Dear Partners in thought,
I wanted to tell you about the “The Assault on Intelligence” by Michael V. Hayden, former Director of the NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA under George W. Bush. Unlike former Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper’s book (“Facts and Fears”), MH’s is not a memoir of service in which the author also complains about the dire straits of American leadership and its approach to the intelligence community (“IC”). MH is squarely focused on the latter and the matters of truth and facts, also as they apply to the intelligence tradecraft and political leadership in general. While MH was a Clinton and GW Bush appointee, he is a Republican and was part of the foreign policy team of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 in charge of counterterrorism. In his role at NSA, MH was at the forefront of the nascent cyber warfare and all the hacking campaign against American interests and their responses, notably, at the time, on the part of China.
The book is focused on the state of America and the IC, the 2016 presidential campaign, the transition period and the first hundred days of the Trump Administration (defined as “chaos on steroid”), the impact of DT as President on several core national security issues, the relationship between DT, truth and Russia while ending with some conclusions from an evolving story about truth, intelligence and America. To summarise the feelings of many of his intelligence colleagues, MH quotes Robert Kagan, a conservative like Trumpocracy’s David Frum clearly stating at a gathering set up for the Republican congressional caucus at the onset of the Trump era: “Look! What’s going on here is the melting down of the post-World War II, American liberal, Bretton Woods, World Bank, IMF world order. Get it?”.
MH’s starting point with his book is that he wants readers to look at facts and realise that while civil war or societal collapse was not imminent or inevitable, the structures, processes and attitude relied upon to prevent those were under stress and many of the premises on which are based U.S. governance, policy and security were now challenged, eroded or simply gone. He goes on explaining that the craft of intelligence, as practiced in the Western liberal tradition, which is where there is a link with our overall book notes theme, pursues the Enlightenment values. MH explains that intelligence gathers, evaluates and analyses information and then disseminates its conclusions for use, study or refutation, concluding that the erosion of Enlightenment values would devalue or even threaten the practice of good intelligence.
There was clear evidence for MH that there was convergence of a mutually reinforcing swirl of presidential tweets and statements, Russian-influenced social media, alt-right website and talk radio, Russian press like RT and even mainstream U.S. media like Fox News that helped the DT campaign and Russia’s desire to see DT in the White House. MH made a specific effort to understand how and why DT got elected in November 2016. Being a Pittsburgh native, he even went on to organise a meeting with some of his old friends from his neighbourhood, all DT’s supporters, who were finding DT as “an American”, “genuine” and “authentic, not filtering everything or parsing every word”. His old friends were simply not interested in facts, very much along the same lines as, much later, DT’s supporters, even some decent people with high religiously-based principles would give DT a pass on his colourful life as long as he was pushing forward an agenda they liked ranging from the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to the reshaping of the Supreme Court. He had a chat with Salena Zito co-author of “The Great Revolt” and a Pittsburgh native who confirmed the rationale for DT being in the White House, even if an electoral fluke. In 2016, the U.S., home of free markets and the world’s largest, most integrated economy went populist, nativist and protectionist. MH going through Walter Russell Mead’s classification of American Presidents between Hamiltonians (Romney if he had won in 2012; an America strong thus prosperous); Jeffersonian (Obama II), Wilsonian (George W. Bush; let us free the world of its ills) and Jacksonian (America first; a long time ago) clearly states that DT is more Jacksonian than Andrew himself though at a time where that presidential style family was the least to work well. When the incoming Tea Party wave of new congressmen went to Congress in January 2011, MH was to brief them on international affairs, noticing that it was not their main area of focus and barely prompting him to ask them how many held a passport. MH felt that the U.S. was for a change to come that took place later due to the increasing duel between: internationalist-nativist, nuanced- blunt, informed-instinctive, no drama-all drama, studied-spontaneous, fully formed paragraphs-140 characters, America as an idea-America as blood and soil and free trader-protectionist.
MH quickly found that the campaign was about the truth or more clearly DT not telling it, or at least not bothering to find the truth in order to speak accurately while his campaign normalised lying to an unprecedented degree, routinely disparaging critics with a large number of invectives ranging from lying media, so-called judges, “intelligence” fake news, Washington insiders and the deep state. MH is going so far as mentioning the potential matter of metacognition in relation to the candidate not knowing what he was talking about and not knowing that he did not know. Borrowing from Tom Nichols who teaches national security at the Naval War College he stresses that “the U.S. is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance, Google fuelled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden…with an insistence that strongly held opinions are indistinguishable from facts”. From an intelligence and foreign affairs standpoint, MH and his like-minded internationalist civil servants had many reasons to worry about the rising nativism in DT’s campaign ranging from the alienation of a Southern friend, limitations of the bounty linked to the entrepreneurial vigour of new arrivals, easy confusion between Islam and terrorism, the distance from important allies and cooperative foreign sources and the redefinition of the essence and values of the American nation.
MH makes it clear that American intelligence professionals, through a process of self-selection and acculturation, like their diplomatic counterparts (before many resigned) trend overwhelmingly internationalist. This was seen as the natural order of things with the deep belief that American disengagement rarely made things better anywhere. MH is going through the rising concerns about the candidate during the campaign and the response from the foreign policy and intelligence establishment
with the famed Elliot Cohen letter signed by 122 prominent practitioners (incidentally which might also have helped DT as they were indeed seen as the “establishment” by DT’s supporters, enhancing their beliefs that their candidate was the target of a conspiracy). MH did not sign the Cohen letter as he was on a book tour and thought it might be seen as self-serving. He signed however the John Bellinger letter put out by the former senior legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice at the NSC and State Department which stressed that DT never made any effort to educate himself in, and was displaying an alarming ignorance of, basic facts of contemporary international politics. All the signatories were clearly putting themselves off any role in any future DT Administration should he win, which at the time, was a worry but far from a certainty.
MH visited the relationship that needs to be based on trust between the President and the IC, making some very valid points. The IC deals in “facts” that are stolen, elicited or otherwise acquired to inform executive decision-making. Intelligence is focused on the world as it is while the President and his team dream of the world as they want it to be – especially in the DT era. Intelligence is inductive, swimming in data and attempting to draw conclusions while policymakers are deductive, following first principles, the ones they were elected for, to fit specific situations. Intelligence trends pessimistic, with intel analysts as Bob Gates, once said, “stopping smelling the flowers and looking around the hearse” while policymakers need being optimistic as otherwise they would never have pursued the job. The President is the “first customer” with DT being a challenging one for any IC given that his main objective is to find rationale for the views he holds dear and tells his core electoral base. MH spends much time dealing with the IC trauma of telling DT what he does not want to hear in relation to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. electoral process, itself the cardinal sin for DT which would shape his views of the IC and would never changed his basic views of Russia and its leader. This DT posture continued as the aftermath of the Helsinki July meeting with Putin and later mentions of the “Russian hoax” would show (on that matter, MH’s account of the timely Wikileaks release of the DNC’s John Podesta emails, courtesy of “Russia” that provided the goods, thirty minutes after the Washington Post’s publication of a video of DT speaking in explicit terms about groping and kissing women, is very puzzling at the least).
MH has an interesting take on the Transition (the period between the early November election and the late January inauguration) with a focus on intelligence. He is stressing that the intel transition team was not heavily populated (as a result of all the intel segment signatories of letters denouncing DT’s profile) though was lead by Mike Rogers, a former House intel committee chairman selected by Chris Christie, who led the Transition Team before disappearing (he was with Rudy Giuliani, one of two senior Republicans having joined the campaign team but had also prosecuted Jared Kushner’s father for tax fraud, sending him to jail, some years earlier, making it an issue with the First Family). Mike Rogers gave hope to the old intelligence hands as he was seen as giving DT some directions in the field but did not stay beyond transition, leaving the radical wing represented by the Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka or young Ezra Cohen-Wattnick in lead positions dealing with intel matters. MH goes into some examples we remember about his ignorance of international affairs and his pride in not reading much about issues (“I never (read). I am always busy doing a lot” as he stated on the campaign trail in the summer of 2016). DT was wondering about the meaning of the word “triad” when asked about nuclear forces during a debate. He did not know the names of the leaders of Hezbollah, ISIS and al-Qaeda, not knowing their distinctions, confusing the Iranian Quds Force with the American-friendly Kurds. All these huge gaps created problems to the IC in terms of where to begin to well inform the “first client” all the more when he started by not wanting daily intelligence briefings (“How do you connect for him things that he does not connect himself and he is not aware that they are key?”). The other issue came quickly to be what mattered to DT in terms of facts, the key feature not being accuracy but that “many people agree with me when I say that” as DT told ABC News during the Transition, making it a nightmare to deal with someone who may not distinguish between truth and untruth and being primarily driven by reassuring his core electoral base that feels he can say no wrong, all the more under the assault of the political and media establishments. The relationship between the President and its IC was off to be one of the worst ever in American history, which prompted DT to go to Langley to meet with the CIA staffers one day after the inauguration, conducting according to MH, “the worst presidential visit to an intelligence agency in the history of the American Republic”.
As the DT Administration was now in charge and passing its first hundred days, MH saw a few key policy tenets as follows: i) Immigration will be treated more as a threat to American-well being than as a strategic advantage; ii) Alliances will be seen more as transactional than as strategic relationships; iii) Despite being the global champion of free trade for three quarters of a century, the U.S. will turn more protectionist; iv) The relationship with China will be reset and v) The fight against terrorism will fundamentally be about more combat power. As the new administration goes into motion, MH provides us with testimonies from recently retired intel veterans “happy to have taken the king’s shilling for doing the King’s work”, some happy about the gradually stated more aggressive posture of the new administration but also worrying about what the intel agencies might be asked to do going forward, even if many chaffed about the overlaying, indecision and restrictions imposed in a post-GW bush world during the Obama years. MH felt after 100 days that the IC had helped Team DT realise that “China was not a currency manipulator, NATO was not obsolete and maybe Vladimir Putin sometimes did bad things”, also because the NSC team put together at that point had been receptive and helpful in a post-Mike Flynn era. H.R. McMaster, who replaced Mike Flynn after his reluctant firing (that would lead to serious legal problems for him) was seen as a very positive change by the “professionals” given his status as a thinking military leader built through his PhD thesis-originated book “Dereliction of Duty” on the military leadership failings during the Vietnam war. However H.R. M did not have the gravitas of previous NSC advisers like Kissinger, Brzezinski, Powell or Scowcroft which, dealing with a mercurial leader, would ultimately take its toll as would be seen later.
Besides H.R. M, another good news for the professionals was Jim Mattis at the DoD whose main nickname was not “Mad Dog” but “the warrior monk” closer to General George C. Marshall than to an aggressive George S. Patton combat commander and someone who appreciated intelligence and would work well with the IC via his own DIA. Rex Tillerson at State would be more challenging as while he appeared a positive addition, he ended up alienating both the White House (with his f… moron comment and his questioning, unusually for a cabinet member, of DT’s IQ) and his own department as he wanted to reshape it, prompting a record, mass exodus of needed, long-serving, diplomats. Of note, even those like well known like Eliott Abrams, ex-NSC head of the Middle East under GWB, was crossed out by DT to be Tillerson’s choice for deputy at State as, while he never signed any of the “never Trump” letter, he had published a milder “When you can’t stand your candidate” in the Weekly Standard. John Kelly, (another marine general, stressing the rise of the military – as safe pairs of hands) who was applauded as a great choice to lead Homeland Security, was seen as great news for White House Chief of Staff. MH found that Mike Pompeo as the designate to lead CIA was a sound choice also as he was to be seconded by highly respected CIA veteran Gina Haspel who was to succeed him to lead the agency when Pompeo went to State in 2018. Lastly Indiana Senator Coats, former Ambassador to Germany, was seen as an excellent choice as Director of National Intelligence, overseeing 17 agencies. When thinking of it, the people around Trump were not to his image and could be counted to restrain him while providing him with sound views. MH goes through the Syria, ISIS and Iran approaches developed by DT and the Administration, the latter subject leading to the breaching by the US of the “Iran nuclear agreement” (or JCPOA) followed by the reinstatement of sanctions in August 2018. On North Korea, MH tends to agree with DT that he inherited a mess (reminding us he is no a fan of the Obama era, notably of the US policy towards Syria and the lack of action following the red line crossing after the alleged use of gas on its own population by the Syrian regime).
MH deals with the subject of Russia and its alleged meddling in a focused manner throughout a chapter entitled “Trump, Russia and the truth”. He narrates how the “meddling” in the electoral process started with the Wired magazine in the summer of 2017 that reported a European study finding that the main Russian objective was not to change minds, but “to destroy and undermine confidence in Western media”. MH stresses the convergence and similar degree of ferocity between DT and Russia in their attacks of American institutions while staying away from arguing the facts (DT in a tweet stressed that “there is no truth, so you should just follow your gut and your tribe”), all with an echo chamber between Russian news and American strong and far right-wing outlets. MH deplores that Russia was able to influence the outcome of an election that was ultimately decided by the Americans but unsurprised as the expertise and craft of Russia given his own experience dealing with this matter over the last twenty years, notably in the cyber space and at the NSA. MH goes though how social media played a major role in shaping voter perceptions and helping DT as a candidate, with developments we are seeing only recently and having further consequences even on the stock of Facebook, shaving USD 120 bn in one trading day in July 2018, due to the aftermath of the privacy issues we now are more familiar with.
MH looks at the divided land that he sees as America today, feeling that Russia would be mad not to continue to play as it faces no real costs with Americans making it easier and the government being frozen in its response. He quotes Lenin and his “What is to be done?” which is of course identifying the problem which can be summed up as two intertwined issues: i) the declining relevance of truth as traditionally understood, derived from the evidence-based patterns developed during the Enlightenment; and ii) Russia both exploiting and exacerbating that phenomenon. The latter clearly depends on the former and could not exist nor succeed without the former. Fixing the first point makes the second go away, something that MH sees in Russia having been less successful in manipulating less fractured societies such as Norway, France or Germany. While technology has been a medium of destabilisation of American society, MH feels that the remedy is not to be found in technology, the excesses of which need to be controlled (as we see happening with Big Tech) but the long term cure dealing more with principles and basic political health. He also sees the private sector and notably Silicon Valley (for tech) and Hollywood (for image creation) as being useful partners in the fight with leading figureheads in both joining it (on cybersecurity, it is worth noting MH credits the current administration with good marks, which is encouraging given the new axis of warfare). While focusing on these areas, MH sees the IC as doing not an unimportant role in addressing the declining relevance of truth. He believes that intelligence professionals will keep to their professional duty to collect and analyse intel but is more concerned about the issue of the presentation of that intel and not only on the Russia question. He sees it as crucial that the IC keeps being able to push back against preferred policy narratives, which would not be uncommon with Team Trump when it matters and when they slip the bonds of objective reality, this being a question of simple honesty. All that being said, MH is now recommending younger colleagues not to join Team Trump and not to put themselves at risk for the future when they could still contribute to shaping policy meaningfully under different conditions and leadership. He also reminds us that while the “sound and the fury” are at play, Bob Mueller keeps working at his DoJ investigation and will one day report, this with potentially devastating consequences for DT and his close team (on the time Mueller is taking that DT is irate about, it should be noted that his investigation seriously pales in terms of the time spent in comparison with those of Benghazi or Watergate and that such investigations are in no way linked to any electoral calendars such as that of the November 2018 mid-terms).
MH’s book is a fascinating account focused on International affairs and America from the standpoint of the intelligence professionals and without falling easily into irate criticism of DT and his administration on every point. In writing about the future, MH focuses on the future of truth which he sees as the fundamental item to look for and after with the current American administration. He rightfully stresses, with many of his colleagues, on the strong desire from many foreign countries to find again the America they are now missing. He hopes for a time when the media will not be under attack from an American President undermining the American constitution. He wants a President, paraphrasing Lincoln, who appeals to “the better angels of our nature”. MH quotes Timothy Snyder’s “On Tyranny” (also a former book note): “To abandon facts is is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticise power as there is no basis to do so. Post-truth is pre-fascim”. MH concludes his book with a sentence formed when visiting Langley to celebrate the retirement of a CIA veteran (and where he met a young and enthusiastic, trained cryptologic linguist who then joined the agency to put his skills to good use but would not have entered the U.S. had the administration ban being in place): “We are accustomed to relying on their truth telling to protect us from foreign enemies. now we may need their truth telling to save us from ourselves”.
I dedicate this book note to my friend, Rufus the IV, and his father Rufus the III, Virginians with a long family line since Plymouth Rock, the latter having been “present at the creation” to borrow from Dean Rusk, from the Yale cradle that was so key in those early years of the Cold War (as depicted in “The Company” by spy novelist Robert Littell).
Serge Desprat- 30th August, 2018 (Prague)