Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Ignatius

Extreme Prejudice

“I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” Henry Kissinger writes in today’s Washington Post. “When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates.” In this instance, they created the “extraordinary spectacle of the president’s national security adviser obliged to defend the president’s Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate.”

Scott Johnson over at powerline is absolutely right: when someone of Henry Kissinger’s stature joins in in denouncing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE something significant is going on.

What exactly is it? Perhaps it is the fact that the intelligence failures of the last seven years have impressed upon all Americans the price of lapses in this vital area. This explains why voices on both the Right and the Left — even the New York Times has tepidly joined in — are criticizing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE. All this gives rise to the hope that after the presidential elections a bipartisan coalition will emerge that could find some radical way to address a problem that has become apparent to all.

But I am not holding my breath. American intelligence agencies, the CIA foremost among them, have proved themselves to be extraordinarily recalcitrant to reform. And the agencies are not the only problem. In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius, a long-time observer of the intelligence world, takes a look at the other end of the snake.

Intelligence oversight by Congress is in a “free fall,” Ignatius writes. And the problem is not the standard liberal complaint that the CIA is withholding vital information from congressional oversight panels. Rather, right now

we are getting the worst possible mix — a dearth of adequate congressional scrutiny on the front end that could improve performance and check abuses, and a flood of second-guessing at the back end, after each flap, that further demoralizes and enfeebles the spies. Congress silently blesses the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics, for example, and then denounces the practices when they become public.

Ignatius’s column opens the door to some thoughts that have hitherto been unthinkable in Washington D.C.. Perhaps the time has come to ask whether an experiment embarked upon in 1975 in response to genuine abuses of intelligence is appropriate for our own time. To judge by the picture painted by Ignatius, the experiment clearly has failed:

The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don’t like, as happened when [CIA Director Porter] Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules on intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation’s most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments have become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

Congressional oversight was a “radical idea” when it was introduced in response to the abuses of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. Back then, Ignatius notes, “[s]ome experts questioned whether it was realistic to ask elected officials to sign off on the work of intelligence agencies — which, when you strip away all the high-minded language, basically involves the systematic violation of other countries’ laws. Intelligence agencies steal other nations’ secrets, bribe their officials into committing treason, intercept their most private conversations.”

Those skeptics seem to have been proved right. At a time when our intelligence agencies are the crucial front in the war we are facing, we cannot afford to have it managed by a “political circus.” The time has come to bring an end this state of affairs — with extreme prejudice.

“I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” Henry Kissinger writes in today’s Washington Post. “When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates.” In this instance, they created the “extraordinary spectacle of the president’s national security adviser obliged to defend the president’s Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate.”

Scott Johnson over at powerline is absolutely right: when someone of Henry Kissinger’s stature joins in in denouncing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE something significant is going on.

What exactly is it? Perhaps it is the fact that the intelligence failures of the last seven years have impressed upon all Americans the price of lapses in this vital area. This explains why voices on both the Right and the Left — even the New York Times has tepidly joined in — are criticizing the intelligence community for its handling of the Iran NIE. All this gives rise to the hope that after the presidential elections a bipartisan coalition will emerge that could find some radical way to address a problem that has become apparent to all.

But I am not holding my breath. American intelligence agencies, the CIA foremost among them, have proved themselves to be extraordinarily recalcitrant to reform. And the agencies are not the only problem. In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius, a long-time observer of the intelligence world, takes a look at the other end of the snake.

Intelligence oversight by Congress is in a “free fall,” Ignatius writes. And the problem is not the standard liberal complaint that the CIA is withholding vital information from congressional oversight panels. Rather, right now

we are getting the worst possible mix — a dearth of adequate congressional scrutiny on the front end that could improve performance and check abuses, and a flood of second-guessing at the back end, after each flap, that further demoralizes and enfeebles the spies. Congress silently blesses the CIA’s harsh interrogation tactics, for example, and then denounces the practices when they become public.

Ignatius’s column opens the door to some thoughts that have hitherto been unthinkable in Washington D.C.. Perhaps the time has come to ask whether an experiment embarked upon in 1975 in response to genuine abuses of intelligence is appropriate for our own time. To judge by the picture painted by Ignatius, the experiment clearly has failed:

The intelligence committees have become politicized. Members and staffers encourage political vendettas against intelligence officers they don’t like, as happened when [CIA Director Porter] Goss brought his congressional aides with him to the CIA. The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has become a political football; so has negotiation over legal rules on intercepting foreign communications, one of the nation’s most sensitive activities. The bickering has turned the intelligence world into a nonstop political circus, to the point that foreign governments have become increasingly wary of sharing secrets.

Congressional oversight was a “radical idea” when it was introduced in response to the abuses of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon years. Back then, Ignatius notes, “[s]ome experts questioned whether it was realistic to ask elected officials to sign off on the work of intelligence agencies — which, when you strip away all the high-minded language, basically involves the systematic violation of other countries’ laws. Intelligence agencies steal other nations’ secrets, bribe their officials into committing treason, intercept their most private conversations.”

Those skeptics seem to have been proved right. At a time when our intelligence agencies are the crucial front in the war we are facing, we cannot afford to have it managed by a “political circus.” The time has come to bring an end this state of affairs — with extreme prejudice.

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Ignatius in Israel

David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, is in Israel, and I think it’s fair to say that his time in the region is not doing a whole lot to imbue his opinions with much in the way of perspective or wisdom. His column on Sunday presented a fawning portrait of Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, who has of late been tarnishing his legacy by arguing to anyone who will listen that the real threat to Israel is not from the regimes who implacably seek the country’s destruction, but from Israeli leaders who do not sufficiently accommodate, rhetorically and strategically, the leaders of Hamas, Syria, and Iran. (A sample bit of his wisdom on Iran: “We have to find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”) The only place Halevy has been taken seriously in recent memory is in David Ignatius’s column—I wonder if Ignatius himself knows this?

Anyway, Ignatius has followed up Sunday’s column with a piece today that meditates on the need, in order to advance the peace process, for the development of Palestinian security forces capable of arresting terrorists and imposing law and order in the Palestinian territories—obviously, an altogether important matter. Ignatius writes that “The Palestinian Authority simply doesn’t have the people, the training, or the equipment to maintain order in the territories. Why is this so? The answer, in part, is that the Palestinians haven’t built up their security forces because the Israelis haven’t permitted them to do so.”

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David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, is in Israel, and I think it’s fair to say that his time in the region is not doing a whole lot to imbue his opinions with much in the way of perspective or wisdom. His column on Sunday presented a fawning portrait of Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, who has of late been tarnishing his legacy by arguing to anyone who will listen that the real threat to Israel is not from the regimes who implacably seek the country’s destruction, but from Israeli leaders who do not sufficiently accommodate, rhetorically and strategically, the leaders of Hamas, Syria, and Iran. (A sample bit of his wisdom on Iran: “We have to find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”) The only place Halevy has been taken seriously in recent memory is in David Ignatius’s column—I wonder if Ignatius himself knows this?

Anyway, Ignatius has followed up Sunday’s column with a piece today that meditates on the need, in order to advance the peace process, for the development of Palestinian security forces capable of arresting terrorists and imposing law and order in the Palestinian territories—obviously, an altogether important matter. Ignatius writes that “The Palestinian Authority simply doesn’t have the people, the training, or the equipment to maintain order in the territories. Why is this so? The answer, in part, is that the Palestinians haven’t built up their security forces because the Israelis haven’t permitted them to do so.”

This is absurd. For starters, the last time Israel gave the Palestinians a free hand in developing their security forces, Yasir Arafat flagrantly violated every restriction the Oslo rules had put on the Palestinian security services, and then used the services to launch a terror war against Israel. Even Ignatius must admit that the Israelis have a right to be a bit skeptical of going down that road again. Here is how my friend Daniel Polisar, president of the Shalem Center, described that state of affairs:

Arafat guaranteed the loyalty of his troops, and especially the highest-ranking officers, by establishing the kind of command and control structure that had characterized his previous 25 years of rule, and which for good reason is preferred by military dictators anxious to prevent the rise of competitors. Though the Gaza-Jericho agreement limited the Palestinian police to four branches, coordinated in each district by a single command, Arafat set up multiple forces that competed with one another: By the summer of 1995, there were nine intelligence services operating in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as additional units with various responsibilities. There was no authority coordinating these forces on a regional basis, nor was there a clear hierarchy within each branch: The only thing that was unambiguous was that all top officers reported directly to Arafat, who was commander in chief of the PA police—and who continued wearing his trademark uniform to symbolize his authority as a military ruler. The multiplicity of units created endless turf wars, leading the various organizations to keep tabs on one another and to pass this information on to Arafat. Moreover, this Byzantine system made it possible for Arafat to order attacks against political opponents while publicly denying any involvement.

Today, if there is one thing in which the PA is still awash, it is manpower (a massive percentage of Palestinian men are employed in various PA security sinecures), security expertise, and weaponry. Not to mention money, as more foreign aid is lavished per capita on the Palestinians than on any group of people anywhere in the world—and by a huge margin. But none of the problems that Ignatius cites have much relation to the real Palestinian internal security problem.

Arafat’s goons did not work toward establishing a Palestinian state. They didn’t serve the Palestinian people or attempt to impose law and order. These men worked for Yasir Arafat, and only for Arafat, in order that he could more thoroughly solidify his corrupt autocracy. The things Ignatius mentions—Israeli security concessions, or the latest package of aid money, or American support—have all been tweaked and modified and adjusted countless times. A competent security service, be it police or military, must be possessed of a unity of purpose and must show dedication to a mission. It is precisely these cultural components that have been so elusive when it has come to the role that Palestinian security services have played in the many abortive attempts at creating a Palestinian state. The only Arab security forces in recent history that have displayed any such qualities are those of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah.

On this matter David Frum should have the last word:

Hey, here’s a wild suggestion: What if we tried the other way around? What if we said to the Palestinians—OK, you want the benefits of peace? A state, a well-paid civil service supported by lavish foreign aid, jobs at the United Nations for the nephews of your president for life? Great. Make peace. Your soldiers want to be trusted? Great. First let them show themselves trustworthy.

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