Three books that have caught my eye recently.
Routledge has an interesting sounding book coming out at the end of May under the somewhat awkward title of A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of the Mukhabarat, 1910-2009. It is written by Owen Sirrs, a former official of the Defense Intelligence Agency whose specialty there was Iran, so he doubtless brings a good professional approach to the work. I’m very curious to see what he’s able to put together, as sources have got to be extremely scarce, at least for the post WWII era. If this book is even half-way decent, it will be great progress toward filling an enormous gap. Very very little has been written about modern Arab intelligence services. Yaacov Caroz, a former senior official of the Mossad did write a book in the 1970s called The Arab Secret Services. Caroz’s volume is OK for spy stories if you’re into that sort of thing, but it largely lacks an analytic perspective. It’s also not very well organized. Accordingly, I have high hopes for this new work. As is usual the cost of this book is preposterous, $125, but I’m hoping that there will be a cheaper paperback edition as there usually is for Routledge books.
I have recently purchased Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Here is the publisher’s blurb about it:
Based on his reading of top-secret files of the Israeli police and the prime minister’s office, Hillel Cohen exposes the full extent of the crucial, and, until now, willfully hidden history of Palestinian collaboration with Israelis–and of the Arab resistance to it. Cohen’s previous book, the highly acclaimed Army of Shadows, told how this hidden history played out from 1917 to 1948, and now, in Good Arabs he focuses on the system of collaborators established by Israel in each and every Arab community after the 1948 war. Covering a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors, Cohen brings together the stories of activists, mukhtars, collaborators, teachers, and sheikhs, telling how Israeli security agencies penetrated Arab communities, how they obtained collaboration, how national activists fought them, and how deeply this activity influenced daily life. When this book was first published in Hebrew, it became a bestseller and has evoked bitter memories and intense discussions among Palestinians in Israel and prompted the reclassification of many of the hundreds of documents Cohen viewed to uncover a story that continues to unfold to this day.
As a result of my work on American intelligence during World War I, I have become quite interested in the use of intelligence and security services to surveil and control potentially hostile populations. Now, many scholars look at this sort of issue, but they primarily approach it from a civil liberties perspective, often with the assumption that intelligence and security services are intrinsically bad. (See, e.g. the work of Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones.) I’m unwilling to call intelligence and security services evil or venal as a going-in assumption. Rather, I think they tend to have the same moral value as the governments they serve. I’m also interested in how these services think about domestic threats: are apparently oppressive security services that way because they have plausible concepts of potential threats to national security that require such measures? Or are they truly motivated by all the class, racial, ethnic, and other sorts of considerations that scholars so often talk about? I’m hoping that Good Arabs will stimulate my thinking on these topics.
Finally, on a different note, the legendary political scientist Robert Jervis has a book coming out entitled Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War. Here is the publisher’s blurb on this book:
The U.S. government spends enormous resources each year on the gathering and analysis of intelligence, yet the history of American foreign policy is littered with missteps and misunderstandings that have resulted from intelligence failures. In Why Intelligence Fails,Robert Jervis examines the politics and psychology of two of the more spectacular intelligence failures in recent memory: the mistaken belief that the regime of the Shah in Iran was secure and stable in 1978, and the claim that Iraq had active WMD programs in 2002.
The Iran case is based on a recently declassified report Jervis was commissioned to undertake by CIA thirty years ago and includes memoranda written by CIA officials in response to Jervis’s findings. The Iraq case, also grounded in a review of the intelligence community’s performance, is based on close readings of both classified and declassified documents, though Jervis’s conclusions are entirely supported by evidence that has been declassified.
In both cases, Jervis finds not only that intelligence was badly flawed but also that later explanations analysts were bowing to political pressure and telling the White House what it wanted to hear or were willfully blind were also incorrect. Proponents of these explanations claimed that initial errors were compounded by groupthink, lack of coordination within the government, and failure to share information. Policy prescriptions, including the recent establishment of a Director of National Intelligence, were supposed to remedy the situation.
In Jervis’s estimation, neither the explanations nor the prescriptions are adequate. The inferences that intelligence drew were actually quite plausible given the information available. Errors arose, he concludes, from insufficient attention to the ways in which information should be gathered and interpreted, a lack of self-awareness about the factors that led to the judgments, and an organizational culture that failed to probe for weaknesses and explore alternatives. Evaluating the inherent tensions between the methods and aims of intelligence personnel and policymakers from a unique insider’s perspective, Jervis forcefully criticizes recent proposals for improving the performance of the intelligence community and discusses ways in which future analysis can be improved.
A couple years ago someone gave me a sweatshirt with the slogan on it: “So many books, so little time.” Oh yeah.