Series: What America Needs to Do to Achieve Its Foreign Policy Goals ... Improving Intelligence Capabilities (5)

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Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com.

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America’s policy on intelligence, everyone agrees, needs revision, but I believe that the ways and means now being suggested are inadequate or inappropriate. To explain this, it is necessary first to disaggregate what we mean by intelligence. It falls into three categories: collection of information, evaluation of information and espionage. America generally does an excellent job collecting information. Most of what it gets, of course, is from “open” sources that are available to us all if we spend the time and look hard enough to acquire it. Less available is “esoteric” information acquired by intercepts of communications, code breaking and imagery. We tap virtually every telephone call made anywhere in the world, have broken virtually all secret codes and overfly with aircraft or satellites every actual or potential trouble spot.

During the Eisenhower administration, we evolved competent means to evaluate this information. The Office of National Estimates and the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research produced independent “appreciations” or forecasts based on the whole range of available information.1 In political and military affairs, they performed the function of an engineering consultant in a construction project or Consumers’ Union in retailing: offering the best available advice. Sometimes, of course, they were wrong, but when they were downgraded, avoided or replaced, as in the build-up to the 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco2 and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq,3 the results were far worse.

The third category of intelligence, covert action or espionage, is often called “dirty tricks.” It is a very old game.4 In my time in government, everyone joked about but was secretly fascinated by what might be called the “James Bond Syndrome.” A shrewd, unbelievably sophisticated and utterly amoral “007” was very appealing to men like President Kennedy who often found themselves blocked by bureaucratic inertia, fear and law. It was apposite that James Bond was British because the real life CIA had learned its trade at the feet of British masters. Their code had two rules: be successful but don’t get caught. Alas, the British were not very good at either, and their American students in the predecessor to CIA, the OSS, copied many of their mistakes. That was bad but what was worse was when they succeeded.

A big early “success” was the coup mobilized by Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA with the help of Montgomery Woodhouse of MI-6 in Iran.5 By overthrowing the elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, they started the disastrous sequence of events that led to the establishment of the current Iranian government. From Iran, we moved covertly to install a number of regimes and strongmen who became the bane of our existence and who compromised the principles for which we stood. Our botched attempts to murder Castro and Nasser, among others, scotched trends that might have made solving problems in a more constructive fashion difficult or impossible.6

Even in less dramatic episodes, these activities denigrated the normal relationships America had fostered through diplomacy. American ambassadors were often not informed about what the CIA was doing in the countries to which they were accredited; being “out of the loop,” they could not effectively represent America. Rulers like the Shah of Iran quickly perceived that the CIA Station Chief was a better contact.7 So often were the “back stairs” used that the front stairs became shabby and rickety. The long term effects of covert action were detrimental to America and tended to undercut and cheapen its image as a democratic, constructive member of the world community.

In sum, covert action sounds cheap and easy but in practice it never is. We should quickly phase out of this dirty business.

1 The “philosopher” of American intelligence evaluation was Sherman Kent whose book, Strategic Intelligence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) is the “Bible” in this field.

2 The Office of National Estimates was “cut out” of information on the operation planned and executed by the operational wing of CIA.

3 The Department of Defense created a separate organization, the “Office of Special Plans” headed by Abram Shulsky to evaluate information in a way that would justify policy, thus violating the essential element in evaluation, independence.

4 See Neighbors and Strangers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Part 5.

5 His account is Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran (New York: Mcgraw Hill, 1979).

6 President Nasser discovered the assassination plot. So when President Eisenhower sent an ambassador to lecture him on the rule of law and the need for constructive action in the concourse of nations, he was nonplused. As he told me later, he puzzled over whether the ambassador was a fool or just thought Nasser was. In fact, American ambassadors were often not informed of what the CIA was doing in the countries to which they were accredited.

7 Blame fell on both sides. The Station chief was often aggressive and able while some ambassadors were weak and did not wish to know what might embarrass them. A personal note: sent to admonish the Shah of Iran on his wasteful, ineffectual and dangerous arms procurement policy, I was accompanied by Ambassador Julius Holmes. All the way to the ski resort where we were to meet, Holmes lectured me on the protocol of entering and leaving the monarch’s presence. When we met the Shah, it was obvious that he was as bored as I was by the trivial ambassador.

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mark safranski - 8/29/2005

Dr. Polk wrote:

"A big early “success” was the coup mobilized by Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA with the help of Montgomery Woodhouse of MI-6 in Iran.5 By overthrowing the elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, they started the disastrous sequence of events that led to the establishment of the current Iranian government"

This is rather specious reasoning given :

a)The twenty-six year lag time between Mossadeh's overthrow and the 1979 Revolution that toppled the Shah.


b) the assumption that the erratic and aged Mossadegh would have retained control over Iran for any length of time without being pushed aside by his Tudeh semi-allies.

Drawing a direct line here between Mossadegh - a Qajar dynasty reactionary and nationalist and Khomeini's Islamist followers is a weak argument in terms of evidence.

John Chapman - 8/23/2005

Today’s policy planners could well use some of his knowledge since he’s had 60-years of diplomatic and academic intimacy with the Middle East but sadly they are more concerned with the wrong issues. His analysis of the Arab world are accurate and fair and not of the stuff spouted by pamphlets like the Near East Report where attempts are made to "clarify" the truth.