The remonstrations of history are rarely heeded in moments of mass hysteria, and the current frenzy to punish Russia for “stealing” the election from Hillary Clinton is no exception.
While it’s nice to see the Party of Alger Hiss finally take America’s side in a conflict with Russia, the Democrats’ new bellicosity seems a bit cynical. As Ann Coulter mused, it would have been nice to have “this fighting spirit about 50 years ago when the Soviet Union sought total world domination and Stalin’s spies were crawling through the U.S. government.” But, hey, I’m old enough to remember when Democrats believed the greatest threat to world peace was “climate change.” At least now they’re not tilting at windmills!
But before these new Cold Warriors and their neocon fellow travelers lead us into a crusade based on an FBI report about a computer server the bureau never got to inspect, perhaps we should consider the track record of U.S. intelligence in times of war.
It’s worth asking: Do the experts the establishment relies on—people like communist-turned-CIA-director John Brennan—actually know what they’re doing? How much can we trust the War Party’s judgment?
My point here is not to impugn the honor of the United States or our military heroes—many of whom died in wars following erroneous judgments—nor is it to necessarily accuse our intelligence officials of bad faith. The lesson here is that intelligence gathering and evaluating is a difficult and imperfect task. We should be humble and judicious in using it when lives are at stake. As Aesop said, measure twice, cut once.
The following is a (partial) chronological list of U.S. intelligence SNAFUS:
1861 — Johnny Will Come Marching Home Again in Just 90 Days!
At the onset of the Civil War, the Union’s civilian and military leadership expected the entire conflict to be over in roughly three months. As historian Ernest B. Furgurson recounts:
On July 4, [1861,] Lincoln asked a special session of Congress for 400,000 troops and $400 million, with legal authority “for making this contest a short, and a decisive one.” He expressed not only the hope, but also the expectation of most officials in Washington. Many of the militia outfits rolling in from the North had signed on in April for just 90 days, assuming they could deal with the uppity Rebels in short order. Day after day, a headline in the New York Tribune blared, “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond!” a cry that echoed in all corners of the North.
The first battle soon put an end to those sentiments, and one anecdote from that day perfectly illustrates the failure of the political class in Washington, DC, to grasp the magnitude of the conflict. During the First Battle of Bull Run, “[s]warms of civilians rushed out from the capital in a party mood, bringing picnic baskets and champagne, expecting to cheer the boys on their way.” The revelers would eventually flee the field in panic as the battle turned bloody. One New York Congressman barely escaped with his life. When the dust settled on July 21, 1861, there were 4,700 casualties and four long years of war ahead.
But while the Union’s civilian leadership under-estimated the challenge, its military intelligence famously over-estimated it.
In November 1861, President Lincoln appointed George B. McClellan as commanding general of the Union forces. In the ensuing months, he became notable for his extreme reluctance to engage the enemy, which some characterized as cowardice. But as a very partial defense of McClellan, it should be noted that he was advised by his spies that Confederate general Robert E. Lee had 100,000 troops. In fact, Lee had just 54,000 men.
And that was just one of many mis-estimates during the conflict. As the CIA says in its own history, “The intelligence officer who has a due regard for his own morale will do well to pass over the history of the American Civil War.”
1898 — “Remember the Maine” … Which Wasn’t Blown Up by Spain
On February 15, 1898, the American warship the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, leaving 260 Navy men dead and sparking outrage back home. At the time, Cuba was a Spanish colony, and so the immediate verdict was that the dastardly Spaniards had destroy our naval vessel using a mine or torpedo.
“Remember the Maine!” was Uncle Sam’s rallying cry, as President McKinley launched the Spanish-American War.
The war against Spain was brief and victorious. However, the subsequent counter-insurgency to put down the insurrectos in the former Spanish colony of the Philippines—which was ceded to the United States by Spain—lasted for years and cost 10 times as many American lives as the original war with Spain, as well as the lives of some 200,000 Filipinos.
Much later, in 1974, a definitive investigation found that the cause of the USS Maine explosion was coal dust inside the ship. Spain had nothing to do with it. Oops.
1941 — The Infamy of a Sneak Attack We Should Have Seen Coming
Knowing that the Imperial Japanese were up to no good, the Australians, our close allies, broke the Japanese military code in 1939—two years before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941, the date that will live in infamy, we had plenty of access to Japanese thinking. In fact, three days before the sneak attack, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence issued a 26-page memo focusing in on Japanese surveillance of Hawaii.
Yet as we all know, American forces were completely unprepared at Pearl Harbor, and 2,355 Americans died. Ironically, the lesson seems to be that the U.S. had too many intelligence reports, and we couldn’t sort out the better ones from the worse ones. We had indications that the Japanese might attack American forces all over the Pacific, but we just couldn’t figure out which forces were in danger. To use the intelligence parlance, our analysts couldn’t separate the “signal” from the “noise.”
1957 — Mind the Missile Gap
In 1957, a blue-chip Pentagon advisory panel, the Gaither Committee, concluded that the Soviet Union had ten intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), whereas the U.S. had none.
Senator John F. Kennedy, gearing up to run for president as a hawkish Cold Warrior, coined the term “missile gap” to described the supposed U.S. deficit. In the meantime, the number of alleged Russian missiles grew, from 10, to 100, to 500. But we would later learn that the actual number of Soviet ICBMs was four, and that included prototypes of unknown effectiveness.
Interestingly, two decades later, in the mid-1970s, another “missile gap” was “discovered.” And once again, reports of Red military muscle proved to be greatly exaggerated.
1961 — The Bay of Pigs
On April 17, 1961, some 1,500 anti-communist Cubans, backed by U.S. logistics and airpower, landed at the Bay of Pigs in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, hoping to liberate the island. The mission was a catastrophic failure. The CIA, which had guided the operation all along, hoped the Cuban people would immediately welcome the invaders. Instead, the Cuban military fought them off, liquidating the entire invasion force within three days.
The courage of the anti-communist Cubans can’t be questioned. However, the wisdom of the CIA’s mission and planning is very much to be questioned.
For instance, one of the enduring controversies of the Bay of Pigs operation is whether or not President John F. Kennedy ignored or reneged on a promise to supply sufficient air support for the Free Cubans. Critics argue that JFK got cold feet toward the end, thus dooming the mission. If so, that’s a reminder that intelligence must always be accompanied by sound leadership.
1968 — The Holiday from Hell
On January 30, 1968, during the Tet holiday in Vietnam, American forces were taken by surprise when the communist forces of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army (as a practical matter, the two forces were one and the same, both directed from Hanoi) attacked all across South Vietnam. The enemy even fought his way inside the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
The Americans and their South Vietnamese allies ultimately prevailed, but the fact remained that the U.S. was taken by surprise. We had badly underestimated the communists’ ability to launch such a wide-ranging offensive.
In fact, the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, declared just two weeks before Tet, “The past year has been one of sustained and unremitting effort and I believe has seen enough achievements to give us every encouragement to continue along the present lines.” Continuing in that happy-talking vein, Bunker added,“[The enemy] has been thwarted in his attempts at penetration south of the DMZ.”
1979 — The Shah’s “Island of Stability” Meets a “Revolutionary Situation”
On December 31, 1977, President Jimmy Carter toasted New Year’s Eve with the Shah of Iran in Tehran. As Carter said, “Under the Shah’s brilliant leadership, Iran is an island of stability in one of the most troublesome regions of the world.”
In August 1978, the CIA declared, “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.”
In February 1979, the Shah fled Iran, as Iranian revolutionaries led by the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Oops.
1998 — A “Colossal Failure” of Nuclear Proportions
The whole theory of arms control—including the disastrous “deal” with Iran that President Trump wisely terminated—is that it’s possible for an external observer to know what a country is doing with its nuclear capabilities.
However, on May 11, 1998, the U.S. government was caught flat-footed. We had no idea that India was about to set off their first nuclear device. The New York Times headline put it best: “U.S. Blundered On Intelligence, Officials Admit.” The paper quoted the then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, decrying “a colossal failure of our nation’s intelligence gathering.”
1998 — Bill Clinton’s Aspirins of Mass Destruction
On August 20, 1998, in response to Al Qaeda attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike to destroy what his administration believed was a factory for making weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Khartoum, Sudan.
As we know, the threat from Al Qaeda was deadly real, and this wasn’t the last bad call we’d make in regard to Bin Laden’s terrorists.
September 11, 2001 — The “Shock” That “Should Not Have Come as a Surprise”
Hundreds of books, reports, and monographs have been published about the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, “The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.”
The Commission painted a scenario reminiscent of the challenges confronting the U.S. prior to Pearl Harbor: “The combination of an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this new challenge.” In other words, they had more noise than signal.
And yet even so, despite these difficulties, the intel community managed to get this extremely direct warning into the President’s Daily Brief on August 6, 2001: “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” The briefing even included a warning about “suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.”
As we know, the Bush administration wasn’t ready on 9/11. As the 9/11 Commission Report showed, we had all the pieces to the puzzle before us, including warnings that Bin Laden’s followers might be training at U.S. flight schools and that Al Qaeda was fixated on bringing down the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
Thus another harsh lesson: We can have good intelligence reports, but if we have bad intelligence in our leaders, it’s all for naught.
2003 — The Difference Between Yellowcake and a Cakewalk
We’re all familiar with the multiple intelligence failures of Iraq, but we can pause over three.
First, we were told that Saddam Hussein had WMD. Yes, for sure, he was an evil man, but he was no threat to the United States. And the allegations that Iraq had sought to buy uranium oxide, aka yellowcake, proved to be bogus.
Second, we were told by the Bush-Cheney administration that U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators.” The invasion would be, as one giddy neocon put it, a “cakewalk.” Yeah, not quite. In fact, U.S. fatalities in that conflict have totaled nearly 4,500, with another 32,000 injured.
Third, we were told by President Bush, backed up by his neocon brainiacs, that Operation Iraqi Freedom would touch off a wave of democratization across the Middle East. Instead, it touched off a wave of civil wars and a genocidal ethnic cleansing of ancient Christian communities, such that there are barely any Christians left in the region that gave birth to Christianity.
I could go on. I could write ten volumes on the intelligence mistakes of Hillary Clinton alone—she who voted for the Iraq War, was eager to “liberate” Libya, and left our ambassador defenseless in Benghazi.
Or I could write about Sen. John McCain—who also voted for the Iraq War, cheer-led every dumb move in Libya, and has supported every other vainglorious exercise in intervention, from the former Soviet republic of Georgia to Syria. He never met a foreign conflict he didn’t want to send Americans to die in.
But even after all these blunders, there are plenty of Hillary and McCain wannabes in Washington, and they can’t wait to make the exact same mistakes all over again.
Follow Rebecca Mansour on Twitter @RAMansour.