Who’s to Blame for ISIS ‘Surprise’?

For several years, Official Washington blinded itself to the growing radicalism of the Syrian opposition, all the better to portray the Assad regime as the “bad guys” and the rebels as the “good guys.” Now, everyone is pointing fingers about the ISIS “surprise,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The recent burst of recriminations about what the U.S. intelligence community did or did not tell the President of the United States in advance about the rise of the extremist group sometimes called ISIS, and about associated events in Iraq, is only a variation on some well-established tendencies in Washington discourse. The tendency that in recent years has, of course, become especially strongly entrenched is that of couching any issue in the way that is best designed to bash one’s political opponents.

For those determined to bash and frustrate Barack Obama at every turn, it is a tendency that trumps everything else. Thus we now have the curious circumstance of some of Mr. Obama’s Republican critics, who in other contexts would be at least as quick as anyone else to come down on U.S. intelligence agencies (and most other parts of the federal bureaucracy) like a ton of bricks, saying that the President got good information but failed to act on it. (Some critics, however, have tried to lower their cognitive dissonance by saying that “everyone” could see what was coming with ISIS.)

CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency's headquarters. (U.S. government photo)

CIA seal in lobby of the spy agency’s headquarters. (U.S. government photo)

Relationships between the intelligence community and presidential administrations over the past few decades have not fallen into any particular pattern distinguishable by party. One of the best relationships was with the administration of the elder George Bush, perhaps not surprisingly, given that president’s prior experience as a Director of Central Intelligence under President Gerald Ford.Probably the worst was during the presidency of the younger George Bush, whose administration, in the course of selling the Iraq War, strove to discredit the intelligence community’s judgments that contradicted the administration’s assertions about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, pushed for public use of reporting about alleged weapons programs that the community did not consider credible, and ignored the community’s judgments about the likely mess in Iraq that would follow the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Relations also have varied under Democratic presidents. Mr. Obama, given the evidently deliberate and methodical way he weighs input, including from the civilian and military bureaucracy, before major national security decisions, probably has been one of the better users of intelligence, at least in the sense of paying attention to it. His remark on 60 Minutes that led to the accusations about ISIS, however, did sound like gratuitous blame-shifting.

One very longstanding and bipartisan tendency that this recent imbroglio has diluted (because the political motive to attack Obama is even stronger than political motives to attack intelligence agencies) is to assume that any apparently insufficient U.S. reaction to an untoward development overseas must be due to policymakers not being sufficiently informed, and this must be because intelligence services failed.

It is remarkable how, when anything disturbing goes bump in the night overseas, the label “intelligence failure” gets quickly and automatically applied by those who have no basis whatever for knowing what the intelligence community did or did not say, in classified, intra-governmental channels, to policymakers.

The current case does demonstrate in undiluted form, however, several other recurrent tendencies, one of which is to affix the label “surprise” to certain events not so much because of the state of knowledge or understanding of those who make national security policy but more because we, the public, and the press and chattering class, were surprised.

Or to be even more accurate, this often happens because those of us outside government weren’t paying much attention to the developments in question until something especially dramatic seized our attention, even though we actually had enough information about the possibilities that we should not have been surprised. Thus the dramatic gains by ISIS earlier this year have been labeled a “surprise” because a swift territorial advance and gruesome videotaped killings grabbed public attention.

Another tendency is to believe that if government is working properly, surprises shouldn’t happen. This belief disregards how much that is relevant to foreign policy and national security is unknowable, no matter how brilliant either an intelligence service or a policymaker may be.

This is partly because of other countries and entities keeping secrets but even more so because some future events are inherently unpredictable, given that they involve decisions that others have not yet made, or social processes too complex or psychological mechanisms too fickle to model.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was referring to this epistemological reality in the comment that he made recently about the Iraqi army’s collapse and that the President erroneously characterized in his 60 Minutes interview. Clapper was not saying that the intelligence community messed up on this question; he instead was observing that this type of sudden loss of will in the heat of battle has always been unpredictable.

Yet another recurring tendency is to think that proper policy responses always flow from a good empirical understanding of the problem at hand, including the sort of information, analysis, and predictions that a well-functioning intelligence service might be expected to provide. In fact, proper responses often do not flow that way from an understanding of the problem. Often there are conflicting national interests at stake, there are serious costs and risks to possible responses, and the likely benefits of responses may not outweigh the likely costs.

No matter how accurate a picture of ISIS the intelligence community may be providing to the President and his policy advisers, that picture is not likely to constitute a case for the United States to take more, rather than less, forceful action in Syria or Iraq. If President Obama is now taking more forceful measures in those places than he was earlier, it is neither because he is belatedly reacting to good intelligence nor because the intelligence community is belatedly getting its judgments right, but instead because he is responding to how the rest of us have decided that we are not just surprised but alarmed by ISIS.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Who’s to Blame for ISIS ‘Surprise’?

  1. F. G. Sanford
    October 3, 2014 at 19:00

    “The current case does demonstrate in undiluted form, however, several other recurrent tendencies, one of which is to affix the label “surprise” to certain events…”

    I couldn’t help but flinch a little when I saw that label, “surprise”, attached to these events. Professor Daniele Ganser, Ph.D. provides a fascinating conceptual framework for analyzing various evidentiary elements associated with the “intelligence community’s” last REALLY BIG “surprise”. He demurs to drawing conclusions, but the framework includes three categories: “Surprise”, “LIHOP” and “MIHOP”.

    Suffice to say that a serious look at the evidence and circumstances leaves the observer in a position to demur as well. Of the three choices, “surprise” looks like the least likely. Those 28 redacted pages could shed some light, and I’m sure there is nothing in them that would “surprise” the intelligence community (IC). Hearing Khalid Sheik Mohammed testify in an open courtroom might be good for a “surprise” or two, which is a good reason why it’ll never happen.
    It was no “surprise” to me that the Ghouta gas attack was a fraud – the parasympathomimetic effects of nerve agents don’t produce the appearance of shaving cream liberally applied to the faces of the victims, but those pictures sure fooled our “intelligence” community. And I’m sure there are people smarter than me working there. These staged events now arrive “Fast and Furious”, but each time they are caught with their pants down, the IC is ready with a convoluted explanation why they weren’t really wrong, they just weren’t exactly right.

    Maybe if they weren’t spending so much time reading our email, they could do a little better. This is like an IQ test, and you guys are flunking it…with the open book right in front of you.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 4, 2014 at 01:03

      F.G. You are on to something when pointing out the lighting speed we do know things. Like I think BBC was reporting the fall of BLDG 7 WTC while the building was in the reporters background still standing….oh, wait for the que, why don’t ya!

      All I know was, that half way thru Mr Pillar’s story here I was drawing stick men and getting dizzy. Yet, that gang which appears to not shoot straight would be a fantastic cover….why don’t we just find the PJ O’Reilly’s amongst us and see how they might do! It’s like watching all the wrong kids get together back in high school. Like what are the odds of all those who wiggle out of responsibity just all show up at the same level. I’ll quit now, have a wonderful morning!

      • Dfnslblty
        October 4, 2014 at 10:35

        Stickmen after a coupla lines – cool.
        Whom to trust?
        Even the essay above is it whitewash.

  2. Greg Driscoll
    October 3, 2014 at 17:39

    In the face of much information about the DOS and the CIA recruiting Islamists in Libya to built up the number of anti-Assad militants, I find it hard to think that the whole ISIL matter caught the so-called intelligence agencies without a clue. It’s more likely that the vetting of the militants recruited was very very poor and, add to that the American hubris about controlling events – voila, we wind up with the next reason to continue going to war. Besides, it’s part of the CIA’s role to take the fall and the political heat when policy matters go awry. It’s all part of the game. You’ll notice that very, very few heads roll (pardon the image) among the intelligence community’s leadership when “failures of intelligence” occur. Larry Wilkerson recently said that the war hawks in Congress (Republicans and Democrats alike) should put their bodies and those of their families where their mouths run off so much — namely, in the heat of the action on the ground. Two things would be accomplished: they’d get a good dose of reality and perhaps learn not to talk about what they demonstrably know nothing about, and two, we may just get rid of a few obstacles to real progress in this country.

  3. Bill Casey
    October 3, 2014 at 15:51

    P.Pillar: “intelligence failure” gets quickly applied by those who have no basis for knowing what the intelligence community did or did not say to policymakers.”

    “intelligence failure” does not just describe what the intelligence community says but also what they do: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgdr2Bm5P-c
    And we do know what the intelligence community says in public – And they’ve said some stupid sh*t: http://www.thenation.com/article/181601/whos-paying-pro-war-pundits

    P.Pillar: “It is remarkable how, when anything disturbing goes bump in the night, the label “intelligence failure” gets quickly applied — to policymakers.”

    The label “intelligence failure” is Not applied — to policymakers but to the intelligence agencies themselves – the CIA and the NSA and the neocon media:

    Glenn Greenwald (Intercept, 9/8/14) describes how ISIS and the neocon media worked in perfect unison: http://fair.org/take-action/media-advisories/four-myths-about-obamas-war-on-isis/

    They don’t often use the words terrorist when referring to ISIS. Does this allow them to turn a blind eye to terrorist (ISIS) financing and training? USA Today reported on a secret memo which revealed that the Saudis sent death-row inmates to fight for ISIS in exchange for commuting their sentences. Emails/memos are supposed to be NSA forte?

    Even New York Times has come to question the existence of moderate Syrian rebels:

  4. Joe Tedesky
    October 3, 2014 at 14:37

    So if I read Mr Pillar right, assuming responsibity among this governing class is more like musical chairs. This is probably as good of a reason as any to why no one is ever held accountable. BTW does anyone in DC know when ISIS might go away?

    I think the right answer to this is ….your all fired! Now, get out of here!

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