Sucking Up to the Intel Agencies by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Guest Writer, Dandelion Salad
November 10, 2014

2013 DC Rally Against Mass Surveillance 38

Image by Stephen D. Melkisethian via Flickr

UT’s Big Conference of the year just ended. Title of it was “Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism after a Decade: Are We Smarter and Safer?”. UT drug in very high level outside talent—DNI Clapper made one of his rare flyover state appearances; same for the other DC attendees, most all of whom were #2’s at various 3-initial agencies in the intel world. Of late, UT is getting in bed with the intel folks in DC in a big way; exactly why this is happening is something that I’m too far down on the food chain to know, no need to know I guess for any ordinary citizen like me as to why the flagship university of the nation’s second most populous state wants to buddy up with the US intel empire. Nobody in the newsmedia in these parts is observant enough to see this happening or smart enough about the military-industrial complex to be concerned by this happening. Ultimately the reasons behind it have to revolve around money, money and access to power in the real center of power in Washington, DC, which is the Pentagon. That topic is of course one of those not officially discussed you know, so I will.

The Pentagon has never been shy in spending taxpayer dollars at universities on its bright ideas, and there’s been some good from that—we now have the world’s leading aerospace industry and cheap airfares both, courtesy of USAF funded research. Right now, the intel empire certainly doesn’t lack for money to spend. According to Matthew Aid, the US spends somewheres north of 90 billion dollars every year on its intelligence agencies. I rather suspect Aid’s figures are low and I don’t lack for company here. We simply don’t know how much the intel agencies spend annually and nobody in the Congress, newsmedia, or the intel agencies has ever seen fit to find out and tell us. UT wants its share of that mosh, and it wants to get close to the DC power and influence that a 12-figure annual expenditure like this gives, and sucking up to the intel agencies is the place to do it. That suckup was the unstated rationale behind this conference, and it showed throughout all four days of it.

Everyone knows that success comes from who you suck up to, so is UT doing the right thing to suck up to the intel empire? No, they aren’t. First is that there just aren’t going to be useful civilian spinoffs from our intel spending. The only civilian beneficiary of big data tech research, which is most of the intel agencies’ research spending, will be Madison Avenue and large corporations, who will use it to try and sell us more mostly useless and redundant consumer goods shit we don’t need. They will probably succeed at it; they certainly have in the past. Big data also vastly increases big government leverage over you, because big government is the only person who has that information. Second drawback is the intel agencies have increasingly have become military appendages of the USG. Quasi-military overseas killing and mayhem that the CIA used to try and keep out of sight are now done fairly openly by the intel agencies across the globe. Nobody decent wants to get close to that.

So the cookie UT offers the intel figures and agencies to bring them down here is its willingness to do research for them and recruit for them. That and an opportunity to put out their spin in public again, to a tame and receptive University audience. Austin is enough of a tourist destination town these days (don’t ask me why; it really isn’t) to where conferences here are sold from the tourist experience too.

Much of the conference panels were quite dreadfully boring. I fell asleep in several of the panels that backscratchingly discussed past bureaucratic empire-building by these agencies. But there were some things worth noting; things you saw, and things you heard both.

First one is that this was one of impending UT Chancellor 4-star Admiral William McRaven’s first public appearances. It was my first chance to see him in action and I now understand how he managed to get the job. McRaven is quite intelligent and has excellent sales presence. He could do well on any used car or mobile home lot. He is also full of the usual bureaucratic dishonesty that senior military officers generally have in spades. A major part of a military officer’s job is to bullshit the troops, telling them that the next job upcoming will be a piece of cake, and McRaven not only was good at it, but he also internalized that part of the job too. Made snowing the Regents a snap I’m sure; they, like conmen say about doctors, are easy marks because they never get lied to. McRaven is also a class-A war criminal, assuming that Jeremy Scahill has his facts right about Camp NAMA in Iraq in his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. According to Scahill, Camp NAMA was another Abu Gharaib but its JSOC staff didn’t post the pictures on the web unlike the Abu Gharaib ANG retards did. Camp NAMA was such a success that it got replicated across Iraq and Afghanistan by JSOC. McRaven was theater JSOC commander; he bears responsibility for every indecent and unlawful action JSOC personnel committed in these camps. Corroboration of this is found in Gopal’s book for anyone interested. But nobody reads books, and nobody wants to discuss command responsibility for torture in our current round of glorious military adventures, so that part of McRaven’s resume gets ignored.

The main local driver in the conference wasn’t McRaven, but was instead one of UT’s powers behind the scene, another retired 4-star Admiral, Bobby Inman. Inman was in USN intel his military career and then went off to head the NSA, back when its initials were generally considered to mean ‘No Such Agency’. Inman retired to head MCC in the mid-80’s, when it was the newest thing on the block, a cooperative research agency of the US chip industry to maintain technological leadership in chip manufacturing in the US. That certainly didn’t happen; nobody discusses the why of that, MCC just another corporate tax subsidy operation that failed you know. Inman got into big finance, being partner or manager in some largeish local venture cap funds once his post-MCC gig with the Dallas Fed played out, and he serves on the boards of several major corporations, some of them rather backwards ones like Massey Industries and SAIC. He’s a success story of sorts about retired military doing well in retirement I guess, as his first two years on the Massey board made him a millionaire. Wealth was part of his retirement goals, so was power. You can see that in his rather cold and calculating manner. They said about McNamara that you could always hear the gears in his brain spinning; same is true with Inman. Inman is never going anywhere else than where he is now—he’s old, and has arrived to a happy behind the scenes power position that allows him to stay out of the limelight. He is also much too cold a fish, or squid rather, to ever run for office. That isn’t the case with McRaven, who is in his 50’s and who no doubt will be sounded out for political office seriously in the next two or so years. I’m sure he’ll accept; he, like Inman, has a transparent hunger for power. UT’s making him Chancellor is in large part a laundry operation for him. It is a safe bet that since nobody, not a single person, in Austin or UT ever bitched about having a Class-A war criminal as a Chancellor then he’s home free on that issue for any elective office in the future.

As far as the panelists, well, it isn’t worth spending too much time on them. They were reasonably intelligent but no great intellects. All of them possessed the salient skill sets for rising in a bureaucracy, which we all mostly know by now and which are themselves mostly nothing to spend time criticizing; they are not in themselves bad. None struck me as very well read but all were well-versed in repeating the DC world view. None of them will ever write a book worth reading; they all lack the depth of knowledge and more importantly the introspection necessary for that. Two big exceptions to all of the preceding; one was the panel of academics who were the last panel. They were excellent, every one of them, in particular Bob Jervis, whose books are well worth anyone’s reading. The other exception was former CIA DDI John McLaughlin, who not only struck me as someone who reads books deeply but also as someone who possesses one of the key characteristics that any good intel operator should have, which is doubt. All the other panelists from the intel world had the confidence and certainty of the rich and powerful, which is most dangerous. Uncertainty, and the practical caution that comes from it, and the realization of one’s own limitations, are useful tools for intel operators and doctors and mechanics all three. Persons confident in their rightness make bad diagnosticians and bad intel operators too.

Nothing of note was officially said at the conference because of course anything important that the DC types want to say will be said in a much larger media market than Austin. Seeing as this was mostly a recruiting venture for the agencies, all sorts of the usual hogwash was said that the grey haired say about the young when they want something from them—how the current young people are the smartest ever, and they are so incredibly mature, and they’re so skilled at all the newfangled tech gizmos too. This was matched equally by the UT students whose questions to panelists were fawning queries about thank you for your service and how can I get hired? The more important fact about young Americans working for the intel agencies was let dropped by several of the agencies’ senior execs there about how for the last couple of years when they put out ads for a dozen or three new hires, they had something over a hundred times more applications show up than job openings. All expressed great satisfaction at their ability to pick and choose from so many so qualified applicants, all of whom were so much better educated and worldly than they themselves were at that age. I rather doubt that any of them had twigged to the fact that this situation is the case for ALL of the applicants for ALL of the jobs that they are applying for, and that this situation is perhaps not a good one. In conversation later with one of those applicants, a solid fellow in his mid-20’s, Iraq veteran whose GI Bill paid for maybe 50% of his private college tuition, he pointed out the students sucking up to the panelists afterwards, and said that with that sort of ratio of applicants the hires are all going to be relatives or relative’s friends or someone with a direct personal inside connection to the panelists. It is all an inside job, he said, and it’s the inside the beltway culture in action, perpetuating itself. He’s probably right.

Generally always at a UT event intelligent questions are never asked by the audience and therefore nothing gets said inadvertently by officials unexpectedly put on the spot. Both UT and their invited guests find this the satisfactory state of affairs. I got in one question to McRaven* and after that it was obvious that I wasn’t going to get picked again. It was obvious enough to where audience members commented on it to me. Fortunately for me, the final speaker at the conference was Congressman Michael McCaul, and he picked me for a question. This led to a minor contretemps between myself and the West Point cadet who had been picked by the UT official running both the audience microphone and the freezeout. I got my fair turn with a good question**, as UT wasn’t shameless enough to push the freezeout that far in front of a Congressman.

The most interesting aspect of the freezeout was the morning of the second day, when I was eating breakfast tacos in the cafeteria with a charming female Pakistani LBJ School student I’d just met. A plainclothes APD Lieutenant came up to me and we had a conversation about how happy he was that I was minding my manners. I was polite and professional to the Lieutenant, but slow on the uptake, and I neglected to ask him just who at UT had told him to come up to me and give me the message to watch myself. No police officer would start this sort of conversation without being told to by someone in authority, and the only authority who would be telling him that would of course be UT. Hmm, senior APD police officers are happy to be messenger boys for third-tier UT bureaucrats. UT third-tier bureaucrats are happy to use the APD to threaten people they don’t like. Well, both Congressmen at the event got a very nice note from me thanking them for showing up at the conference and an oh by the way about this. Visit my state senator next week on this, too. UT is happy to make the APD their messenger boy to me, well, I’m happy to make senior elected officials mine to them. Two can certainly play this game.

The problems that bothered the intel boys (there were no intel girls at this overwhelmingly male and almost exclusively Caucasian audience and panel event)*** enough for them to talk about in public matter. As the country saying goes, you can tell by the swelling where a man’s been hit. To my surprise, Snowden and Wikileaks did not lead the list; large and repeated complaints about them notwithstanding they placed third. Second place worry was budget cuts from sequestration. Director Clapper said no less than seven times in his remarks about how the intel agencies needed more money and they weren’t getting it because of sequestration. Nobody asked Director Clapper why somewheres north of 90 billion dollars every year isn’t enough for intel expenditures, particularly as the only country that spends more than that on its total entire military expenditures is China, at around $110 billion. (#’s 3 and 4 on military expenditures worldwide are Russia and the UK, in the range of 50-60 billion. We spend almost twice as much on just our intel agencies as the Russia officially declared menace spends on its entire military.) Tell me, Mr. Clapper, in light of these numbers just why do you need more money, and what would we the taxpayers get for the extra expenditures? I didn’t get to ask it here, and nobody anywhere in this country asks it either.

The biggest issue bothering the Intel agencies’ senior staff was how the US public no longer trusts the intel agencies largely on account of the Wikileaks and Snowden revelations. Why this loss of trust mattered to the intel agencies was never explained. There was a uniform consensus that the solution to this situation was more transparency by the intel agencies. Exactly what this is supposed to be was never explained. Budget transparency would seem a good place to start, and that isn’t going to happen. Some explanation is due on how increased transparency would do anything about the massive covert surveillance of Americans at home or abroad. Perhaps massive overt surveillance in its stead? More transparency about the FBI’s domestic “terrorism” entrapments, and the lengthy prison sentences DOJ hands out to those dreadfully unfortunate poor unhappy losers? Explain that one, please. Transparency about drone warfare in all the miserably poor third-world countries our intel agencies and military bomb pointlessly via remote control? How so, please? Live feeds of drone strikes on the web?? The fact that there was not a single substantive or practical suggestion proffered by any of the panelists for what they considered the solution to be to the most important problem facing their agencies shows some gross disconnect not just in their cognitive functions but in events at large.

My intuitive hunch is that a disconnect this big in the minds of persons this senior in positions of real power in this country of ours between problem and solution shows that some big flaw is out there in this world that can’t be papered over. Venturing a guess as to what that yawning chasm is I’d say it is the complete failure of our intelligence agencies to contribute anything to solving this country’s problems. What can the intel agencies contribute to our country’s ailing economy, our failed health system, our educational system deficiencies, upcoming energy crises, global warming, you name it, they have nothing to offer, no matter how big their annual budgets get. The intel bureaucracies are the glad happy beneficiaries of our embrace of perpetual war, and have benefited greatly from it, but likely in the dim reaches of their consciences the intel agencies’ senior staff here realize that a perpetual war is one that we will ultimately lose. Lose not on the battlefield so much but instead the loss of the regard of the rest of the world, the loss of our republican form of government, and the loss of our economic world power. All of these are well in the process of happening, if we have our eyes open enough to see.

The conference was a much-needed break for me from some dreadfully boring and frustrating blue-collar work, and I’m grateful for the cheap in-town vacation I guess. Too much swearing at broken machinery isn’t good for a person, I’ve found. The drawback to this conference as a vacation is that nothing I saw or heard gave me any sense of hope or optimism about how things are going inside the Beltway, which is of course the only place that counts in US governance these days. I can’t see how anyone could think differently after attending this conference.**** This wasn’t the conference’s intent, and it isn’t how things are customarily reported, but this is how I see them, this fall of 2014.

*My question to McRaven was why when we had Zarqawi cornered and surrounded in a stand-alone building we went ahead and killed him by bombing the building. Why didn’t we wait him out and capture him and get the intelligence benefit from his talking, which he certainly would have done over time enough. McRaven was fairly blithe in saying that some people are just so charismatic that you have to just kill them.

Problem is not only the key intel opportunity lost, but the martyr created. Che Guevara was killed by the Bolivian army over the strenuous objections of the US CIA and Special Forces present. If he hadn’t been, he’d have died two decades later some fat, boring, and alcoholic beach bum in internal exile on Fidel’s orders far from Havana. No Che posters on college dorm walls would ever have been printed and posted. McRaven has to know this history, which makes his blithe careless answer all the more disturbing.

**Question to McCaul was just why we are at war in Syria. Our actions of regime change have to be called war; there is no getting around that fact. What are our political objectives in this war? What sort of injury has Syria and the Assad regime ever done to warrant a US war on them? Congressman McCaul, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, had no answer, despite having had two years to come up with one.

*** The initial opening sessions were held in a 500+ seat auditorium, which was better than 2/3rds full. There were no more than four blacks in the audience, and to my eye no Hispanics. What may be worse is that the West Point contingent there, which was about 10 strong, was entirely Caucasian as well.

****Anyone who knows the truth of the Sicilian folk expression that a fish starts to rot from the head was probably as discomfited by what they saw and heard at this conference as I was.


America’s Surveillance State, Part 1: The Surveillance Machine

America’s Surveillance State, Part 4: The Surveillance Industrial Complex

Noam Chomsky: Drones Are Murder Without Trial

Noam Chomsky: Drones Come Home To Roost + Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars