US ‘Intelligence’: Blinded by Ideology

President Obama is reported to be upset that US intelligence agencies failed to foresee Egypt’s unrest, and he has apparently ordered an accounting. Experience, however, teaches that political events almost always surprise us, and the real problem with America’s intelligence analysts is one that Obama probably does not want to hear.

True, no one predicted Egypt’s rebellion — or Tunisia’s, or Iran’s Green movement in 2009 or its Islamic revolution in 1978–79 or the downfall of the Soviet empire in 1989 or North Korea’s invasion in 1950. One could go on ad infinitum. Intelligence analysis is nothing like gazing into a crystal ball.

But there does seem to be something amiss in our spy agencies, although it confounds the Hollywood trope that the CIA is filled with rightwing super-patriots. On the contrary, it seems that the analysis divisions (as opposed to the operations people responsible for derring-do in the field) are so dominated by left-liberal ideologues that too little rigorous analysis takes place.

A few days ago, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress that the “Muslim Brotherhood . . . of Egypt [is] a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence.” 1

“Very heterogeneous”? If the various agencies under Clapper’s aegis consisted only of males belonging to the same denomination as Clapper, would he have the chutzpah to boast to Congress of their heterogeneity? And ideologically? No doubt there are some differences of opinion within the Brotherhood, just as there always were within the most disciplined Communist Parties, but the range of difference is minuscule.

“Eschewed violence”? Here is a summary by the Egyptian intellectual, Tarek Heggy:

The Brotherhood killed Egypt’s Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi Nuqrashi in 1948 and plotted to kill President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the early 1950s. An offshoot group, Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, later Osama bin Laden’s number-two man, assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 and tried to kill President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.

This only scratches the surface. Early in Sadat’s presidency, he released the Brotherhood’s leaders from prison in exchange for a pledge to foreswear violence within Egypt. They kept this bargain, and those who rejected it, like al-Zawahiri, broke away. But to this day, the Brotherhood forcefully espouses violence outside of Egypt, with praise for suicide bombers who kill Americans in Iraq or Israelis anywhere.

And “secular”? The group’s slogan is “Islam is the answer.” And its official mantra is this: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”

Perhaps Clapper is sui generis: the stupidest man in government. Alas, no. Last week the Washington Post quoted Emile Nakhleh, whom it described as “a former CIA official who directed the agency’s political Islam analysis program,” saying this: “If we are truly going to engage with the 99 percent of Muslims who do not support terrorism or violence, then we’ve got to engage . . . Islamist political parties.”

Only a month earlier, the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes Project released results of its opinion survey of the Muslim world, trumpeting the good news that support for terrorism was in decline. In the new poll, only 20 percent of Egyptians, 23 percent of Indonesians, and 34 percent of Jordanians said they hold favorable views of al-Qaeda. Similar numbers said they trust Osama bin Laden to “do the right thing.” And 20 percent each Egyptians and Jordanians said they support the tactic of suicide bombing. Twenty percent is a minority, but still a lot of people. It makes considerable difference if 20 percent of Muslims support terrorism or if less than one percent do, as Nakhleh tells us, disingenuously.

Apparently, our intelligence analysts believe their main mission is to protect the world from benighted Americans who feel uneasy about radical Islam. This goal is so dear to them that they felt justified in 2007 in committing the most egregious act of politicizing intelligence in US history. They issued a non-classified version of a National Intelligence Estimate, saying that Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program.” A footnote read by few admitted that this was true only by a tortured meaning of the term “nuclear weapons program.” But headlines aren’t written off footnotes, thus the authors succeeded in putting across the lie that they intended.

In so doing they dishonored themselves and their service. But they did this in the name of a higher good. Unlike most of their countrymen, they knew that George W. Bush and America constituted a much greater threat to global well being than did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Remember, 99 percent of Muslims oppose violence. None of our intelligence analysts would ever say the same about gun-loving Americans.

So Obama is right to wonder why our intelligence analysts fail so badly. But he probably does not want to hear that a major part of the reason is that they are so wedded to liberal preconceptions that they are no longer curious about the real world.


1. I am grateful to Ron Radosh, whose blog—always a must-read—first brought Clapper’s testimony to my attention. See here.

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