Interviews August 2004

Councils of War

"Anonymous," the CIA insider who wrote Imperial Hubris, argues that we must annihilate our Muslim enemies, while heeding their point of view
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book cover

Imperial Hubris
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Anonymous
Brassey's, Inc.
309 pages, $27.50

Who is the mysterious "Anonymous" whose controversial new book, Imperial Hubris, turns conventional wisdom about the war on terrorism on its head? Though his actual identity—CIA officer Michael Scheuer—has been outed by the media, who he is on a more abstract level, and where he's coming from, remains difficult to discern. Indeed, there is a duality to his prescriptions for dealing with terrorism that is hard to reconcile in one person. One representative passage from Imperial Hubris reads:

Progress [in our battle against terrorism] will be measured by the pace of killing and, yes, by body counts ... The piles of dead will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms.

But elsewhere he criticizes America's refusal to acknowledge Muslim grievances:

America's stubborn obtuseness in failing to see the counterproductive nature of its policies toward the Muslim world is a powerful force-multiplier for bin Laden and those he leads and inspires...

We can either reaffirm current policies, thereby denying their role in creating the hatred bin Laden personifies, or we can examine and debate the reality we face, the threat we must defeat,and then—if deemed necessary—devise policies that better serve U.S. interests.

So is he a bloodthirsty advocate of total war against Muslims? Or an ardent believer in the power of public discourse? The answer, forged in the CIA's halls for more than twenty years, seems to be that he is somehow both—a proponent of civilized debate as a first recourse, and an adherent of the notion that if we must go to war against the Muslim world, we need to do it all the way.

The questions about which he seeks to provoke debate are good ones, and ones that intelligence officials and intelligence watchers have been pointing to in these pages for a long time. (See for example James Fallow's "Blind into Baghdad," Kenneth Pollack's "Spies, Lies, and Weapons," and Robert Baer's "The Fall of the House of Saud.") How long can we remain disproportionately dependent on foreign sources of energy? Why do we continue to support corrupt regimes in the Middle East? Is our policy of nearly unconditional support for Israel worth the price we pay for it? In the context of such questions, Scheuer makes the disturbing point that, because of our past policies, we no longer have the choice between war and peace. Much as Scheuer would like for America to debate these questions in a constructive manner, he doubts that such discussion is politically feasible. While debate may be the ideal, war, unfortunately, is the reality.

Scheuer also seeks to encourage debate about intelligence and how it is gathered and disseminated. Though his first book on the subject, Through Our Enemies' Eyes (2002), went virtually unnoticed, his new book has attracted significant attention, and as a result the CIA seems to have gone on the defensive. According to United Press International, as of August 4, the CIA had officially banned Scheuer from speaking publicly about intelligence reform, and he is now required to give the CIA five days' notice of all interview questions that will be addressed to him, and his proposed answers.

We spoke by phone on July 22—two weeks before the CIA's new regulations about interviews went into effect.

Elizabeth Shelburne

Why is the book being published under the name "Anonymous"?

[laughs] It was at the insistence of my employer that I not reveal my name or my agency of affiliation. I had asked to publish it in my true name, but the answer was simply no. I received a two-line memo that said "go ahead, but remain anonymous." Several people have speculated that it was because I was afraid for my life or something, but that's not the case. I asked for permission and was refused—that's all.

In reading your book, one of the things I was struck by was this sense of disconnect between what agents and analysts in your agency were reporting and what was being told to elected officials. Why wasn't accurate information getting to the people for whom it was most important?

At the senior leadership level within the intelligence community there's a tremendous and deeply ingrained risk aversion. There's also a tremendous political correctness—an aversion to discussing religion or the differences between societies and civilizations. So it was very unlikely that someone was going to go to the President and say, "These guys were really not criminals—they were devout Muslims motivated by their religion." Another factor is that protecting Americans is very seldom the first concern of policy-makers or of elected officials when it comes to an opportunity to act against one of our enemies. The first questions are always, "What will the Europeans think if we use military force? If we bomb bin Laden and the shrapnel hits a mosque, won't the Muslims be mad at us? What if we attack bin Laden in the desert at his camp and we kill an Emirati prince? Maybe the Emiratis won't buy X-billion dollars-worth of F16s." Protecting America generally isn't one of the top concerns.

But isn't that the job of this community?

It's the job and the accepted responsibility of the people who actually do the work—collecting the information in the field and doing the analysis. But at the leadership level, there's deep ambivalence because there are so many other considerations.

Are the very scathing criticisms of the intelligence community that have recently come out, like the 9/11 report, more relevant to the leadership level than they are to the analyst level?

I think that's exactly it. There are people out there risking their lives to collect information. But there's a feeling that the information is not being appropriately dealt with by the leadership. In a sense Mr. Tenet decided to let the whole intelligence community go down together instead of assigning responsibility where it's most due—which is not with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Who do you think will bear the brunt of the responsibility in the aftermath of reports like the 9/11 commission report?

It almost seems as though they're going to decide that nobody is responsible—that there's no personal accountability and that somehow we were victimized by a system that was dysfunctional. I think that's regrettable because many instances of human fault, either dereliction or just plain negligence, brought us to 9/11. There's no name-calling in this report, which would be okay if there weren't any names to call, but there has to be responsibility somewhere.

You write about several failures in intelligence gathering as we moved toward war in Afghanistan. I wondered if you could talk about some of those, and why missing those opportunities was so crucial.

It's not so much that we missed opportunities as that the intelligence community tends to have contempt for expertise that doesn't fall into the areas of hard science or satellites and things like that. The community also puts a high stress on generalists— people who move every two years, working first on Europe, say, and then on Japan, and then on narcotics. What happened with Afghanistan is that it was one of those rare cases where, because of the covert action program there in the 1980s, we had a deep cadre of expertise. But none of that expertise was called upon. It's the kind of expertise that tells you not so much what to do, but what not to do. You know what's been tried before and doesn't work. The fact that that information was not used is the responsibility of the intelligence community, not the President or the Vice President. In fact, I think they would find it hard to believe that the leaders of the intelligence community didn't try to gather all the Afghan expertise they could under one roof.

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