Skip to main content.

Back to: >> National Security

Book Review
Denial and Deception
Melissa Boyle Mahle

Up dated 6 Aug 2010.

Mahle brings spook history to life and her book rates five Stars for fingering stovepipes as a fundamental cause for poor intelligence and failed security. We summarize her insider's view of the inner workings of what passes for governance -- bureaucracy.

In the real world, stovepipes exhaust smoke and fumes outside. In the metaphor, smoke (activity) and fumes (odors of activity) likewise are usually exhausted right past the minds of the analysts. Opinions of the favored few reigned supreme. As often as not, those opinions were pipe dreams.

Being short-handed much of the time, and working in the surge mode (responding to crises by temporary transfers) only made things worse. Temporaries did not often see or respond properly to the full import of the crisis activity, while the cases they left grew cold.

Further, the CIA seemed to keep their people on the basis of: patriotism, satisfaction in jobs well-done, thrill of the chase, sense of achievement, thrill from working outside the box otherwise known as legal limits. People stayed for neither the pay scale nor the benefits; the latter were cut at a critical time. Cut backs in force, on a last-in-first-out policy, not only slowed fresh blood coming in, but entrenched the older hands who were often burned out. All these issues exacerbated the stove pipes. There were virtually no checks and balances over the stove pipes, no opportunity for fresh perspectives, no interactions so necessary for the creativity needed to shift out of Cold-War mode and into what was to come. Faced with an unknown future, the CIA tried sailing unknown waters as if the USSR was still their adversary. And like the USSR leaders, The CIA folks did not see the world as it really was. Add to that their personal biases, and it is a wonder the organization did as well as it did.

No president did much better with their appointments than his predecessors. Most were blind-sided for lack of intelligence. Most appointed Directors who were grossly deficient in one or more critical ways.

Profiling new hires insured they fit the CIA mold--but the mold was one of lockstep within rigid guidelines. The mold did not select for teamwork or creativity, the stuff needed to shift gears out of a Cold War mode into one responsive to terrorism. Rapid turnover in the Director's office didn't help as each new director attempted to change the culture into their particular vision -- which more often than not was biased as well as political and self-serving -- not what was good for America much less the world.

Duplicitous promotions at high levels, counter to established personnel-promotion policies, sent the message that cronyism comes ahead of national security. Exemptions from lie detector tests did likewise. Never mind that even with their advanced use, lie detector tests never came close to preventing moles from becoming traitors. These issues existed well before Mr Bush came to power.

All this and multiples more flow out of of Mahle's fertile memory and nimble fingers. It would have been nice if she could have expounded upon why stovepipes developed in the first place and why they stayed locked in even as Director after Director tried to change them. Sexism and cronyism reigned supreme, and they still do. A culture of self-interest was entrenched too deeply to change in the brief time each Director had. Only George Tenet had the management skills and strategic vision to even begin, and he lacked the courage to ask, much less fix, the tough questions. A skilled politician, he opted to fix the easy stuff, let the difficult go, while ingratiating himself with the President and Congress. On the good side, morale dramatically improved and things began to work more smoothly during his tenure.

Meanwhile, the brewing Scooter Libby scandal reared its head to become the last straw for Tenet after the 9/11 and Iraqi occupation intelligence failures. He resigned a "hero" of sorts, but left behind a jungle aflame.

You must take away the fuel before the flames can die out. But that is not what our self-styled "war-President" wanted. Mahle recognizes this feature nicely when comparing the strengths and weaknesses of the last two presidents.

Mehle's metaphor, "stovepipes," is an apt description. With it, she has done for politics and security (missed real signals-9/11, inflated faint signals-WMD in Iraq), what Adorno and Milgram did for the psychology of terror (showing that most of us behave like robots in the face of authority), and what McGregor did for management science (proving theory X [authoritarian], cannot compete with theory Y where highest performance comes from satisfied people who feel they are part of the action team.) The stovepipes and theory X management style follow from Authoritarianism.

It is easy enough for Congress to order a fix, but quite another to accomplish it. Mahle's recommendations for the future are sound; they address some very basic problems on the operational level. Her many recommendations for the future alone make the book worthwhile. To quote or paraphrase:

  • "The United States must understand the root causes of the hatred and embark on proactive programs to redress them."
  • We must discredit the terror ideology.
  • We must promote and foster alternative ideological frameworks.
  • We must modify foreign policies that provoke strong negative reactions.
  • We must counter the perception that the US is waging a crusade against the Islamic world.
  • We must reach out and connect on a multilateral and bilateral basis with world leaders; speak directly to their constituents in a non-dictatorial, condescending manner.
  • We must show a great deal more understanding and empathy for the concerns of the region.
  • We must use soft power and influence rather than hard power exclusively.
  • We must look beyond counter-terrorism as a single focus of attention; avoid inappropriate responses.
  • We must begin reform at home before branching out.
  • We must get a grip on the accountability and ethics issues within the agency.
  • We must not sacrifice liberty and justice in the name of fighting terror.
  • We must address the societal and economic ills of the Third World within a broader strategic program that will undermine the forces supporting the growth and spread of groups advocating anti-American terror.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.