Read Part I of Scott Uehlinger’s Ideology & Intelligence in the Spring 2016 issue of Network Magazine
The homily “One Sees What One Wants to See” is true; humans are guilty of these behaviors in their business or personal lives. Some Cognitive Dissonance is inevitable – we are human, after all – but we must train ourselves and cast our institutions in a way to mitigate this tendency.
Examples of cognitive dissonance are numerous in the business world. Large, successful companies are often slow to recognize a threat to their way of doing business – and their lack of adaptation or flexibility can be costly. Leading executives settled in their thinking, which were unwilling to change and adapt to a morphing marketplace.
The Kodak Corporation, a one-time colossus that revolutionized the photography industry, ignored the threat of digital photography until the eleventh hour; too late to save the company. Similarly, Blockbuster Video was once approached by Netflix for a strategic partnership – and Netflix was rebuffed with a laugh.
There are even more tragic examples in the pages of history. Perhaps the most infamous was that despite receiving more than a dozen separate warnings from several sources that Hitler’s Nazi Germany was planning a massive betrayal and invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin refused to believe it. This lead to the absolute carnage of Operation Barbarossa almost knocking the Soviet Union out of the war within 6 months. Despite fighting the 1967 War, the State of Israel went deeply into denial about the threats it faced.
The result was total strategic surprise during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Had it not been for the sacrifice of their military, Israel would have been overwhelmed. British Intelligence, due to class bias, ignored early warning signs that they were being dangerously compromised by Soviet agent penetrations until the full-on spy scandals of the 1960s (The Cambridge Five) engulfed them.
The reason why Mirror Imaging and Perception Bias/Cognitive Dissonance have leaded to countless Intelligence Failure that cut across centuries and cultures is because these behaviors are fundamental human flaws. It is no coincidence, however, that the most serious intelligence failures, particularly those in terms of human life have been those involving dictatorships and totalitarian regimes. The inherent logic of “Don’t displease Caesar/Mao/Stalin/Hitler” is clear. Regarding intel failures in liberal democracies such as The United States, Britain and Israel, the Intel Failure problem occurs more often when the leadership is chained to a narrative or an ideology of its own.
To understand this problem as it exists today, let us first start with a look at the Soviet Union. Throughout the “Spy Wars” of the Cold War period, Soviet Intel more often than not, came out on top. (They did, after all, steal the plans for the A-Bomb from the West.) As far as stealing technology and disinformation operations were concerned, Soviet Intelligence was deadly effective.
Despite this, the Soviets were poor at analyzing the more prosaic political, economic and military intelligence they collected. The Soviets continually misinterpreted, misunderstood or drew poor conclusions from their information.
The primary reason the Soviets were poor at analysis was because the Soviet Union and its leadership were ideologically biased. The foundation of the Soviet Union was predicated on a single ideology – Marxism/Communism. This meant that their intelligence service was attached to an ideologically-driven totalitarian state. Therefore, oftentimes
Reality had to be reshaped to conform to the narrative.
Ideologies (any ideology) are totalitarian in nature because their essence is to take a philosophy and say that on the basis of it (in this case Marxism-Communism), certain things must be true. In the Soviet’s case, their worldview was that (1) capitalism was evil, (2) militarily expansionist by nature and (3) dedicated to the perpetual exploitation of the masses. Stalin was convinced that the West was bent on dominating the world and consistently underestimated the importance of public opinion to Western leaders. Of course, he was mirror-imaging. As an absolute dictator, Stalin could not believe the West had actual functioning democracies.
Since reality clearly was at odds with the world view of Soviet ideology, reality had to be forbidden. Unfortunately for Russians, this extended to not just the intel world, but Soviet society as a whole. Soviet Intel was not only afraid to give information to their leadership that went against the narrative but Soviet citizens were daily victims of cognitive dissonance as well. The public was afraid to lend a voice to the obvious and were forced to chant catchphrases they knew were lies. Soviet citizens used to joke
“In the Soviet Union, the future is known; it is the past that is always changing.”
The term “Political Correctness” is in fact a Soviet term (politicheskaya pravil’nost’). A Soviet had to be politically correct, to stick to the party line, lest he run afoul of the authorities.
Which Brings us to the West…
There are increasing parallels between modern US/Western society and the Soviet society I studied and live in for much of my life. Firstly, the Soviet “disease” of Political Correctness is alive and well in the United States. It has taken root in our culture and in the Intelligence Community as well.
For example, when was the last time the reader stopped himself/herself from saying something they knew to be true, for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it?
That’s not just a talking point – it is a central problem with our national conversation and it is adversely affecting the efficiency of our intelligence agencies and government.
Due to this sometimes hostile current environment, I believe there has been a steady decrease in the effectiveness of the US Intelligence Community. We can say the same about other Government Agencies. The Secret Service, FBI, NSA, Border Patrol and the IRS have all seen recent scandals and have earned the increased ire of the American people.
Americans are losing faith in these institutions. Congress, of course, continues to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of popularity – but even the military is seeing a decrease in favorability as it tows the PC line. According to recent numerous surveys, the morale of our service members is also suffering, largely due to the prevalence of PC and its affect across the board. What we also see is that our intelligence community and even our military, is increasingly being surprised and bamboozled by events – or just plain not listened to by our policymakers.
The answer is simple; because never before in the history of this country has there been a more ideologically driven, willfully blind Administration as the one we have today. Locked inside the narrative to which they are bound, the mistakes of this Administration are a litany of repeated Mirror Imaging, Perception Bias, Willful Blindness, and thus, intelligence/policy failures.
All agencies have their own internal tensions and certainly the CIA has its share of Mirror Imaging, Perception Bias and Willful Blindness – but we must remember that government agencies march to the beat of the policymakers. For the CIA, intelligence priorities are set by the Administration – and the CIA’s job is to advise the policymakers. The CIA does not make policy; their marching orders always come from the Presidential Administration.
When an Administration is chained to an ideological narrative and is increasingly divorced from reality, is it surprising that it wishes not to receive intel information which presents any opposing view? As with the Soviet Union and other failed regimes.
Reality must now be reshaped to conform to the narrative.
The complete and utter failure in all phases of US Foreign Policy is the bitter fruit of this Administration’s misguided, politically correct ideology. Unfortunately, the American people will be paying for these errors long after the Obama Presidency ends.
This Administration has been unable to admit that ISIS is an Islamic Extremist organization and that it is, in fact, not a “JV Team”. There are 13 dead in San Bernardino and 137 dead in Paris who might disagree with the President’s assessment. At the same time, this Administration openly encourages illegal immigration despite the fact that it has been proven that ISIS has (and certainly will in the future) use this channel to spearhead attacks on The United States. How does this reckless disregard for the facts ensure US security?
Also emblematic of the administration’s Willful Blindness is that in 2015, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) endured repeated complaints by its 40 Intel Analysts that their ISIS reporting was being regularly doctored due to an Administration hostile to their information. The Army Inspector General’s report specifically mentioned a “Stalinist environment” that shut down accurate reporting and honest analysis. Is this the multi-billion dollar intelligence community of which the American people can be proud? Perception Bias and Political Correctness resulted in an Administration moving headlong into a “Russian Reset”, which only served to empower a resurgent Putin to invade neighboring Ukraine, as well as reestablish a Russian foothold in the Middle East (which hasn’t existed in 25 years). Putin detected US weakness and ever the pragmatist (and an ex-Intelligence Officer), took advantage of the situation. The US State Department, along with their equally hapless, politically correct Western European colleagues, was doubtlessly shocked by Russia’s actions.
Mirror Imaging also produced the most ominous foreign debacle of all; a nuclear “deal” with Iran. A deal in which the US government releases $150 billion of frozen assets (frozen since 1979) as an “incentive” for Iran to curtail its ongoing nuclear weapons programs. By way of expressing thanks, in January of 2016, Iran launched missiles that directly broke its signed UN missile agreements.
This Administration has also re-opened relations with Castro’s Cuba. In honor of this event, Castro was emboldened to jail several hundred more dissidents against his tyrannical regime.
And so it goes.
Despots and America’s enemies rejoice over America’s feckless leadership; the results are increasing dangers to Americans worldwide. It is obvious that in this environment, virtually all intelligence reporting on the above threats has been disregarded (and common sense abandoned) as this administration undertakes actions that would have been considered inconceivable only a few years ago. Unable to learn from its mistakes, the US foreign policy establishment leaps from debacle to debacle.
Like the trap that the Soviets, Maoist Chinese, North Koreans and others had historically fallen into this Administration seems to believe its own alternate reality.
“When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious.”
Any Presidential administration, sworn to uphold the nation’s laws and protect its security, owes it to the American people to view intelligence in the most clear-headed and pragmatic way possible; free from pre-conceived notions, ulterior motives or irrational ideology. For the sake of our nation, come Election Day, more Americans need to honestly ask themselves, “When the phone rings at the White House at 3 AM, who do they want to be there to answer it?”