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The Dilemma for Intelligence Agencies

Government intelligence agencies, particularly those in the United States, have a problem. Its nature was spelled out by the retired British diplomat Alastair Crooke in an article entitled “Trump’s 59-Tomahawk Tweet,” appearing 8 April 2017. As the title suggests, Crooke was reacting to President Trump’s precipitous attack on a Syrian government airbase, following the chemical weapons episode of 4 April 2017 at the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Crooke notes that U.S. intelligence had raised doubts as to the Syrian government’s responsibility for the release of poison gas. It seems likely that the Russians had alerted U.S. forces that the Syrian air force was going to attack a rebel warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun that was allegedly full of explosives and weapons. Unbeknownst to the Russians, the Syrians, and the Americans, the warehouse also held a poisonous mix of organic phosphates and chlorine. There is also evidence suggesting that whatever released the poison gas came from an explosive device placed on the ground. Wherever the resulting gas cloud came from, and a Syrian government bomb is certainly not the only possibility, It spread over a local neighborhood and killed a number of exposed residents.

The American mass media nevertheless immediately blamed Damascus for an attack using chemical weapons. Trump, also immediately, believed the mass media. He is, after all, increasingly known as the Fox TV president. Taking his cue from the media, he paid insufficient heed to his own intelligence agencies’ doubts. As a result, as Crooke puts it, “the Tomahawks flew.”

All of this led Crooke to ask “whether Western intelligence agencies still retain an ability to speak-out to power.” Can they still, effectively, convince their governments not to assume that mainstream media information is accurate, but “rather to await careful investigation” before “rushing to judgment” on important issues?

If the answer to Crooke’s questions is No, then what is left of the integrity of the intelligence agencies? Are they now reduced to producing “politicized intelligence assessments” that validate predetermined government policies? Unfortunately, for the United States, this fate appears to threaten the government’s professional intelligence personnel. They seem impotent before a president who has never admitted to a serious mistake in his life – a man who believes that truth is nothing more or less than his own opinion. It might very well be that, facing a crumbling domestic situation produced by his own ill-advised behavior, President Trump sought to recover some credibility by “retaliating” against an alleged crime by Bashar al-Assad.

At least in the short run his maneuver appears to have worked. Trump got an embarrassing amount of positive press following this latest bellicose posturing, and too many editorialists and “talking heads” have asserted that his shooting off 59 Tomahawk missiles (only 39% of which hit their target), and thereby killing yet more Syrians, was a “beautiful” and “presidential” act. These commentators also are not known to admit to being wrong.

Historical Precedents

There are actually many historical precedents for this current dilemma of the intelligence agencies. It stands to reason that every once in a while people whose job it is to analyze world affairs will end up telling their national leaders what they don’t want to hear. And while some politicians can handle this better than others, many can’t handle it at all. Here are some examples of the latter. Documented descriptions of the first two examples can be found in my book America’s Palestine (University Press of Florida, 2001) and a documented description of the third example can be found in my book Foreign Policy Inc. (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

— In 1918 the British War Cabinet, led by David Lloyd George and Alfred Balfour, was in the midst of negotiating what would become known as the Balfour Declaration with the World Zionist Organization (WZO). The British sought the support of world Jewry (which they mistakenly believed the WZO represented) for the Entente war effort in exchange for a British promise to support a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine if in fact the British were victorious.

Specifically, (a) the British believed the WZO could facilitate entrance of the United States into the war through its influence with President Woodrow Wilson. And indeed, American Zionists such as Louis Brandeis did have access to the president. However, Wilson was determined to bring the U.S. into the war quite independently of Zionist wishes. Then, (b) the British were convinced that the WZO could prevent the Russian government (by that time under Soviet control) from leaving the war. This was based on the fact that Leon Trotsky was a Jew. But the British intelligence post at their Petrograd embassy informed the leaders in London that Trotsky was hostile to Zionism, seeing it as a divisive nationalist movement. It is here that intelligence information was ignored by Lloyd George and Balfour in favor of political wishful thinking – their firm, if fallacious, belief in Jewish world power.

— If we move forward to 1947-1948 something similar occurred. This incident involved the U.S. president Harry Truman. Truman had been Vice President when, on 12 April 1945, Franklin Roosevelt died. Succeeding to the presidency in mid-term, he stood for election to that office on his own in 1947. It was a point of pride for him that he win the election, and like Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour thirty years earlier, he was convinced that the Zionists wielded enough influence with American Jews to help him achieve his goal. Now an informal deal was struck. The Zionists would help get Truman elected and Truman would help the Zionists get approval for the division of Palestine by the United Nations and subsequently grant diplomatic recognition to the new state of Israel.

Taking a stand against this arrangement was the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs (NEAA) of the State Department. Those in the NEAA were privy to a range of intelligence sources that Truman knew little of and cared less about. Thus, when members of the division informed Truman that pressure for partition at the United Nations and precipitous diplomatic recognition of Israel would all but destroy U.S. relations with the Muslim world, and thus harm America’s national interests, Truman refused to take this information seriously. Indeed, Clark Clifford, one of Truman’s chief political advisors, told a representative of the NEAA that Harry Truman’s election was the only “national interest” that counted.

— The Zionists have long been a particularly intrusive political lobby throughout much of the West. However, politicians do not need their outside influence to become so fixated that they will ignore their own intelligence services. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 President George W. Bush became convinced that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack. When the American intelligence services told him this was unlikely, he refused to believe them and sought to establish an independent “intelligence” operation in the Pentagon that would tell him what he wanted to hear – a list of alleged Iraqi transgressions that soon included the fallacious claim that Saddam possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” None of Bush’s convictions proved true, yet he launched an invasion of Iraq anyway, killing at least half-a-million Iraqis, destroying the country’s political and social infrastructure, and destabilizing the entire Middle East.

Intelligence agencies have many functions and we know that some of them can be downright criminal. But it can be argued that their main role is the gathering and analysis of information from around the world so that their respective governments can have an accurate idea of what is going on and make decisions accordingly. The suborning of that role almost always leads to very bad decisions.

There seems to be a correlation between this sort of corruption and national leadership that is egocentric, biased and pig-headed. Leaders who either think they know more about foreign matters than the experts (George W. Bush and Donald Trump), or believe that their own religious mythology and racial stereotypes count for more that than the rights of other peoples and nations (Lloyd George and Balfour), or are so consumed by their personal political ambitions (Harry Truman) that they will ignore fact-based intelligence information that complicates those aims.

Of course in the democratic West all such leaders are to some extent reflections of those who voted for them. So keep in mind the old cartoon adage: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

More articles by:

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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