That the United States’ intention to confront Russia over Ukraine, a place where it has no real interests, borders on the incomprehensible has been clearly demonstrated by both Scott McConnell and Daniel Larison. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer has also described in some detail how the dangerous confrontation is largely the fault of Washington and its European allies, most notably because of the thoughtless expansion of NATO that genuinely threatened Russia. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, whose county would be the front line in any armed conflict, has warned that arming Ukraine might reignite the cold war and possibly even lead to a nuclear exchange.
Particularly at times when security-based policies appear to make no sense, as a former intelligence officer I am often asked how the people who work for the State Department, CIA, and DIA feel about such developments. It is a difficult question to answer as there is no such thing as a monolithic viewpoint in any of the organizations in question. On one hand, dealing with crises in international relations in one form or another is the raison d’etre of the various bureaucracies, so many are attracted by the challenge. But on the other hand, the highly educated and experienced cadres that do the yeomen’s work in each organization are not immune to concerns about where the United States is heading in its pursuit of “terrorists” and “rogue states” worldwide.
A basic understanding of how big bureaucracies operate is essential. Very few individuals in any large government bureaucracy are actually involved in what one might describe as policy issues. This is why insiders refer to places like the “seventh floor” at CIA and State or the E-Ring at the Pentagon, because that is where the movers and shakers have their offices. They are the public faces of their organizations and everyone else is little more than supporting cast. Indeed, many of those on the top executive level have little in common with the other employees at all, as they are themselves political appointees, designated to provide largely uncritical support for the policies being promoted by the White House even when the institutions they head are dubious.
That means that the Chuck Hagels, John Kerrys, and John Brennans of this world probably are only dimly aware of what is occurring on the lower floors of their own buildings. Confronting Russia appears to be popular in both Congress and the media, so it is a no-brainer to crank it up with midterm elections looming, particularly as it also averts attention from the failure of policy on the Israel-Palestine problem. Bombing ISIS is a similarly appealing substitute for having a real policy that will bring real results, and even though it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan, the White House and its accompanying chorus of cabinet secretaries and intelligence directors can feel comfortable singing from the same sheet of music and promising that everything will turn out well someday. It might actually be that the cabinet truly believes in what it is peddling, but that is a thought too frightening to contemplate.
But not everyone agrees with their bosses. Indeed, I know of no former or current intelligence official who believes that the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe was a good idea, that toppling Bashar al-Assad would bring anything but chaos, or that bombing ISIS will actually accomplish anything. Given the current national security environment, I think I can state with some certainty that a solid majority of lower and mid-level employees would regard the administration responses to the ongoing series of crises, including both Ukraine and ISIS, as poorly conceived and executed. In the case of Ukraine the judgment would be somewhat stronger than that, bordering on perceptions that what we are experiencing is an abuse of the intelligence process to serve a political agenda, that the Cold War-style tension is both unnecessary and contrived. Many regard the dubious intelligence that has been produced to implicate Moscow in Crimean developments as both cherry picked and unreliable.
Within the intelligence community memories of Iraq and the prefabricated judgments made regarding Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas last year are still fresh among both analysts and information collectors, requiring the political leadership to make its case unambiguously. Intelligence work makes one naturally cynical but the rank and file are now becoming generally suspicious of and even hostile to what is going on.
I have some confidence in my assessment suggesting general unease among intelligence professionals because, as a former spook, I have inevitably fallen in with a crowd of ex-intel and military types who in turn have networks among their former colleagues, some of whom are still employed in the intelligence and national security bureaucracies. We exchange information and viewpoints on a regular basis. One thing we all understand instinctively is that nothing being asserted by any government is ever quite as it seems, and intelligence can be a dodgy business depending on who is pushing the buttons to make a palatable product come out at the other end.
And the mindset of former officers is today quite different than it was in 2003, when 9/11 was still more-or-less fresh, Afghanistan had not yet started to crater, and most people working at CIA and DIA were willing to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, even if there was widespread concern that the intelligence being produced to attack Saddam Hussein was a bit on the thin side. But having watched Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya crash and burn while being scapegoated numerous times by both Republicans and Democrats in the White House, many intelligence professionals are no longer willing to play follow the leader.
To be sure there are many in the national security community who continue to believe that destroying terrorism justifies massive global devastation, and that the Russians will be marching into Finland if they are not stopped at Sevastopol. But those numbers are surely diminishing as people examine the results of 13 years of trying to make Manichean solutions work in an increasingly complex world.
So the short answer to whether those engaged at the working level in national security actually believe what their bosses are saying is, “Probably not.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.