15 July 2005

Is intelligence intelligent?

In response to some of the comments, I'd like to say a few words about intelligence to clarify my assertion that it isn't necessary to have intelligence agencies carrying out secret activities. I believe that intel agencies (and the CIA in particular) are harmful to our interests for the following reasons:

  1. In democracies (or for that matter, in any government), there are always situations in which certain individuals or cliques within the government wish to carry out activities that support their own selfish interests. These individuals and groups normally find it politically costly to do this when such activities are carried out in the open. Covert activities provide an important means of subverting the democratic will.
  2. Covert groups such as the CIA can also work to subvert democratic activities in other countries. Thus we have the CIA in the business of funding parties in foreign elections (in post-Noriega Panama for example), killing candidates, or engaging in smear campaigns. It's hypocritical to strictly forbid foreign interference in U.S. elections while funding the same sort of activities abroad. Especially when the overt justification for American intervention abroad is to "promote democracy."
  3. States are always threatened by the formation of governments within governments. While some might dismiss such concerns as the paranoid fears of conspiracy theorists, there are clear historical precendents demonstrating that such organizations can form. As one example, in the early days of the Soviet Union, we have the will of the people with their democratic soviets subverted through the activities of a small clique led by Lenin. In South Korea, Chun Doo Hwan--prior to the coup that brought him to power--went so far as to form a secret government in which people even had secret ranks. (Where, for example, a lowly Army captain in the Army might be a general within the covert organization.) In the U.S., Nixon famously used intel agencies for his own purposes. And now we have the case of Bush doing so. Unfortunately, we can only talk about unsuccessful instances of intel agencies forming the muscle for secret governments. Successful instances, by definition, will go undetected.
  4. Covert activities aren't necessary. In terms of intelligence, it's possible to collect enough intelligence using open source materials.
  5. Anti-terrorist activities will always be an issue, but it's possible for the police to deal with the occasional terrorist. The strongest safeguard against terrorism is a strong democratic society and covert activities are inimical to such a society.
  6. Secretive activities are extremely ineffecient. There are a couple reasons for this. First, there's the cost of operating in the dark. This cost is one of the reasons cited for the Soviet Union's demise in the face of competition by America's more open society. Second, secrecy provides enormous opportunity for bureaucratic corruption. Right now in D.C., there are massive buildings filled with secretaries making a hundred-grand a year who work next to covert operatives who fly out to Hawaii every other month in order to give a PowerPoint presentation that looks like something plariarized from Wikipedia. The "intelligence" created by a hundred of such people funded through enormous public expenditure could just as easily be gained by funding a single posting for a doctoral student at a university.


fzian said...

1) I could point out that covert activities can also provide important means of defending democratic will but I prefer to point out that we should not ban the usage of knife just because a knife can be a murder weapon.

2) I should point out that not all covert groups subvert democracy.
See argument (1)

3) Not all covert groups subvert intelligence.
See argument (1)

4) It is lucrative to think that open source materials are alone sufficient. Unfortunately, the reality is not such. Large organisations, specialised in such activites prove far more effective than small individual sources. Besides, individual sources may not be consistent and open to populist pressures.

5) I fail to see how would a strong democratic society, alone stand up to terrorism.

6) There is also an associated cost of operating overtly. Overt operations are vulnerable to the volatile reaction of the target.

7) Your argument on the bureaucratic Inefficiencies is valid. However, this would fall under the argument of organisational theory, not intelligence activities per se

Karlo said...

Regarding point 2, what's your reaction to the CIA funding parties in other country's elections. I'm sure the practice is common. I know of one particular instance mentioned in a documentary that I watched on post-Noriega Panama. I'm against this practice and I'm sure that the American people (not to mention the people in the country targeted) would be overwhelmingly against this practice. Yet it seems to continue due to its covert nature-no one really knows what's going on. This example seems to provide incontrovertible proof that standard covert activities, at least in some cases, subvert democracy. In the end, I don't think other forms of covert intervention are all that different. I think at some point on this issue we need to decide as a people whether we want a non-representative form of government (plutocracy, dictatorship, or the like) or a representative democracy. If the former, we can simply trust our leader(s) to do the right thing. If the latter, we don't trust anyone the second they get beyond our field of vision.

fzian said...

Let's put it this way. First of all, I should note the typo in my earlier comment. Ignore the third bullet point.

As I have mentioned earlier, CIA does not represent all available intelligence agencies. It is ridiculous to generalise from the screw-ups of CIA alone.

Also note that CIA's successes itself are difficult to evaluate as failure would obviously attracts more attention than its successes (noting its covert nature).

Karlo said...

Couldn't the same be said of its screw ups?