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A Grim Prospect

Were Life Only Like A Fairy Tale

By Michael Tanji | February 9, 2007

Rare is the night that I do not read my children a story from one of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series of books. A current favorite is Dragons and Giants, which has Frog and Toad testing their mettle against the bravery displayed by the protagonists in their book of fairy tales. In the course of their journey up a mountain Frog and Toad flee from a snake, barely escape an avalanche, and narrowly avoid being carried away by a hawk. As each trial unfolds they run and scream “We are not afraid!” At the end of the tale we find our amphibious friends huddled under the covers (Toad) and in a closet (Frog) “being brave together.”

A survey of the political landscape in this country over the last few years reveals a disturbing number of Frogs and Toads amongst us. Faced with numerous dangerous challenges the response is never to stand and fight or face the issue head-on; it is to run while simultaneously declaring victory. Lost in the back-slapping clamor of self-congratulations is the fact that those who would do us harm are not gone, they are merely waiting for their next opportunity.

The “flight” part of the fight-or-flight reflex is legitimate in the lower-rungs of the natural world but it is a poor approach for those at the top of the food chain: “You can run, but you’ll only die tired.” says the sniper-themed t-shirt. In the animal kingdom the frog that attempts to stand up to the snake is viewed as proof of the theory of natural selection; the human that doesn’t go willingly to his death is labeled a warmonger or worse.

Today we find a group of amphibia – in the form of the Office of Special Plans - under fire for attempting to demonstrate that there are indeed snakes and hawks circling and plotting our downfall. The OSP used the same information that the intelligence community did and drew different conclusions about the nature of the threat we currently face. Their non-crime was stretching the comfortable boundaries of the overly cautious community that bullies or marginalizes dissenters: a flawed practice that is only now being remedied to nominal effect. Lost in the melee is the treasure trove of hard and softcopy media taken from Iraq that shows that we were right to worry about Saddam. Of course the response is to dismiss actual intelligence and stick with misguided speculation.

One cannot fault the Frogs and Toads of this world for their lack of bravery, for no one knows for sure how they will react when faced with a mortal challenge, but we have every right to criticize those hop-along-to-get-alongs who have no plan for dealing with those who await the next opportunity to strike us. Rather than offering meaningful alternatives they demonize those with a different view and do nothing to advance a fuller understanding of the problems we face. Lacking neither concrete plan for the future nor ideas for dealing with the threats at hand, their approach to the dangers around us is apparently to wait for an attractive young princess to plant her lips on them in the hopes of achieving a fairy tale ending.

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Their is a constant pressure on the throats of professional intelligence analysts to produce summaries that meet the political interests of their customers. In 2003 that was to produce material which supported the Bush Administration claim of WMDs in Iraq. The OSP's existence is solely based on political expediency and making intelligence fit the crime.

Regarding your Frog and Toad analogy, there are lots of professional soldiers who have been trained to understand when the conditions for a military action exist and when they do not; when there is a military solution, and when there is not. Many of those trained and experienced warriors recognize that there is no favorable U.S. military outcome to the civil war in Iraq, and that the solution is not a military one but a diplomatic one. Are these brave men and women, who have defended this country many times before, now toads and frogs because they don't agree with your civilian and ill-formed opinions regarding military strategy in Iraq?

Never in nearly twenty years and through the course of several armed conflicts did anyone of any political persuasion pressure my colleagues or me to produce intelligence to fit a political agenda. Post-war investigations by Congress failed to turn up anyone who would say otherwise. If your experience in the IC - I assume you are speaking from first-hand experience - was different, please sound off.

The Frog and Toad analogy isn't aimed at military or intelligence professionals. My apologies if I did not make it clear that I am aiming at political targets.

But you had customers for your intel analysis, right? Policy-makers at various levels from the White House on down, each with a political objective. Intelligence isn't delivered in a vacuum, and the daily reality for analysts today is balancing the needs of their political consumers with an objective evaluaton of the data. There's no disputing that, Michael. The only question is how much pressure is exerted and who bows to it.

There is a difference between "politician coming down and standing over analysts and telling them what to write" and "politician taking objective analytic output and twisting it to their own ends after production." I've never seen the former happen, the latter is going on all the time. That's on the political hacks, not the producers.

Questions may come down as "What is the Iranian ballistic missile threat to CONUS?" which could be interpreted any number of ways, but the answer isn't crafted to produce a given result. No matter how you slice it you can't make the data say "Why, it's critical Mr. Secretary." A report like that would never leave the office much less the building.