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GUEST COLUMN: Maybe we're not as intelligent as we think

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U.S. military forces left Afghanistan last month, after 42 years of operations, accomplishing little. On the way out, our intelligence operatives sent a drone missile into a vehicle driven by a 15-year employee of a California-based aid group. The vehicle contained seven children, three adults and large containers of water. The consensus is that the 10 who were killed were innocent. Somebody acted on bad intelligence.

The reported budget for the National Intelligence Program and the Military Intelligence Program was $85.8 billion in 2020 and has been over $70 billion since 2007. I don’t know if this includes classified intelligence budget. Do the intelligence services deliver reliable, timely information to protect our lives and national interests? Here are some considerations:

  • The chief of staff testified last month that no one expected the Afghanistan government would collapse so soon.
  • Did our national intelligence services miss the virtual attacks upon our 2016/2020 elections and the Colonial pipeline?
  • Did anyone tell Ambassador Chris Smith that he was in great danger from violent forces when he planned his visit to Benghazi?
  • Did anyone tell President George H.W. Bush that Saddam Hussein’s forces were massed to invade Kuwait?
  • Who misinformed President G.W. Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction?
  • Could no one put together the puzzle pieces of preparations in the United States and abroad for the 9/11 attacks?
  • Could no one predict the taking of hostages in Iran?
  • Did no one predict the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which precipitated our defeat there?
  • Did anyone predict the invasion of South Korea by masses of Chinese and North Korean soldiers?
  • Did anyone predict the attack by Japan upon Pearl Harbor?

Each of these operations required complex planning and public action by many people and agencies. Secret attacks like these can be foiled by US spy work. At least, that legend is spun every year to gain approval of huge budgets, with little oversight and less evaluation/audit. The results since 1940 have been meager.

The Salafi-jihadi movement spawned in Saudi Arabia and morphed into al-Qaida and ISIS. The rulers of Saudi Arabia encourage Salafi funding of schools and mosques around the world. Did we know the Saudi Salafi agenda, manifest in the actions of Osama bin Laden? If so, why did we not make this an issue in our diplomacy with Saudi Arabia? If not, how could we miss this point after embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed? To uncover such plotting, it is necessary to have effective human intelligence networks. It is one thing to have global surveillance, intercepting communications around the world and the ability to kill a carload of people in a remote place. But it is more important to know why people are doing what they are doing. We need people in place with competency in world languages, cultures, belief systems and histories. We are not doing this so well these days. From my 52 years of international experience, I have a few observations.

We overspend on military activity around the world. For example, over 170,000 Afghans died from hostilities in the last 20 years. People around the world hold us responsible for this violence. We need to spend more on human needs of education, roads, communications and primary health care in countries like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and even here in the US).

A liberal arts college graduate acquaintance of mine, on his own initiative and dollar, became fluent in French, Classical Arabic, North African Arabic and is competent in Chinese. This person is an ideal employee for diplomacy and human intelligence work, but has not been able to even get an interview. We need people like this working to understand and interpret this complex world.

In one country, in five years, the U.S. had three different ambassadors and three intelligence chiefs. Can rapid turnover of key personnel produce results in diplomacy and intelligence? In a new country, in year one, I learned; in year two, I became effective with improved language skills and cross-cultural knowledge, and; from year three, I could advance our national interests and succeed in negotiations. Tours of duty of at least three years for intelligence, diplomatic and military personnel should be the rule. We had at least eight commanding U.S. military officers in Afghanistan since 2008. Longer tours of duty promote cross-cultural understanding and language competency. I seriously doubt that any U.S. commanding officer in Afghanistan had competency in Dari or Pashtu, the main languages. To succeed in the long game of international politics, we need military, diplomatic and intelligence officers with cross-cultural experience and language capabilities.

David Fredrick of Waverly is a retired diplomat and college employee.



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