Why America is losing the intelligence war
"Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any
other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and
covert operations, secret even in success," said President George W Bush on
September 20, 2001.
Unique among America's foreign conflicts, the so-called "war on terror" is an
intelligence war. That bodes ill for America, because an intelligence war is
the kind America is least capable of
fighting, for reasons inherent in the country's character. That is one more
reason why Islamic radicalism yet may defeat the West.
It is already clear that America is losing the intelligence war in Iraq, for
the same reasons it lost in Somalia. The rocket attack on the al-Rashid hotel
while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was present, the downing of a
Chinook helicopter with 16 deaths, and related incidents suggest that the Iraqi
resistance has infiltrated the American command. That should be no surprise,
given that the occupiers depend on local sources for information, and have
little capacity to distinguish a repentant Ba'athist from a saboteur. There
exist ways to compensate for such limitations, to be sure, but an army that
would court-martial Lieutenant-Colonel Allen West for scaring a prisoner into a
confession with a harmless pistol shot does not have the stomach for them.
More disturbing for the American side are the treason charges against an army
chaplain and translator at the Guantanamo prison for al-Qaeda captives. The
situation brings to mind Kim Philby and the failure of Anglo-American
intelligence in the 1930s, when the Soviet side wielded a higher moral
authority among the intellectual class. Syrian intelligence, it appears,
reached into one of America's most secure installations. That is quite a
turnabout from the 1960s, when Israel's master spy Eli Cohen infiltrated the
highest levels of the Syrian government.
Assigning blame for intelligence failures has become a minor industry in the
United States. Gerald Posner's recent book Why America Slept (See the
Asia Times Online review of September 17,
Caught napping) prompted a new round of
finger-pointing, all of which ignores the greater issue. A tragic flaw in the
American character rather than preventible negligence accounts for systematic
In the intelligence war, Islamists have a distinct advantage. Among the ranks
of Islamist radicals are thousands who have studied in the United States, speak
serviceable English, and can move with ease in American society. How many field
agents of American intelligence can move at ease in the Islamist milieu? German
and British universities once produced spies who could speak half a dozen Arab
dialects and recite the Koran from memory. Today's only superpower cannot
recruit enough Arabic translators to handle routine intercepts.
Precisely why the US cannot find Arabic translators (let alone Arabic-speaking
field agents) deserves a moment's attention. Conservative critics of the
American intelligence establishment, such as Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American
Enterprise Institute, ridicule the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA's) lack
of language ability, and blame the previous (Democratic) administration for
failing to spend enough money on the requisite skills.
All that is somewhat unfair. During the 1990s, the CIA under Admiral James
Woolsey and then under George Tenet cast its net wide for speakers of foreign
languages, particularly Middle Eastern and South Asian dialects, with
disappointing results. The pool of qualified applicants was too small, and
within this pool, too few applicants met the agency's security standards.
Particularly in the case of Arabic and Persian, too many of the candidates were
first and second generation immigrants who failed the screening criteria, that
is, they were deemed too likely to sympathize with their subjects. The
Guantanamo allegations suggest that the CIA's security concerns were not ill
By contrast, Israeli intelligence can draw on a pool of first and second
generation immigrants who speak foreign languages (among which Arabic is most
common) as natives, but feel no loyalty whatever, but rather hostility, to
their native culture. During the Cold War, European intelligence services could
find native speakers of all varieties - German-speaking Bohemians from the
Austrian Empire, Polish-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Poles,
Italian-speaking Austrians - who despised the cultures in which they were
educated and were happy to subvert them. The average Hungarian headwaiter had a
greater command of languages than today's doctoral students in comparative
literature at American universities.
In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity, the US today commands what may be
the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history. Why don't
more Americans learn foreign languages? Turn the question around: why do they
forget the languages they already know? The children of immigrants almost
invariably lose the native language of their ancestors. One finds German
festivals in Wisconsin with lederhosen-wearing brass bands, Weissbier
and bratwurst, but no one who can form a single German sentence.
Italian-Americans march through the streets in what they imagine to be native
costume to honor the birthday of Columbus, without knowing more than a few
obscenities in a southern dialect.
Folk came to America precisely in order to shed their culture. More precisely,
they fled the tragic destiny of their cultures. Immigrants to America were the
poor or the rebels. Not the Milanese but the Calabrians, not the Berliners but
the Bavarians, not the assimilated Jews of Germany but the persecuted Jews of
Russia made their way westward. These had little stake in their own cultures
and no connection to the high culture of the countries they abandoned. There
are a few exceptions, eg, the German political exiles of 1848, but these are
few. What did the Irish immigrants care for Shakespeare, or Russian-Jewish
immigrants for Leo Tolstoy? They shed their old culture almost as fast as their
America has little culture in the strict sense of the term. Culture - the
transmittable experience of one's antecedents - is the stuff from which we
weave the illusion of immortality. In the Old World one could not separate
religion and culture. Myths of national origin, poetry and song, cuisine and
geography fused into a shared experience of those who went before, with those
who come after. Culture means existential continuity.
What America offers, by contrast, is redemption through a new beginning, as
closely as anyone is likely to get to a realization of the original Christian
project. That is the subject of the Western, which passes as an American
original but in fact stems from the 16th century chivalresque novel. It finds
its highest expression in John Ford's 1939 film Stagecoach, the greatest
American work of narrative art (ignoring that insufferable allegory Moby Dick
and that poor-man's picaresque novel Huckleberry Finn.).
In Ford's film, a convict and a prostitute travel west, pass through danger and
tests of character, and start a new life. That is why Americans do not know
foreign languages. Rare is the American who learns a foreign language truly
well. Those who do so fall in love with the strangeness of a foreign culture,
like the adolescent who becomes infatuated with the streetwalker to whom he
lost his virginity. Such people are of no use for intelligence work, for who
can be trusted to subvert a culture he loves?
The quality of American intelligence depends on its moral authority to recruit
spies who are willing to betray their own cultures because of their faith in
America. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the credibility of the
West stood at an ebb, Russia recruited intellectuals from the great
universities of the West. Against the betrayal of its own elites, the West had
no defense, and Russia won the intelligence war of the 1940s and 1950s. Not
until the credibility of Russian communism collapsed after the 1956 Hungarian
invasion did the tide turn, as Russians and Eastern Europeans shifted loyalty
to the American side.
Today's intelligence war with radical Islam comes down to a contest for the
loyalties of the population of individuals who can move between both worlds.
The vast majority of these are university students from Islamic countries in
the US or Western Europe, and the remainder are students of Oriental languages
in the West. For several reasons, the US is at a vast disadvantage.
Unlike other immigrants, Muslim students in the US neither are poor nor
politically disenfranchised. They are there precisely because they belong to
the elite of their country, for whom foreign study is a privilege. Few are
prepared to abandon their culture, while many resent the West. Because of the
cultural divide, the vast majority of Muslims who study in the West read
sciences or mathematics. Indian and Chinese foreign students dominate these
faculties. No Arab has become a scientist of note since the early Middle Ages,
while the universities are full of Indian and Chinese Nobelists. Hell hath no
fury like an elite slighted. These circumstances tend to provoke the resentment
of Arab and other Muslim foreign students toward the West.
Muslim students attending the most prestigious Western universities, moreover,
hear nothing of the merits of Western culture. Instead, what they learn from
post-colonial theory, deconstructionism, and post-modernism is that all culture
is a pretext for the assertion of power by oppressors. No qualitative
difference separates Dante and Goethe from the meanest screed of the cheapest
propagandist. What matters is the sub-text, the expression of power relations
buried beneath the rhetoric. They learn of the evil US that slaughtered its
native population, oppressed blacks and other minorities, degraded women,
marginalized the poor, and operates on behalf of plutocratic financial
Not since Kim Philby was an undergraduate at Cambridge has the
intellectual elite of the West been so inclined to bite the hand that feeds it.
The degenerate view of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, which reduces
all faith and conviction to capricious existential choice, dominates the mind
of the West. From this standpoint it is impossible to challenge another
culture, because all differences are arbitrary to begin with. How is it
possible under these circumstances to make ideological recruits?
There is not much hope for American intelligence among Western students of the
Middle East. General John Abizaid, the commander of US Central Command, earned
a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies in 1981 under Professor Nadav
Safran, one of the best academics in the field. But in 1985, the Middle East
Studies Association censured Safran for accepting CIA funding, destroying his
career, according to Martin Kramer, a right-wing critic of the overwhelmingly
left-wing Middle East Studies establishment. That was a generation ago; in the
interim, the field has shifted even further toward Heideggerian relativism.
One does encounter exceptions, such as General William Boykin, an evangelical
Christian who evidently does not subscribe to the relativism of the academics
and who heads the hunt for Osama bin Laden, among others. The evangelicals
represent an important force in American politics, but have little to
contribute to the intelligence effort. Born-again Christians in some respects
seem as if they were born yesterday. Their educational institutions, such as
they are, lack the sophistication to produce the sort of training that General
Abizaid received at Harvard when it was still available.
American intelligence cannot recruit reliable spies from the available pool of
foreign nationals, nor can it train its own. Army Special Forces makes an
effort to teach languages to its personnel, but anyone who has met these
fresh-faced, well-meaning young people has the impression that they are much
better in a gunfight than in a war of ideas. I expect more intelligence
failures, more "why-America-slept" exposes, more Congressional committees
debating who lost what, and more American casualties. One possible consequence
of America's intelligence failures may be a far greater degree of dependency on
Israel and India for human intelligence.
Final note: in an October 3 column (How
'cherry-picking' militant Islam can win"), I criticized
Professor Victor Davis Hanson for dismissing Islamic radicalism as a form of
Medieval ignorance. His November 7 column in the National Review Online website
has quite a different tone. It is entitled, "If we don't change, we will lose
this war" and reflects a far soberer evaluation of America's strategic
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