and most immediate of security emergencies.

At least for today, I also do not know precisely what the primary source for this letter happens to be. However, it seems credible to me. It is an elegant plea from intelligence and law enforcement agents to be relieved of the burden to employ torture in place of more reliable and more humane techniques. It may be true that terrorists have no respect for the lives of their victims. Does that ever justify sinking to so low a level ourselves? If there is any distinction to be made between civilization and barbarity, surely this is it. We would do well to all take a stand against torture together, as one nation united under the noble principles so many great Americans have given their lives to defend.