“Intelligence,” both in the national security as well as the ordinary sense of the term, is limited by the culture from whence it stems. Dana Priest’s and William Arkin’s Washington Post account of chaos in the American intelligence community, “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” has prompted a round of finger-wagging at both the Bush and Obama administrations. But the glaring problems in America’s intelligence services stem from an underlying failing in American culture, exacerbated by massive over-resourcing and duplication of effort in response to 9/11.
According to Priest and Arkin, “The overload of hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and annual reports is actually counterproductive, say people who receive them. Some policymakers and senior officials don’t dare delve into the backup clogging their computers. They rely instead on personal briefers, and those briefers usually rely on their own agency’s analysis, re-creating the very problem identified as a main cause of the failure to thwart the attacks: a lack of information-sharing.” They report:
Among the most important people inside the [intelligence installations] are the low-paid employees carrying their lunches to work to save money. They are the analysts, the 20- and 30-year-olds making $41,000 to $65,000 a year, whose job is at the core of everything Top Secret America tries to do.
At its best, analysis melds cultural understanding with snippets of conversations, coded dialogue, anonymous tips, even scraps of trash, turning them into clues that lead to individuals and groups trying to harm the United States.
Their work is greatly enhanced by computers that sort through and categorize data. But in the end, analysis requires human judgment, and half the analysts are relatively inexperienced, having been hired in the past several years, said a senior ODNI official. Contract analysts are often straight out of college and trained at corporate headquarters.
But where is the intelligence community likely to find personnel qualified for foreign intelligence? A rough but useful gauge is the number of university students studying the languages terrorists typically speak.
According to the Modern Language Association’s 2006 survey of instruction in foreign languages, American universities enrolled only 2,463 students in Arabic at the advanced level. Of those “advanced” students, perhaps one in ten would become expert. Apart from immigrants, whom intelligence agencies employ only with great caution, the prospective hiring pool of advanced students in Arabic is measured in the hundreds.
In other languages of special interest to counterterrorism, the MLA reports the following number of students (but does not tell us how many are “advanced”): 0 Albanian, 94 Bengali, 243 Farsi, 301 Indonesian, 5 Kurdish, 5 Malay, 103 Pashto, 4 Somali, 624 Turkish, 344 Urdu.
One simply can’t find Americans to process foreign intelligence in Middle Eastern languages, much less infiltrate hostile groups. Israel, by contrast, has more Arabic speakers than it requires. An Israeli friend who served in the intelligence corps as a translator of electronic eavesdrops of Egyptians (he once transcribed an Egyptian general engaged in telephone sex with his mistress) was relieved of his last decade of reserve duty, because the army had a surfeit of language experts.
As I wrote seven years ago in another Spengler essay, America may have the lowest-quality intelligence service of any great power in history in linguistic and cultural capacity. Why don’t more Americans learn foreign languages why do the children of immigrants forget the languages they already know? At German festivals in Wisconsin with lederhosen-wearing brass bands, Weissbier and bratwurst, no one can form a single German sentence. Italian-Americans march through the streets to celebrate Columbus’ birthday without knowing more than a few obscenities in a southern dialect.
The reason is that these people came to America precisely in order to shed their culture—more precisely, to flee the tragic destiny of their cultures. The poor and the rebels Immigrated to America. 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 people had—with a few exceptions like the German political exiles of 1848—little stake in their own cultures and no connection to the high culture of the countries they abandoned. What did the Irish immigrants care for Shakespeare, or Russian-Jewish immigrants for Tolstoy? They shed their old culture almost as fast as their traveling-clothes.
By contrast, as John Keegan reported in his book Intelligence in War, no more than 3,000 regular British officers controlled India under the British Empire. They could do so with so few because they spoke local languages, often wore native dress, and knew the culture of the native troops they commanded.
As I noted in a “Spengler” essay, the British Raj depended on soldier-adventurers like Richard Burton., Traveling South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and even the American West, he learned twenty-five languages and fifteen dialects, and his translations of Arabic and Sanskrit classics remain in print. He passed for a Sindh on the Northwest Frontier and for a Haji in Mecca. T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) earned a first in Medieval Studies at Oxford and spent years in archaeological excavations in Syria before serving as an English agent in World War I.
Ten thousand cubicle-dwellers with a master’s degree in international relations won’t produce the results of a single Lawrence or Burton. As a result of this failing in American culture, the 850,000 Americans with top security clearances keep busy shuffling intelligence reports provided by foreign governments, already translated into English.
The problem is, as I say, exacerbated by the massive over-resourcing and duplication of effort in response to 9/11. Under great pressure to do something after 9/11, the Bush administration threw unlimited resources at the problem, and the Obama administration is doing the same. The result brings to mind the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, where the French lost 7,000 to 10,000 men, the English 112. The French literally tripped over each other.
According to the now-standard account, English archers did not directly cause most of the casualties. Instead, the chaotic French response entrapped the superior French forces in a sea of mud and left armored French knights the prey of common soldiers with knives. Military historians write about the “jostling effect” of undisciplined French cavalry attempting to charge through a limited space at the same time.
America is fighting a sort of Agincourt, but from the French side, and with similar results. A similar “jostling effect” arises from the interaction of 850,000 government personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances and their staff, producing tens of thousands of “briefings” per day. If a hostile power wanted to confuse and distract the American military, it could not do better than to flood American policymakers with irrelevant and confusing data.
The signal-to-noise ratio is so low that information of value is irretrievable. Of course, different branches of the military respond to the problem by creating their own intelligence services outside of the normal channels.
The French catastrophe at Agincourt arose from a cultural flaw. The historian C.W.C. Oman wrote that French armies of the period were “composed of a fiery and undisciplined aristocracy that imagined itself to be the most efficient military force in the world, but was in reality little removed from an armed mob.” The French aristocracy never dared put weapons that could kill armored knights into the hands of peasants; English yeomen, meanwhile, mastered the longbow.
The Obama administration has made matters worse, though, in an important way. American intelligence had major weaknesses during the Cold War, but managed some important victories through defectors. Many defectors from the former Soviet bloc were horrified by what Communism had done and joined the American side for moral reasons. This was particularly true when the Reagan administration restored America’s economic position and world standing.
By analogy, radical Islam has attracted many highly-educated Muslims who live in the West, and they are the most dangerous among the potential terrorists. But these Muslims are vulnerable to the message that Western freedom is superior to the blind and brutal submission of radical Islam’s death-culture. The Reagan administration’s bold denunciation of an “evil empire” in the Soviet bloc was echoed in the Bush administration’s characterization of an “axis of evil.”
President Obama’s un-exceptionalism—for him, “American exceptionalism” is the same as “Greek exceptionalism”—makes bringing in defectors much harder. In the absence of defectors, America must rely on other intelligence services for language skills and at present it relies on less-than-friendly ones to a disturbing extent.
Israel always has been an important collaborator with American intelligence, and one presumes that India, with its enormous linguistic and cultural resources, might become one as well. Our cultural failings leaves us no choice but to rely on others, but we must be careful to choose on whom we will rely. The “Augustinian realism” that I advocated in “The Morality of Self-Interest” in the June-July issue would seek alliances of principle that would ameliorate the deficiencies of American intelligence.
David P. Goldman is a senior editor of First Things.
Priest and Arkin’s "A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control"
The Modern Language Association’s "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English" (Fall 2006)
Spengler’s "Do you call that an empire?"
Spengler’s "Why America is losing the intelligence war"
David P. Goldman’s "The Morality of Self-Interest" (Available only to subscribers)