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CIA’s Deadly Cultural Ignorance

Fear of officers "going native" keeps our intelligence agencies ill-informed about Somalia, Syria, and other trouble spots.
somali refugees

When the British ran an empire they did it the right way, if one is into imperial management. They created an entire bureaucracy, the Colonial Service, which was manned by officers who were expected to go out to foreign posts for extended periods, to learn the local language, and to acquire an understanding of the indigenous culture. The knowledge gained was invaluable, enabling John Bull to skillfully manage a polyglot empire upon which the sun never set. Understanding the interplay of local ethnicities enabled London to play off one group against another, often empowering a minority which would remain loyal to the crown because to do otherwise would be suicidal. The formula worked in places like Iraq, where the minority Sunnis, initially propped up by Britannia, held sway over the more numerous Shi’ites until the Baath regime was toppled by U.S. forces in 2003.

Washington, failing to understand the formula, moved quickly in Iraq to disband all vestiges of Sunni hegemony and sought to impose democracy. Ethnic cleansing of the Sunni in Baghdad followed, the disempowered Sunni not surprisingly rose in revolt, the Kurdish region exploited the power vacuum to obtain de facto autonomy and start its own ethnic cleansing program, and al-Qaeda entered the country. Today, terrorist bombings occur nearly every day, killing scores of Iraqis, and while it would be a stretch to call the situation a civil war, the deep divisions in the country suggest that all-out conflict along sectarian lines might well be the next stage. U.S. forces were compelled to leave at the end of 2011, their legacy consisting of a ruined Iraqi infrastructure, a huge war debt, 4,500 dead Americans, and scores or even hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. Politically, Baghdad continues to move ever closer to neighboring Iran, underlining a complete policy failure for Washington.

Washington’s inability to generate a modicum of stability in the places that it has come to dominate militarily is characteristic of the delusional nature of the American imperial experience itself. Even as early as the conquest of the Philippines and Cuba, Washington claimed that it was delivering liberty, not seeking to acquire colonies. As many as one million Filipinos died as the United States imposed its freedom agenda, which included the use of the water cure, today referred to as waterboarding.

American missteps are deeply rooted in hubris and ignorance, compounded by the reality of a series of U.S. presidents who did not rise through any genuine cursus honorum and instead have had to learn how to conduct foreign policy through on-the-job training. When Clintons, Bushes and Obamas win the Oval Office they tend to reward loyal supporters with important positions relating to national security which they are in no way prepared for. How else to explain the amateurism bordering on cluelessness evident in Bill Clinton’s appointment of trade attorney Sandy Berger as his National Security Adviser, the Bush White House’s Scooter Libby, and Obama’s Thomas Donilon?

So where are the American counterparts of the British Colonial Service expatriates who, convinced of the superiority of their imperial mission, dedicated their lives to the colonies they administered?

They do indeed exist in the form of U.S. born employees of charities, religious groups, and other transnational organizations committed to working in the world’s forgotten regions, but they are largely absent from government. Organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees “going native,” rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures. CIA has long had an endemic problem in training its officers in foreign languages up to basic proficiency levels, partly due to the not unreasonable perception that in 18 months to two years, one might well find oneself in another country confronting yet another foreign language. Senior Agency officers, who are disproportionately minimally language capable, generally excuse themselves by arguing “an op is an op is an op,” meaning that spying is not culture specific. They are wrong. Not “going native” means that the United States government relies on a recurring cycle of foreign and intelligence officers who arrive ignorant and leave just as they are starting to figure things out.

Pakistani Dr. Shakil Afridi, who was involved in the search for bin Laden, reported that his CIA case officers would change every few months. None of his contacts spoke local languages, and meetings consisted of his being searched and stuffed behind the front seat of an SUV by two armed security men before being driven to where another car was parked so he could be debriefed by the waiting case officer.

As the inexperienced officers rise in the ranks they ultimately become the advisers to policy makers on the countries they served in, but they are still essentially ignorant, relying on the assessments of others to render their judgments and frequently simplistically substituting threats to use force for diplomacy. In his recent book on the CIA’s secret wars, Mark Mazzetti describes how ignorance of local traditions and conditions works out in practice.

In the 1990s the United States became concerned about the appearance of Islamic radicals in Somalia. The threat was insignificant before the United States got involved. Ignoring the reality that Somalis embrace a Sufi form of Islam which is antithetical to the harsh Salafist version promoted by bearded foreign radicals from Pakistan and Afghanistan, Washington used the CIA to arm and fund local warlords to attack the Islamists. But the Agency-empowered warlords created their own fiefdoms within Mogadishu and also in the countryside, reducing the ability of ordinary Somalis to move about or earn a living, so they then turned to the Islamists, who did indeed drive out the warlords and unify the capital Mogadishu. The next solution from Washington was to encourage an invasion of Somalia from neighboring Ethiopia, which had a long history of antipathy towards the Somalis. The Ethiopians drove out the Islamists, but they also engaged in massacres of civilians, rapes, and looting. They were also Christians. So the U.S. series of responses to a perceived problem that was not really a problem has triggered a 20-year conflagration that remains unresolved.

The pattern was repeated in Libya, where there was nearly complete ignorance in Washington about tribal divisions between the country’s west and east, and the only information regarding the political orientation of the anti-Gaddafi insurgency proved to be inaccurate. And there were inevitable unintended consequences of the action, as weapons from Libyan arsenals made their way south to ignite Mali in central Africa. Is today’s Libya a better place for Libyans and vis-à-vis the international community that has to interact with it? Almost certainly not, and the eruption last year in Benghazi that took the lives of four American officials continues to reverberate and raise questions about what kind of country Libya has become.

Syria is another prime example of American hubris leading to engagement in a conflict in which little is known about the rebels seeking to overthrow the government. Estimates of the number of extremists in the insurgency range from 20 to 80 per cent—and many observers would concede that they are the most effective fighters. Would a rebel-ruled Syria end the bloodshed? No. Would it further destabilize the region? Almost certainly. And no one in the Obama administration is asking what it would mean for the Christian and Alawite minorities in the country, which are protected by the regime and are being blamed by the rebels for their support of al-Assad.

Bureaucratic paranoia arising from universally poor results frequently comes full circle when the institution involved begins to devour itself. I note a recent article in the Washington Post that attracted little attention, “U.S. intelligence agencies spend millions to hunt for insider threats, document shows.” The article, based on an Edward Snowden-leaked document, describes how NSA and CIA are diverting an increasing percentage of their resources to finding employees who are unreliable. At CIA, “among a subset of job seekers whose backgrounds raised questions, one out of five had ‘significant terrorist and/or hostile intelligence connections’.” A related New York Times story describes them as “high-risk, high-gain applicants and contractors.” For those who are already employed, that means frequent security reviews and also monitoring of computer activity to discover “anomalies.”

The CIA subset of potential employees is described in vague terms but is a manifestation of the “going native” phobia. It is referring to possible hires who possess the language skills and cultural awareness that would enable them to operate in areas where most CIA case officers dare not tread, which means they are mostly first- and second-generation Muslim Americans whose views on groups like Hezbollah and Hamas might not exactly coincide with the bullets displayed on Susan Rice’s White House power point presentations. They might see the groups in a more complex way, as resistance movements first and potential terrorists second.

Political vetting is something quite new at the intelligence agencies, where one was normally free and even sometimes encouraged to embrace unconventional viewpoints. This litmus test for complete reliability is part of the ongoing witch hunt to root out those who are disloyal to administration policies and therefore are potential leakers, leaving behind only “yes men.” Those guilty of being potential “insider threats” will be carefully weeded out, and the same record of institutional failure in their countries of origin will continue as the CIA grapples with its self-inflicted inability to run old fashioned HUMINT—“human intelligence”—operations to collect the kind of information that policymakers should have. No one will know what is happening and why and it will all turn out badly.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.