The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State

Pat Lang perfectly captures the narrative for the release of the new National Intelligence estimate about Iran.

The “jungle telegraph” in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE.  I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that “intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary” if the document’s gist were not given to the public.  Translation?  Someone in that group would have gone to the media “on the record” to disclose its contents. 

The left finds this meritorious.  The right considers this treasonous.  Both miss the larger dynamic at work.  Jim Hoaglan explains it in this excerpt from his December 9 op-ed in the Washington Post.

Domestically, the most significant fact about the NIE is its public manifestation.  The White House was powerless to prevent publication of a document that made Bush aides unhappy and uncomfortable. The administration went along because it knew that the document — and any attempt to suppress it — would have been immediately leaked. …

The intelligence community has made itself a separate agency of government, answerable essentially to itself.  This NIE makes clear that for better or worse, spy agencies today make the finished product of policy rather than providing the raw materials.

That significant change in the ways of Washington should not go unremarked, even if on balance the consequences of publication of the assessment are positive:  As its authors clearly intended, the document removes any basis for the U.S. military strikes on Iran that many of us have argued would be unwise and unnecessary. …

Bush bears heavy responsibility for the collapse of presidential authority on his watch.  His reckless disregard of the hard work and details of governance have made followership a difficult and dangerous pursuit under him.  The spies understand and reflect that reality in their thinly disguised disavowal of his gravely compromised credibility.

But technology and other forces are undermining hierarchical relationships in social and professional organizations everywhere.  Bush’s successor should not anticipate — with even medium confidence — that things will snap back to “normal” in the world of espionage when he or she arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

This is just another step in a long process for America

I described the working of this process in the Plame Affair.  The following is an excerpt from my article of 31 October 2005:

Last and perhaps most important, there are indications that the CIA is dealing itself more cards in the policy-making game.  That makes sense from an institutional dynamics view.  The CIA has shown itself only borderline (or less) competent in its primary functions of intelligence collection and covert operations.  Worse, competition steadily erodes its previously dominant role in both fields:

  • The CIA has become only a strap in the Department of Homeland Security.
  • The FBI expands its intelligence capabilities.
  • The Department of Defense (Special Operations Forces) expands its role in covert operations.

Stratfor nicely summarizes the situation in this excerpt from The Crisis in the CIA by George Friedman (18 November 2004):

The CIA has consistently failed to identify major historical events:

  • It failed to predict the North Korean invasion of South Korea or the Chinese intervention.
  • It failed to forecast or clearly understand the Sino-Soviet split.
  • It failed to understand the nature of the Cuban revolution until after Castro was in power.
  • It did not know that the Soviets had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and were prepared to use them in the event of an American invasion.
  • It failed to understand the probable course of the Vietnam War.
  • It failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.

… The greatest capability of the CIA – and the intelligence community in general – is covert operations that gather information from a nation’s leadership. The CIA is not perfect at this, but it is outstanding. However, an event that involves non-nation-state actors (such as Castro, prior to the Cuban revolution) or more important, in which the leaders of the nation-state are themselves unaware, leaves the CIA helpless. …

The problem the CIA has is that it also failed in what was supposed to be its sweet spot — covert gathering of intelligence from senior state officials in Iraq concerning a war that had been going on, in effect, since 1990. There were no surprises here, no discontinuities, no funky, off-the-wall groups. This was mainline intelligence-gathering. …

The consistent inability of the CIA to capture hard-to-source discontinuities is not a charming foible, but an unacceptable shortcoming.

The CIA appears to have decided to compensate by expanding its role in the realm of policy-making — an easier bureaucratic response than deep reform.  So we have …

  • The appointment of a Clinton appointee to investigate key claims prior to the Iraq Expedition.
  • The publication of Imperial Hubris, by Michael Scheuer, a serving CIA officer’s critique of Administration policy.

If true, this is the most important aspect of the Plame affair.  We need an effective CIA.  Intelligence and covert operations are among the most important tools to fight our 4GW opponents.  Our primary institution in this field is the CIA, unfortunately with a dismal record.

The Administration is pushing for change; the CIA responds by pushing for more influence in setting policy.  The whole program gets bogged down in political infighting over what are, from a historical perspective, minor matters.  Just business as usual at the Versailles on the Potomac.  {end excerpt}

See Tim Weiner’s book Legacy of Ashes:  the History of the CIA for more detail on how we got to this sad situation.

The Decline of the State at work

As described by Martin van Creveld, the decline of the State consists largely of people’s shifting loyalties from the State to larger entities (e.g., religion) or smaller ones (e.g., region, family or Agency).  States can fracture among many kinds of fault lines.  Belgium, Yugoslavia, and the UK are spliting by ethnicity (which in turn comprise many cultural differences).  Iraq divides by sect and ethnicity (Kurd, Sunni and Shiite Arab).  But the State’s apparatus can also break down as organizational loyalties gain precedence over formal or Constitutional ones — loyalty to one’s department vs. that to elected superiors, loyalty to one’s part vs. the whole (e.g., as the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches struggle for power).

The decline of the State is not the emergence of radically new dynamics — as if people never before had conflicted loyalties — but a change in their intensity and balance of outcomes.  As we see during the past few years in the intelligence community.

“Intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary”

Perhaps so, but this message of the “jungle telegraph” (aka gossip) seems not only self-serving (flattering to the “career seniors”) but also with little historical precedent. 

Only two cabinet secretaries resigned in protest during the 20th century (William Jennings Bryan in 1915 over Wilson’s war policy; Cyrus Vance in 1980 over Carter’s decision to rescue the hostages from Iran).  

Civil servants seldom resign in protest.  A rare exception was the employee of Defense Intelligence Agency’s Office of Counterterrorism Analysis:  “Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said the official quit because of what he believed was an unjustified lack of attention by his Pentagon superiors to terrorist threat warnings he had provided before the Oct. 12 attack on the warship {USS Cole}”  (AP on 25 October 2000).

History contains even fewer examples of civil servants risking jail over matters of principle.  Famous among the exceptions in recent America history are Daniel Ellsberg (who had worked for DoD, State, and RAND) and his associate in crime Anthony Russo of RAND.   Arrested in June 1971 for giving the Pentagon Papers to a reporter of the New York Times, a Federal Judge dismissed all charges in May 1973.  An infamous exeption to this rule is ex-CIA employee Philip Agee, whose 1975 book revealed the names of 250 CIA employees.

Links to more information about these matters

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State
  2. The Essential 4GW reading list, chapter One:  Martin van Creveld
  3. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

5 thoughts on “The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State”

  1. If you accept van Creveld’s definition, states are ever in decline as people in every generation find new, more compelling loyalties. What I still haven’t figured out is whether the decline of the state (“Farewell, Westphalia!”) in today’s world is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

  2. What I still haven’t figured out is how the decline of the state jives with both human want for collective security (see Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban for extreme examples) and the fact that the western state has been providence for massive advances in every realm of human existence. Bear in mind I’m criticizing state failure or collapse and not the above alternate; insinuated hegemony, which seems much more reasonable than mass reduction to primary loyalty (Robbian theory) or some semblance of pre-Westphalian discord. Are states teetering on the edge of failure or are they toeing the line of cultural/political evolution into another entity all together?

  3. fabiusmaximus2000

    Subadei — we have been at the civilization game for a short time, only a few millenia. And we have been at the modern civ game — technology, ideologies, etc — for a century or so. On both score perhaps too short a time to draw hard conclusions, certainly about what form of social organization works best. Esp as technology probably opens new ways of doing very fundamental things. We must always be aware of the coming Singularity. This might change almost everything!

  4. “What I still haven’t figured out is how the decline of the state jives with both human want for collective security (see Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Taliban for extreme examples) and the fact that the western state has been providence for massive advances in every realm of human existence.”

    It probably just depends on from where you are Observing and if your connection to a society is by resistance or induction.

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