Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 30, 2007

Bill Keller, Secret Agent

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.

But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.

The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.

Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.

Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.

The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.

The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.

Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.

The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.

Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.

The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.

Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.

Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.

So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.

All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.

To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.

To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.

Read Less

Boot and Hanson, Round Two: Step by Step

Dear Victor,

Though a virtue in interpersonal relations, agreeableness is not necessarily a good thing in an online exchange, where a clash of views is often needed to spark excitement. Yet, at the risk of putting readers to sleep, I have to confess that my reaction upon reading your initial posting was: ditto.

You write that we need not only to increase the number of troops but also to change how they operate. I agree. You stress the need to win a military victory before we can carry out sociopolitical reforms. Here too I agree—and more importantly so does David Galula, author of the classic how-to book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964). One of his primary admonitions: “Which side gives the best protection, which one threatens the most, which one is most likely to win, these are the criteria governing the population’s stand.”

Unfortunately, lack of support for the war effort on the home front makes it ever more difficult to convey the impression to Iraqis that we are the winning side. But at least we can do a better job of protecting civilians and threatening aggressors. A higher troop-to-civilian ratio is a prerequisite for this. But beyond that we need to take other important steps:

• Get troops out of their giant forward operating bases, where they have been sealed off from the population. They need to establish a 24/7 presence in embattled neighborhoods—a strategy successfully carried out in such smaller Iraqi cities as Tal Afar and Qaim.

• Conduct a census of the Iraqi population, starting with Baghdad, then issue biometric ID cards to everyone, and equip security forces with wireless data devices linked to a central registry. Most American police departments have such a setup. But we have been mysteriously remiss in bringing this basic technology to Iraq, making it difficult to identify insurgents.

• Stop the “catch and release” policy which you rightly decry. It is obvious that more violent offenders need to be incarcerated, but it’s not easy to see how to accomplish this goal given the limited resources of the Iraqi legal system and its American military counterpart. Simply arresting a lot more people (the strategy tried by some U.S. units in 2003-04) isn’t the answer, since they may be innocent. We need better intelligence to identify the bad guys; we should impose martial law in order to keep them locked up for the duration of the conflict.

• Increase support for the Iraqi army. We need to dramatically increase the number of U.S. advisers embedded in Iraqi units. (Currently the total is about 4,000; we probably need closer to 20,000.) We also need to provide more armored vehicles and heavier weapons to the Iraqi army while expanding its overall size. The police are so compromised by corruption and sectarian loyalties that it’s not clear they can be at all useful; the army at least shows some promise.

If anyone can pull off the impossible it’s David Petraeus, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up unduly. The best we can hope for in the next year is to get Baghdad to the state it was in back in 2003—hardly ideal but certainly better than today. Then we have to build on that achievement, somehow, to increase longterm stability—all the while avoiding the implosion of our overstretched armed forces and the complete collapse of support on the home front.

Yikes!

Cordially,
MB

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

Dear Victor,

Though a virtue in interpersonal relations, agreeableness is not necessarily a good thing in an online exchange, where a clash of views is often needed to spark excitement. Yet, at the risk of putting readers to sleep, I have to confess that my reaction upon reading your initial posting was: ditto.

You write that we need not only to increase the number of troops but also to change how they operate. I agree. You stress the need to win a military victory before we can carry out sociopolitical reforms. Here too I agree—and more importantly so does David Galula, author of the classic how-to book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964). One of his primary admonitions: “Which side gives the best protection, which one threatens the most, which one is most likely to win, these are the criteria governing the population’s stand.”

Unfortunately, lack of support for the war effort on the home front makes it ever more difficult to convey the impression to Iraqis that we are the winning side. But at least we can do a better job of protecting civilians and threatening aggressors. A higher troop-to-civilian ratio is a prerequisite for this. But beyond that we need to take other important steps:

• Get troops out of their giant forward operating bases, where they have been sealed off from the population. They need to establish a 24/7 presence in embattled neighborhoods—a strategy successfully carried out in such smaller Iraqi cities as Tal Afar and Qaim.

• Conduct a census of the Iraqi population, starting with Baghdad, then issue biometric ID cards to everyone, and equip security forces with wireless data devices linked to a central registry. Most American police departments have such a setup. But we have been mysteriously remiss in bringing this basic technology to Iraq, making it difficult to identify insurgents.

• Stop the “catch and release” policy which you rightly decry. It is obvious that more violent offenders need to be incarcerated, but it’s not easy to see how to accomplish this goal given the limited resources of the Iraqi legal system and its American military counterpart. Simply arresting a lot more people (the strategy tried by some U.S. units in 2003-04) isn’t the answer, since they may be innocent. We need better intelligence to identify the bad guys; we should impose martial law in order to keep them locked up for the duration of the conflict.

• Increase support for the Iraqi army. We need to dramatically increase the number of U.S. advisers embedded in Iraqi units. (Currently the total is about 4,000; we probably need closer to 20,000.) We also need to provide more armored vehicles and heavier weapons to the Iraqi army while expanding its overall size. The police are so compromised by corruption and sectarian loyalties that it’s not clear they can be at all useful; the army at least shows some promise.

If anyone can pull off the impossible it’s David Petraeus, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up unduly. The best we can hope for in the next year is to get Baghdad to the state it was in back in 2003—hardly ideal but certainly better than today. Then we have to build on that achievement, somehow, to increase longterm stability—all the while avoiding the implosion of our overstretched armed forces and the complete collapse of support on the home front.

Yikes!

Cordially,
MB

Boot IHanson IBoot IIHanson IIBoot IIIHanson IIIBoot IVHanson IV

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Clash of Civilizations

Daniel Freedman of It Shines for All has posted a must-watch video of Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes and Douglas Murray, author of Neoconservativism: Why We Need It, taking on London’s pro-Islamist mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone and Birmingham city councillor and anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob in a debate on the clash of Western and Islamic civilization. contentions blogger Daniel Johnson attended the event and covered it for the New York Sun.

Daniel Freedman of It Shines for All has posted a must-watch video of Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes and Douglas Murray, author of Neoconservativism: Why We Need It, taking on London’s pro-Islamist mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone and Birmingham city councillor and anti-war activist Salma Yaqoob in a debate on the clash of Western and Islamic civilization. contentions blogger Daniel Johnson attended the event and covered it for the New York Sun.

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Bookshelf

• It’s been a long time between books for Hilton Kramer, whose last collection was published six years ago and who hasn’t brought out a volume of art criticism since 1985. The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005 (Ivan R. Dee, 368 pp., $27.50) contains 55 essays and reviews, the most substantial of which are a series of pieces dealing with the history of and prospects for abstract art. In between these essays are sandwiched a goodly number of columns originally published in the New York Observer in which Kramer comments pithily on many of his favorite artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter) and some of his least favorite (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol). Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer is a master of the short review, and it is a pleasure to see how he manages to say so much in so little space.

Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Porter, Arthur Dove, and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.

• Rare is the scholar who can write intelligibly for a popular audience. Daniel J. Levitin, a rock musician and record producer turned neuroscientist, has mastered that priceless skill, and in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 314 pp., $24.95) he summarizes with charm and flair the current state of research into the psychology of musical perception and cognition. Levitin believes that the human brain is biologically hardwired to find meaning in music, a conclusion sharply at odds with that of a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who have decided that it is a fundamentally meaningless form of what Steven Pinker calls “auditory cheesecake.” I expect you’ll be inclined to disagree with them after reading This Is Your Brain on Music, though, and not just because you want to. To be sure, Levitin’s style is so relentlessly breezy that it hardly seems possible that he could be a bona fide scientist, much less an important one. He is, though, and you can trust him to give you the lowdown on what happens inside your head when you listen to Mozart—or Stevie Wonder.

• It’s been a long time between books for Hilton Kramer, whose last collection was published six years ago and who hasn’t brought out a volume of art criticism since 1985. The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World, 1985-2005 (Ivan R. Dee, 368 pp., $27.50) contains 55 essays and reviews, the most substantial of which are a series of pieces dealing with the history of and prospects for abstract art. In between these essays are sandwiched a goodly number of columns originally published in the New York Observer in which Kramer comments pithily on many of his favorite artists (Helen Frankenthaler, Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter) and some of his least favorite (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol). Like Clement Greenberg before him, Kramer is a master of the short review, and it is a pleasure to see how he manages to say so much in so little space.

Kramer is best known for his unfavorable reviews, and in recent years he has spent an ever-increasing share of his time commenting on politics. As a result, too many younger readers are unaware that he is one of the best critical advocates we have. I saw several of the shows reviewed in The Triumph of Modernism when I was first starting to take a serious interest in art, and I vividly remember how reading what Kramer had to say about such critically undervalued modern painters as Porter, Arthur Dove, and Richard Diebenkorn helped give shape to my inchoate excitement. For all his gifts as a demolition man, it is this aspect of his work that continues to mean the most to me. Nothing is harder to write than a good review, and nobody writes better ones than Hilton Kramer.

• Rare is the scholar who can write intelligibly for a popular audience. Daniel J. Levitin, a rock musician and record producer turned neuroscientist, has mastered that priceless skill, and in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton, 314 pp., $24.95) he summarizes with charm and flair the current state of research into the psychology of musical perception and cognition. Levitin believes that the human brain is biologically hardwired to find meaning in music, a conclusion sharply at odds with that of a growing number of evolutionary psychologists who have decided that it is a fundamentally meaningless form of what Steven Pinker calls “auditory cheesecake.” I expect you’ll be inclined to disagree with them after reading This Is Your Brain on Music, though, and not just because you want to. To be sure, Levitin’s style is so relentlessly breezy that it hardly seems possible that he could be a bona fide scientist, much less an important one. He is, though, and you can trust him to give you the lowdown on what happens inside your head when you listen to Mozart—or Stevie Wonder.

Read Less




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