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The Education of the Younger Brother

It’s difficult, no matter your personal politics, to not have some sympathy for Jeb Bush and his efforts to articulate a plausible foreign policy approach for his presidential campaign. Given the wreckage his brother left him – and us – it’s a balancing act worthy of the Flying Wallenda Family.

George W. and Jeb  (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

George W. and Jeb (AP Photo/Mari Darr~Welch, File)

Bush’s stumbling attempts to get his arms around the issues, however, points out how dangerous things can be on that high wire. Still if he hopes to be president, Jeb will be forced to regularly and publicly struggle with brother George W’s legacy in the Middle East, while always trying to tip toe around the smoldering wreckage. No easy task.

Bush tried mightily this week to both avoid talking about the family mistakes and pin the continuing mess in Iraq and Syria on the current president and the former secretary of state. Even he must know its a stretch. Bush’s major foreign policy speech, delivered on the hallowed ground of the Reagan Library in California, was equal parts reinventing recent history and continuing the proclivity of many American politicians to work very hard to avoid confronting obvious, if difficult truths.

Grappling with the Facts and Lessons on History…

WW1centenary_715x195 (1)Across Europe this summer and last, the Brits, French, Germans and others have been marking both the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the centenary of the Great War that did not end all wars. British school children have taken field trips to the scenes of the carnage on the Somme in 1916 and near the tiny Belgian village of Passchendaele in 1917. But in reading about the various memorials and events, one gets the impression that something is missing from the history of this war – why did this catastrophe happen, this great war that destroyed empires, spawned an even more destructive second world war and gave us – apparently to the continuing astonishment of many current politicians – the map of the modern Middle East that was drawn during and after the war with little regard for facts on the ground?

The commemoration of the Great War and the end of the second war is, of course, entirely appropriate, but remembering the conflicts is not nearly enough. And some politicians – Japan’s prime minister, for example – would just prefer to move along, thinking; been there, done that. The anniversary of the Great War, for example, is only being quietly marked in Germany and the French continue to mostly ignore the their own troubled history during the second war.

British historian Max Hastings

British historian Sir Max Hastings

Failing to heed the lessons from such vastly important events has consequences, including the repeating of old mistakes. We must, as the respected British military historian Sir Max Hastings said recently, probe and question, debate and discuss the meaning, the causes and the consequences of our wars.

Hastings argued in a 2014 interview with Euronews that it is a serious mistake to simply mark the horror of the Great War without a serious grappling with the issues and reasons behind the fighting. Hastings’ lessons about that war and about the importance of teaching its lessons to new generations is worthwhile viewing. One wishes the current crop of candidates took the time to listen and think about such big questions, particularly as they rush to define their foreign policy platforms in an area of the world that is still so very unfamiliar to us.

Cloudy Thinking, Shaky Facts, Bad History…

In terms of understanding issues like the U.S. role in Iraq and the rise of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant sometimes called ISIS – we can’t even agree what to call the movement) there is always a simple, concise explanation that is wrong, which leads me back to the allegedly “smarter” Bush – Jeb.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

The essence of Bush’s recent foreign policy argument is that Iraq was “secure” in 2009 following the “surge” of American troops that was instituted by his brother. That strategy, temporarily at least, propped up the perfectly awful regime headed by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malicki.

Then, at least in Bush’s telling, President Obama with the support of Hillary Clinton let it all go to hell with the premature removal of American combat troops from Iraq. Therefore, under this logic and accepting Bush’s telling, Obama and Clinton “lost” Iraq and paved the ground for the rise of the spectacularly brutal ISIL. Bush’s analysis if, of course, mostly aimed at Clinton and is simple, concise and mostly wrong.

Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, one of the more astute analysts of the American experience in Iraq, says: “the Republican argument that a handful of American troops could have saved Iraq misses a larger point. The fundamental problem was American policy—in particular, the American policy of supporting and strengthening Maliki at all costs. Maliki was a militant sectarian his whole life, and the United States should not have been surprised when he continued to act that way once he became Prime Minister. As Emma Sky, who served as a senior adviser to the American military during the war in Iraq, put it, ‘The problem was the policy, and the policy was to give unconditional support to Nuri al-Maliki.’ (Sky’s book, The Unraveling, is the essential text on how everything fell apart.) When the Americans helped install him, in 2006, he was a colorless mediocrity with deeply sectarian views. By 2011, he was an unrivalled strongman with control over a vast military and security apparatus. Who enabled that?”

Filkins’ answer to the enabling question is that George W. Bush, Obama and Clinton all had a hand in creating the mess, but he also notes a fact that Jeb ignores – it was his brother who established the timeline for the troop withdrawal, a timeline that Obama was only too happy to implement since he had campaign to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Amending that agreement, as Bush said “everyone” thought would happen, was entirely contingent on the Iraqi government we had helped establish agreeing to U.S. troops remaining. Changing the Bush agreement, given the internal strife in the country, was never going to happen and, in fact, the Iraqi parliament refused to consider modifications of the troop withdrawal timeline.

As Filkins says, “at best, Jeb is faulting Obama for not amending the deal.”

Other commentators, including Paul Waldman, have observed that Jeb Bush, as well as other Republicans, continue to believe, against all evidence, that the United States could bend the internal politics of Iraq in a way that we might like. Remember the rhetoric about a western-style democracy taking root in the heart of the Middle East? It was a pipe dream and still is.

“And this is perhaps the most dangerous thing about Bush’s perspective on Iraq,” Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “which can also be said of his primary opponents. They display absolutely no grasp of the internal politics of Iraq, now or in the past, not to mention the internal politics of other countries in the region, including Iran. Indeed, most Republicans don’t seem to even believe that these countries have internal politics that can shape what the countries choose to do and how they might react to our actions.”

As for Clinton, who of course is the real political target of Bush’s recent critique of past and present U.S. Middle East policy, Dexter Filkins says: “She played a supporting role in a disastrously managed withdrawal, which helped lay the groundwork for the catastrophe that followed. And that was preceded by the disastrously managed war itself, which was overseen by Jeb Bush’s brother. And that was preceded by the decision to go to war in the first place, on trumped-up intelligence, which was also made by Bush’s brother.

“All in all, when it comes to Iraq, Clinton doesn’t have a lot to brag about. But Jeb Bush might want to consider talking about something else.”

Let the Debate Continue…

Or would it be too much to just ask that Bush – other candidates, as well – grapple with the grubby details of the mess in the Middle East. It is a convenient sound bite to say, for example, that Obama and Clinton “allowed” the Islamic State to emerge amid all the sectarian violence that we could never have successfully controlled, even had we committed to U.S. boots on the ground for the next 50 years. Such thinking does little – nothing really – to help explain what has really happened in Iraq and why.

Islamic State fighters

Islamic State fighters

In a truly chilling article in the current New York Review of Books, an anonymous writer identified as a senior official of a NATO country with wide experience in the Middle East, provides some insight into all that we don’t know and can’t comprehend about the forces that have unleashed havoc in Iraq and Syria.

The latest ISIL outrage includes, according to the New York Times, a policy of rape and sex slavery, across a wide swath of the region. The sober and informed piece should be required reading for every candidate as a cautionary tale about how American policy, beginning with George W. Bush, has been a tragic failure. It is also a stark reminder of the real limits of what our military power can accomplish.

“I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information,” the writer says in attempting to explain ISIL. “But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi [ultra-conservative Islamic] theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

“We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.”

If there is any good news amid the re-writing of our recent and often disastrous history in the Middle East it may be contained in the fact that Jeb Bush’s quest for the White House will mean that the American legacy in Iraq will continue to be debated. Smart politics might have dictated that Jeb leave the sleeping dogs of W’s policies lie, but that was never an option. The mess his brother made is still too raw and too important not to demand ongoing discussion, particularly from another Bush.

History will assign the blame for U.S. policy in the Middle East and I’m pretty confident how that will shake out. American voters, even given our short attention span and penchant to accept over simplification of enormously complex issues, should welcome the discussion that Jeb Bush’s speech has prompted. He may be, as Paul Waldman says, “shockingly obtuse” about the limits of American power and as misinformed as some of the people who led us down this rabbit hole, but we still need to force the debate and challenge the “theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination.”

Who knows, as Max Hastings suggests when considering the lasting lessons of the 100 year old Great War, we might actually learn something.


Are You Listening?

Obama-ListensWhile Washington and most of the media are obsessed with the botched roll out of Obamacare, a story with much more long-lasting and more profound implications unfolds around us with hardly a passing notice from Congress or many voters.

Here’s a prediction. When the history of the Obama Administration is written, the admittedly monumental screw ups with the health insurance website will get a paragraph or two of attention. The vast network of intelligence gathering – OK, let’s call it what it is spying – that is taking place on the watch of a president who was elected as a civil libertarian will get a full chapter. It’s that important.

It is nearly impossible to keep track of the flood of revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA), but here are some of the highlights. The New York Times reports that the NSA listened in not only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls, but started doing so years ago when Merkel was merely a backbencher in German politics.

“How the N.S.A. continued to track Ms. Merkel as she ascended to the top of Germany’s political apparatus illuminates previously undisclosed details about the way the secret spy agency casts a drift net to gather information from America’s closest allies,” Mark Mazetti and David Sanger wrote in the Times. “The phone monitoring is hardly limited to the leaders of countries like Germany, and also includes their top aides and the heads of opposing parties. It is all part of a comprehensive effort to gain an advantage over other nations, both friend and foe.”

The news of the spying has already badly damaged the personal relationship between the American president and the German chancellor. The phone call Merkel initiated to express her outrage was, as an Obama aide told the Times, “not easy.” No kidding.

We also know that NSA has been tapping into Google and Yahoo networks, monitoring the phone calls of journalist, gathering millions of bits of data from foreign and domestic phone systems and, most significantly, saying almost nothing – at least nothing truthful – about this gigantic infringement of civil liberties.

When the NSA’s James Clapper speaks his language of evasion reminds you of the once popular television comic Professor Irwin Corey, the absent minded “world’s great authority” who would ramble on speaking nonsense that sounded strangely profound. Corey once opined, appropriate to NSA spying, “If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re going.”

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper a while back during a Senate hearing.

Clapper responded: “No, sir … not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”

Only after the Edward Snowden revelations did Clapper admit his answer was, as The Atlantic reported “erroneous,” or “the least untruthful” one he could provide. Wyden recently said, “There’s not a shred of evidence today that that would have been corrected [in public] absent the [Snowden] disclosures.”

Normally lying to a Congressional committee – ask Oliver North – is reason to clean out your desk or maybe fix up your cell, but Clapper remains on the job with his efforts now focused on explaining away the spying on Merkel and 30 other world leaders.

Forty years ago another Northwest senator, Idaho’s Frank Church, laid bare the out-of-bounds behavior of the NSA, the CIA and the nation’s other security agencies. And, like the prescient civil liberties advocate he was, Church carefully warned that an American government with the means, in the case of the CIA, to open the mail of American citizens and hatch plots to kill foreign leaders, conceivably could turn that same awesome power on domestic enemies.

Then President Gerald Ford tried repeatedly to blunt Church’s investigation in the 1970’s once telling Church and Texas Sen. John Tower, as Leroy Ashby and Rod Gramer report in their fine biography of Church, that America is “a great power and it is important that we be perceived as such – that our intelligence capability to a certain extent be cloaked in mystery and held in awe.” But Church knew that just the opposite was true. An all powerful and overreaching national security state that employs tactics more and more reminiscent of Putin’s Russia or Saddam’s Iraq is not a recipe for global respect or moral authority.

A great country, secure in the wisdom of its own best instincts and loyal to its creed, could command real respect. “Ours is not a wicked country,” Church said in 1976, “and we cannot abide a wicked government.”

A country that is a force of moral authority in the world doesn’t find itself with a Secretary of State saying what John Kerry was compelled to say this week. “The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there,” Kerry told a conference in London via video link. “In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.”

Oregon’s Wyden is a worthy successor to Idaho’s Church and is playing much the same role as he confronts the entrenched power of the national security state. “We will be up against a ‘business-as-usual brigade’—made up of influential members of the government’s intelligence leadership, their allies in think tanks and academia, retired government officials, and sympathetic legislators,” Sen. Wyden warned last month. “Their endgame is ensuring that any surveillance reforms are only skin-deep. … Privacy protections that don’t actually protect privacy are not worth the paper they’re printed on.”

At the risk of sounding like a Tea Party conspiracy theorist, I do reflect on the historic fact that our federal government, even with all the sacred respect we profess to show for the Constitution’s protections of our civil liberties, has frequently trampled on those liberties. From World War I when American citizens went to jail for criticizing the war to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, from liberty oaths in the McCarthy era to Watergate break-ins, it takes no Orwellian flight of fancy to see an all-knowing, all-seeing federal government destroying our standing abroad, while trashing our liberties at home.

Great nations are true to their values. Great nations don’t just do things because they can. And great nations do not put civil liberties on autopilot.

Frank Church warned us 40 years ago. Ron Wyden is trying to warn us today.


Everything Old…

e325971eebc3ccb1_landingIdaho Sen. Frank Church went to his grave nearly 30 years ago still being criticized by some, including Idaho politicians like the late Sen. Jim McClure, who should have known better (and probably did), for all the alleged damage Church’s various investigations in the 1970’s had done to the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. The criticism was bogus then and today’s headlines featuring new insights into the extent of government information gathering on Americans only serves to underscore the importance of Church’s investigations in 1975 and 1976.

As the media fixates on security leaker Edward Snowden and his every movement, it may be worth remembering the role Church played in uncovering the spying excesses of the super secret agencies that have done nothing but grow since the Idaho Democrat pulled back the curtain on their highly questionable – and illegal – action more than a generation ago. The resistance to Church’s investigations was fierce at the time. Dick Cheney was White House Chief of Staff  and a vocal critic. Imagine that. Today the response to domestic spying is perhaps best summed up by the out-to-lunch comments of a Tennessee Congresswoman who warned that her constituents wouldn’t like “some knee jerk reaction” in Washington to their own government’s secret snooping. She need not worry by all accounts.

A fine piece at the Harper’s website – appropriately entitled “On the NSA’s That ’70’s Show Rerun” – recounts the Church investigations and quotes two former Church staffers, Peter Fenn and Pat Shea.

“The Snowden Affair is a “rerun” of issues first uncovered during the 1970s, though these problems trace back to the earliest American efforts at espionage, says [Pat] Shea. Between 1975 and 1976, the Church committees produced more than a dozen reports detailing the illegal activities of the NSA, CIA, and FBI, which included opening mail, intercepting telegrams, planting bugs, wiretapping, and attempting to break up marriages, foment rivalries and destroy careers of private citizens. ‘We thought we put a stop to this wholesale collection of information on Americans forty years ago,’ says Peter Fenn, another former Church staffer.”

Church’s civil liberties sensibilities were already fine tuned when he discovered that the government had been opening mail the senator, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, had sent to the then-Soviet Union. “It was an affront to his privacy,” says Shea, a committee deputy director under Church , “an affront to the separation of powers.” [Note: Pat Shea is a long-time personal friend, a Board member with me at the Andrus Center and an attorney in Salt Lake City.]

Church’s answer to the secret surveillance activities was to first expose as much as possible about the methods and motives of the rogue agencies and then to create FISA – the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – that established a formalized process for judicial review of government requests for snooping rights. The fact that we now know almost nothing about the real operations of the so called FISA Court – the Court sits in secret and lacks anything approaching the adversarial nature of the American judicial process – would, I suspect, appall Frank Church. He objected to the lack of checks and balances in the secret system he uncovered, but he also abhorred the essential culture of secrecy in the intelligence community.

Few Americans, for example, realize that the intelligence budget is totally “off the books.” If you wanted, as an American citizen, to know what the CIA (or the NSA) spent last year you couldn’t find that out. It’s secret. We only know that the CIA is vastly larger and more involved with para-military activity today than it was in Church’s day. The super secret NSA – one book on the agency calls it the “Puzzle Factory” – has become the largest, most secretive and potentially most intrusive spy agency in the world.

The absurdity of the culture of secrecy surrounding the U.S. intelligence community was highlighted a couple of days ago when Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, two of the very few members of Congress who seem willing to push back against the NSA’s programs and secrecy, said publicly that the agency’s “fact sheet” on its efforts to protect the privacy of American citizens contained “significant” errors.

“Significant” errors is another way of saying lies. Yet, and here is the absurdity, the two United States senators cannot, without violating secrecy rules, state specifically what was wrong with the so called “fact sheet.” The NSA “fact sheet” has apparently been removed from the agency’s website where you’ll now find next to nothing about the story that has dominated the news now for more than two weeks. The NSA’s motto might well be, “we’re secret and we like it that way.”

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of this ’70’s Show re-run is the generally tepid response from Congress and the American people. Opinion polls seem to indicate the public is ho-humming the entire controversy and perhaps as a result poll-sensitive elected officials, with the exception of Wyden and Udall, are laying low. Again, I suspect, Church would be stunned. There is no more fundamental responsibility of the legislative branch of the federal government than that of checking the excesses of the executive branch, but Congress would prefer to use up its oversight bullets on made-for-TV controversies like the IRS review of non-profit applications. Few are calling for real and comprehensive oversight of the secret American government even though, as Max Frankel wrote recently in the New York Times, “information that is gathered and managed in secret is a potent weapon — and the temptation to use it in political combat or the pursuit of crimes far removed from terrorism can be irresistible.”

(By the way, Wyden and Udall are both members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, another legacy of the Church investigations, as is Idaho Sen. James Risch. As far as I can tell no Idaho news organization has questioned the senator on the NSA revelations and he has made no formal statements. You have to wonder why? Risch did comment on the NSA issues in a Q-A with the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s sponsored Idaho Reporter website where he mostly dismissed the importance of Snowden’s leaks.)

Of course Americans want and expect to be safe from terror and those forces at home and away who would do us harm. At the same time, a free society by its very nature must balance its freedoms against its security. Today we seem unwilling to even engage in this debate and seem willing to accept at face value that the government is going to behave in a way that protects American freedoms.

I share my friend Pat Shea’s worry, as Harper’s put it, “that today’s hyperpartisan congress won’t enforce the checks and balances that are needed to keep rogue elephants in check.”  [Shea] “is among a growing chorus calling for a new Church Committee, an independent commission comprised of intelligence-savvy officials who will put the ideals of open, fair and effective government above short-term politics.” But don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to attempt to do what Frank Church did nearly 40 years ago – hold accountable the most super-secret agencies of our government, the agencies most able, as Church wrote, to turn their methods and secrecy “around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left.”

Church was “an ethical giant,” Shea says. “We now live, unfortunately, in a world of ethical midgets.” Frank Church understood American history and fundamental values and he had the political guts to expose the excesses of the intelligence agencies because he understood that no political system based on openness and accountability is really and truly free when it tolerates, in the name of security, governmental actions that are the very antithesis of openness and accountability.

Church warned us in the 1970’s. Is anyone listening in the 21st Century?



The Spy from Boise

A Real Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Years ago as a very young, very naive reporter, the boss handed me a piece of wire copy ripped straight off the teletype machine and told me to find a photographer and get an interview with James Jesus Angleton.

I should have said – who? But, of course, I was too inexperienced (too stupid) to ask that question and to pause for a moment to think what I might ask the man who had recently been forced out as the long-time chief of counterintelligence at the CIA. I headed for a local hotel to try and stick a microphone in the face of man who, since World War II, had been the intelligence service’s top expert on the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB.

I found Angleton, as I recall, in a hotel ballroom – I don’t remember what he was doing in Boise – and after my innocent, stumbling approach he conceded to answer a couple of questions, the substance of which is now lost of history or, in the days of 16mm film, the cutting room floor. I think I asked his reaction to the on-going Church Committee investigation of CIA abuses. Again, as I recall, not surprisingly the old CIA hand was dismissive of the efforts of Idaho Democratic Sen. Frank Church to expose assassination plots, domestic spying and such on the part of the Agency.

I’ve long been struck by the irony of an Idaho United States Senator leading the investigation of a CIA that had come to be so influenced by an Idaho-born spy. Would you call that a small world?

My long ago and very brief encounter with James Angleton, I believe it was in 1976, came back to me recently after watching the thoroughly enjoyable new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the inspired performance of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy catcher George Smiley.

The movie, based on the great espionage thriller by John la Carre, is, in many ways, a British version of the story James Angleton lived at the CIA; the story of an alleged “mole” at the very top of the nation’s intelligence service; a counter spy Angleton was determined to find and eliminate. The quest eventually took Angleton down instead.

The Republican politician and one-time ambassador to Italy, Clare Booth Luce, once told Angleton, who began his spy career organizing operations against Italian fascists, “There’s no doubt you are easily the most interesting and fascinating figure the intelligence world has produced, and a living legend.” Others were not so charitable.

Angleton was born in Boise, Idaho in 1917, as his New York Times obit noted the year of the Russian Revolution, the son of an employee of the National Cash Register Company. After spending summers in Italy, Angleton went to Yale where he developed his life-long love of literature and poetry and was recruited into the OSS, the agency that eventually became the CIA.

Angleton, in later years his posture stooped and his thick mane of hair streaked with gray, was, by all accounts, a Renaissance Man. He grew orchids and attended lectures on Joyce. One colleague said, ”He had a remarkable amount of knowledge about world events, art, literature.”

Former CIA officer David Atlee Phillips, who like Angleton was caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the Agency in the 1970, wrote in his memoir, that “Angleton was CIA’s answer to the Delphic Oracle: seldom seen but with an awesome reputation nurtured over the years by word of mouth and intermediaries padding out of his office with pronouncements which we seldom professed to understand fully but accepted on faith anyway.”

It was Angleton’s zealous search for the CIA mole – the counter conspiracy theorists speculated that Angleton himself might have been the mole – that eventually lead then-director William Colby to show the counterintelligence chief the door. Angleton’s forced retirement from the CIA came in 1974. Unlike George Smiley, the fictional character in Tinker, Tailor, who was brought out of retirement to search out the mole in Britain’s MI6, Angleton was fired, in part, for too aggressively pursuing the CIA’s mole. In the process, some argue, he not only damaged the individual careers of many intelligence agents, but undermined the Agency’s efforts to run an effective intelligence program against the Soviets.

To detractors Angleton became the worst kind of paranoid operative, secretive and suspicious of everything all the time. To others he was the very personification of the dedicated intelligence agent. One magazine profile suggested that “If John le Carré and Graham Greene had collaborated on a superspy, the result might have been James Jesus Angleton.”

Angleton died of cancer in 1987 at age 69, as much a mystery in death as in life. What secrets he must have taken with him.

Old-time Boiseans will remember Angleton’s brother, Hugh, a diminutive, elegant man who owned a rather spectacular downtown gift store. Hugh Angleton, always impeccably dressed in suit and tie, served as a kind of showroom director at his store – Angleton’s. The store was filled to overflowing with rare and elegant china, jewelry and art objects. I often wondered if his more famous brother helped locate some of the exotic and expensive items that filled the display cases in Hugh’s store, which, sadly, passed out of existence years ago.

Years ago, it’s said, then-CIA Director James Schlesinger went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Armed Services Chairman John Stennis on a major Agency operation.  “No, no my boy,” responded Senator Stennis.  “Don’t tell me.  Just go ahead and do it, but I don’t want to know.”

So it is with the intelligence agencies. So secret is what they do, as the joke goes, they could tell us, but then would have to kill us. In trying to explain this shadowy world, novels and motion pictures are more satisfying than reality. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley – sort of – got the mole. The spy from Boise never did.


That’s Accountability

LewdNavyStIf All Government Operated This Way

Accountability, at least most of the time, is sure and swift in the United States military. Just ask Captain Owen Honors, who has been sacked as the C.O. of one of the U.S. Navy’s most prestigious sea commands.

By now most everyone has heard the story of how Honors, as the then-Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hosted racy videos with homophobic, sexual and other offensive content that were broadcast during “movie nights” on the big aircraft carrier. He subsequently became the Commanding Officer of the Enterprise, the videos came to light and his career is as ruined as it would have been if he had run his ship aground in San Francisco bay.

The certainty of consequences for bad behavior or unethical conduct is one of the reasons that order, morale and effectiveness remain as high as they do in our all-volunteer military, while at the same time two wars and countless deployments have made military life incredibly difficult for thousands of young American men and women.

As I read about the Captain’s truly silly behavior – and, yes, I admit to finding the videos on YouTube and did take a look – I thought about the relative lack of accountability for bad behavior or performance on the civilian side of our government. It is a truly bipartisan problem.

Take your pick: the Treasury Secretary’s failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, various senators in both parties with ethical problems ranging from sweetheart home loans to sexual peccadilloes, heck even a former New York governor now has a prime time show on cable while the documentary about his frequent visits with prostitutes runs in theaters. Closer to home, a sitting Idaho state representative remains dogged by his tax problems and an Idaho tax commissioner operates under an ethical cloud.

Some might argue that the standards applied to the Captain of the Enterprise are a little harsh give the frat boy nature of his offense. Still, the Navy’s top brass demanded accountability – and swiftly – and not for the first time.

When the Captain’s boss “lost confidence” in him, he walked the plank – immediately.

Admiral John Harvey, in announcing that the can was tied to the Enterprise’s video host, talked about the Navy’s determination to maintain its values of “honor, courage and commitment.” Officers, Admiral Harvey said, simply must be held to the highest standards. The military code of conduct system demands it. End of story.

In the wake of his own bad behavior, Eliot Spitzer got his own television show. Increasingly, it seems, the American political system allows that sort of “accountability.” Little wonder then why the American public gives the military high approval ratings, while the public approval of Congress and other governmental institutions sinks to all-time lows.

No accountability, no confidence.

Communicating the Story

mccrystalI’d Like to Audit This Course

Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the fellow Barack Obama fired earlier this year as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is lecturing at Yale this fall. McCrystal’s syllabus was published by the Yale Daily News and I’ve got to say it looks pretty interesting.

The General, who will draw on his lengthy military career for the seminar entitled “Leadership in Operation,” will lead off on September 7th with a lecture on “The Importance of Leading Differently.”

The notes on the seminar say the session will involve, “A description of how changes in our operating environment over the 34 years of my service have demanded changes in how organizations operate – and how leaders lead them. For the military, focus often falls too narrowly – on technological advances in weaponry and armor. But like most organizations, truly significant changes in technology, politics, media, and society overall have driven change to almost every aspect of leading. Increasingly, the product of a failure to change – is failure.”

McCrystal will focus on four “case studies” in his first lecture – his own career, the decision to invade Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the American Civil War and German military strategy during World War II.

Toward the end of the semester, McCrystal will lecture on “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment.” That should be good. The General’s downfall came, of course, after Rolling Stone published an incendiary article that featured on the record quotes from McCrystal and several members of his staff sharply questioned the ability and smarts of the President and his national security team.

I have often believed that our society really has only one true meritocracy; an institution were individuals, in the vast majority of cases, advance on the basis of merit, wisdom and drive. The American meritocracy is the U.S. military. You don’t get to wear four stars without knowing a few things about leadership, history, politics and human nature. The proof of the modern military’s approach to merit and responsibility is Gen. McCrystal. He screwed up and lost his job. End of story. Not so in any other field of endeavor in American society.

There are exceptions, of course, to the military merit story line and the U.S. military, obviously, hasn’t always been a place where merit wins out. William Westmoreland and George Custer come to mind. Still, day-in and day-out, I’d put the military’s merit selection up against our political selection process, as well as against corporate America and even the academy.

It is very interesting that McCrystal, at least for the time being, has taken a pass on the post-military life of many retired officers. He appears not to be interested in the opportunities he surely could have to consult for a defense contractor or become a talking head pundit on cable television. Instead he’ll lecture at Yale.

It would be fascinating to listen in on those seminars.

A Reputation in Tatters

ambroseAmbrose Accused of Faking It

I’ve always had a soft spot for Stephen Ambrose the author of Undaunted Courage, the book that did more than anything, I think, to bring Lewis and Clark back from the dusty corners of American and Western history.

I have a vivid memory of visiting Ambrose at his summer place in Helena, Montana some years ago. It was a treat to be invited into his “office” – if I remember correctly a converted garage – where he wrote and where a photo of Dwight D. Eisenhower hung prominently on the wall.

Ambrose was a little on the gruff side, outspoken, but still gracious. He signed a couple of his books for me that day. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Then again, maybe I embellished the memory a little in the interest of making the experience a bit more, well, interesting.

I’ve been questioning my own memory about that meeting since I read, with more than a touch of sorrow, Richard Rayner’s piece in The New Yorker making a very solid case that Ambrose fabricated (embellished, made up, lied about) the level of interaction he had with Eisenhower during the time he was writing the general-president’s biography. Until now, the Ambrose works on Eisenhower have been considered the definitive story of Ike’s military and political career. No more.

Rayner documents, with the help of the meticulous records Ike’s assistants kept, of the very limited amount of time the historian spent with the former president in the 1960’s. Ambrose claimed hundreds of hours. The records show maybe five hours. The documentary evidence even calls into question Ambrose’s oft told story about how he came to write about Eisenhower.

As a result, as James Palmer notes, “everything Ambrose claimed Eisenhower said, including quotes that have often been used by other historians, must now be taken as false.”

Those who occasionally check in at this spot know that I am passionate about history. I have come to really disdain what some have called the American propensity for “historical amnesia.” It is a big part – and I don’t believe I overstate the case – of the reason our politics, our political discourse and our understanding of why things are as they are seems so limited so much of the time. A lack of historical perspective failed to inform the country about the dangers of going into Iraq, it recently led a governor of Virginia to proclaim Confederate History Month and forget to mention slavery, it permits a clown like Glenn Beck to get away with equating the Catholic (and other religions) tradition of social justice with “socialism.”

For the most part, Americans don’t know their history. So when popular historians like Stephen Ambrose find a wide following – he sold over 5 million books – a history buff can only rejoice that more people are paying attention. Except, what happens when the work of a popular historian is cast into serious doubt? And, not for the first time, regrettably.

In his OregonLive.com blog, Steve Duin recalls other of Ambrose’s misdeeds and the latest episode calls up his run-in with plagiarism related to his book about bomber crews in Europe during World War II. It is not a pretty record and his reputation as an historian, as they say, lays in tatters.

I have most of the books Ambrose wrote about Eisenhower. Until a couple of days ago, I thought of them as little temples to the times of a very important American. Now I’ll never think of those books the same way again. I’ll remember the kindness of their author, to be sure, but I’ll wonder what compelled him to mix fiction with history, particularly when the true story is so very interesting.

Winston Churchill famously quipped that history would be “kind” to him because he “intended to write it.” And, so he did producing one of the first and most voluminous histories of World War II.

Still, I can read Churchill knowing that what is on the page has been written by a participant in the great events; a participant colored by all his bias and desire to create a legacy and defend his actions. That doesn’t make Churchill’s version of history “bad” history, or less interesting, or without merit. You just know what you’re reading.

I used to read Stephen Ambrose’s words, naively it turns out, as the work of a keen, uninvolved, but still passionate, academically trained searcher for the “truth” in history. No more and that is a real shame.

Dithering on War

george marshallWhen Politicians Overrule Their Generals

News today that President Obama is set to announce his Afghanistan strategy next week. He certainly has been getting a lot of advice and he is reportedly irate over the leaks.

The debate over Obama’s deliberation has been fascinating and strikes me in the main as being almost totally lacking in historical context. The president’s critics have suggested he should just adopt the recommendations of his generals and be done with it. Former Vice President Cheney persists in criticizing the president for “dithering” over the decision and many members of Congress argue that he should take the advice of the “generals on the ground.”

These critics have either not read our history or have chosen to ignore what has happened many times in the past. So, a little history and perspective on presidential decisions about war.

Obama’s critics should know that presidents decide strategy, informed, of course, by military and other advice, but the buck stops – and should – at the president’s desk. Sometimes presidents have even said “no” to their generals and it has been a good thing. I have no idea what the president will decide in Afghanistan, but history, all the way back to Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln, tells us that political leaders questioning, probing and even overruling their military advisers is the American way.

George C. Marshall (left), one of the country’s greatest military and political leaders, was Franklin Roosevelt’s chief military advisor during World War II. He knew something about being overruled by a civilian.

FDR Overruled His Generals, Truman and Kennedy, too, and Lincoln Should Have

In the early stages of U.S. involvement in World War II, the American high command lead by Chief of Staff Marshall pressed hard for an early invasion of Europe to be accomplished by Allied landings on the French coast. The British, unlike the Americans, having experienced the full force of German military might and having by 1942 been expelled from the continent three times – Dunkirk, Norway and Greece – resisted an invasion in 1942 or even 1943.

Winston Churchill warned the Americans that a military disaster on the French coast was the “only way in which we could possibly lose this war.” The British advocated a less risky, but more time consuming strategy that included as a first step an Allied invasion of North Africa.

Still, Marshall and others, including Dwight Eisenhower, pushed Franklin Roosevelt to adopt a plan to invade France as soon as possible. The military high command considered North Africa a sideshow. Roosevelt “dithered” over a decision much to the dismay of Eisenhower who argued “we’ve got to go to Europe and fight.”

As Rick Atkinson masterfully recounts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “An Army at Dawn,” FDR summoned his lieutenants to the White House at 8:30 in the evening of July 30, 1942. Roosevelt announced, as commander-in-chief, that he had made his strategic decision and it was final. The United States would adopt the British strategy and invade North Africa.

As Atkinson has written: “The president made the most profound American strategic decision of the European war in direct contravention of his generals and admirals. He had cast his lot with the British rather than his countrymen.”

British historian Andrew Roberts details in his book “Masters and Commanders,” that all of FDR’s top advisors “Marshall, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, Eisenhower, [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and [Marshall’s chief deputy General Thomas] Handy…preferred the ‘Ulysses S. Grant’ view” that fighting the Nazis “should be done with a full frontal assault on Germany via France as early as possible.”

FDR considered those views and rejected them in favor of Churchill’s and the British high command’s “soft underbelly of Europe” strategy that would eventually involve invasions of Sicily and Italy before the invasion of France. History has vindicated that decision. Most historians now agree that an invasion of France much earlier than 1944 would have risked a military disaster.

Roosevelt must have been thankful to not have to put up with Dick Cheney-type criticism while he made his commander-in-chief decision. All of his deliberations were conducted in strict secrecy and in 1942 military and civilian advisers did not leak. When all the advice was weighed and sifted, FDR had the confidence and courage to overrule his military advisers.

Other presidents have done the same.

During the Korean War, Harry Truman overruled and eventually fired Douglas MacArthur for the general’s insubordination in questioning Truman’s strategy of not carrying the war directly on to Chinese territory.

John Kennedy rejected the advice of his generals to attack Soviet missile sites in Cuba during that crisis and opted instead to negotiate back from the brink of nuclear war.

Perhaps our greatest president – and greatest military strategist in the White House – Abraham Lincoln, experimented with general after general until finding one he could trust. In hindsight, Lincoln gave too much deference early in the Civil War to the views of his generals, particularly the disastrous George McClellan.

When McClellan hatched his ill-considered plan to capture Richmond by moving the Union Army up the Yorktown peninsula in 1862, Lincoln knew that McClellan was pursuing the wrong objective. His real aim should have been to engage and destroy the Confederate Army, but Lincoln, still an unsure commander-in-chief, reluctantly gave into McClellan’s strategy. The outcome was a series of bloody Union defeats and eventual retreat. Lincoln should have overruled his general, but he did gain confidence in his own judgment and worked hard to avoid future mistakes.

Lyndon Johnson also did not overrule his advisers. One wonders how history would be different had LBJ trusted his instincts and resisted the military and political pressure he felt to escalate the Vietnam conflict.

Johnson was captured on tape worrying out loud about his Vietnam decision: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. And it’s just the biggest damned mess that I ever saw.”

Obama’s decision about Afghanistan, just like George W. Bush’s decision to go into Iraq or LBJ’s into Vietnam, will determine the future direction of his presidency. Of course, Obama must – as FDR, Truman and JFK did, consider the full and frank views of his military advisers. They are the experts and their views deserve great deference. However, our history shows that the generals aren’t always right.

As another president famously said, Obama is the decider. We don’t remember that Generals Marshall and Eisenhower were wrong about North Africa, we do remember that Lyndon Johnson’s presidency died along with tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia.

Such decisions are how young presidents become old men.

Dithering or a Strategy?

A Lesson from History

Within the stark building that houses the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa – perhaps the most anti-war war museum I’ve ever visited – is a relatively small exhibit devoted to one of the greatest blunders of the Second World War – the 6,000 man raid on the French port city of Dieppe in 1942.

Canadian bravery on the beaches of Dieppe is celebrated in the exhibit, not so the nearly criminal decision making that brought about the disaster.

As the photo nearby gruesomely explains, the Dieppe Raid – poorly conceived, horribly lacking from a strategy and planning perspective, and in no way adequately supported by naval and air forces – cost the lives of more than 1,000 brave Canadian infantrymen and British Marines in the space of a few short hours. Another 2,300 men were captured on the beaches in front of Dieppe and hundreds more of the wounded were evacuated back to England. The then-new British tank, the Churchill, saw action for the first time at Dieppe and most of the armor was left burning and destroyed as the survivors fought desperately to shed their weapons, get back to landing craft and escape across the English Channel.

In the annals of historic military disasters, Dieppe ranks high – or, perhaps, low.

What didn’t go wrong at Dieppe was the bravery of the mostly Canadian troops who went ashore at first light on the 19th of August. What did go wrong was the planning, larded with hubris, that marked virtually every step on the way to the death of so many of those brave men. No historian of the Raid has ever questioned the courage and resolve of the Canadians and to this day Dieppe conjures up a particularly melancholy memory among those who remember the sacrifice. Those who conceived and ordered the Raid have, in the fullness of time, been found wanting at every turn.

As historian Robin Neillands has written in his story of the raid: “If common sense had ruled the day rather than hubris,the Raid would either have been cancelled or the plans drastically revised. It was not one of those operations that begin well and then deteriorate. It failed from the very first moment the troops stepped ashore and got worse thereafter.”

Only later, as Neillands points out, was the Dieppe adventure justified – by Lord Louis Mountbatten, among others – as a trial run for the Normandy invasion in 1944. In none of the pre-Raid discussions had that rationale ever emerged as a reason for landing at Dieppe. Only later did it also become clear that virtually all of the assumptions made by the planners of the Raid were wrong. They underestimated German military strength and capability. They casually rejected what turned out to be the absolute necessity of naval and air support for the landings. And, amazingly, very senior British and Canadian military men and their civilian bosses dismissed the complexity of getting men and equipment both on and off a beach, under intense enemy fire, and all in the space of one high tide.

What was fundamentally wrong at Dieppe – and to draw the historical parallel to the current debate about the next steps in Afghanistan – was a sound, achievable objective. The Raid had no real purpose. At a time when British troops had suffered setback after setback, and before American GI’s were engaged in combat anywhere, the Raid would apparently prove that offensive action against the German Army was possible. As a result, the effort to put Allied troops on a French beach took on a life – and death – of its own as political and military leaders made the worst possible mistakes. They assumed that in war the best will happened and they planned for the obvious, not the possible. In the end, the planners of the Dieppe Raid failed, at any point, to stop, question, assess and ask the awkward question – including the most basic question – what are we trying to accomplish?

It is difficult to tell from the news coverage of the current Afghanistan strategy review – coverage heavily influenced by political calculations from the White House, the Congress and the last administration, particularly Dick Cheney – what is really being considered. Is our Afghan mission to destroy Al-Qaeda (and capture or kill the elusive Bin Laden), are we trying to defeat the Taliban, are we trying to prop up and then reform a corrupt Afghan regime, or are we trying to bring a 21st Century democracy to a tribal nation that, by most accounts, has never had a stable central government?

Not unlike the questions that should have confronted those who conceived the Raid on Dieppe in 1942, the questions in Washington today are simple to ask, but very hard to answer: What are we trying to accomplish and what must be done to realistically achieve success?

None of this is to question the bravery or commitment of the soldiers, airmen and Marines deployed – and likely deployed in the future – to Afghanistan. The troops will try to do whatever is asked of them without question. Leaders must have the wisdom and cold-eyed clarity to ask them to achieve objectives that really are possible and not based on fuzzy strategy or mere wishful thinking.

The great military historian B.H. Liddell Hart once wrote: “Throwing good money after bad is foolish. But to throw away men’s lives where there is no reasonable chance of advantage is criminal.”

With due respect to the former vice president, trying to get a strategy right is hardly dithering. In fact, it is altogether fitting and proper to question, debate and analyze before committing men and women to battle, or continuing battle. If there is any enduring lesson from the last half century of American military deployments it must be that asking and answering the “what are we really trying to do” question is essential.

After the Dieppe Raid had come to a disastrous end after just a few hours on the killing ground of that narrow French beach, a German interrogator said to one of the Canadian prisoners: “Too big for a raid, too small for an invasion…what were you trying to do?”

That is a very good question – always – when American troops are sent to war. What are we trying to do? A little dithering (or thinking) in the interest of developing a real strategy – a strategy with a chance to realistically succeed – can be a very good thing. Let’s hope we get it right.