SHAFR: Findings from Iraqi Records

If any of you are at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) conference going on right now in Madison, I strongly encourage you to stop by the following panel.  Unfortunately, it’s scheduled for Sunday AM, but it should be well worth it.

Panel 58:  New Perspectives on U.S.-Iraq Relations under Saddam (Room 213)

Chair:  Jessica Huckabey, Conflict Records Research Center

“This Stab in the Back”: Saddam Hussein, Irangate and the United States

Hal Brands, Institute for Defense Analyses

Understanding Saddam’s Non-Use of WMD in the Gulf War

David Palkki, University of California at Los Angeles and Institute for Defense Analyses

Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm

Kevin Woods, Institute for Defense Analyses

Comment:  Thomas Mahnken, U.S. Naval War College and Johns Hopkins University

All three of these papers draw heavily on captured Iraqi records copies of which are or will be in the Conflict Records Research Center.  (Official site here.)  Hal’s paper will discuss how Saddam reacted to news of the Iran-Contra scandal, in particular the fact that the United States had been shipping weapons to Iran, a country with whom Iraq was at war at the time.  Though the Iran-Contra affair came to light pretty late in the Iran-Iraq War, I think is paper should encourage historians to reconsider the question of the extent to which Saddam really was our man, in our pocket, during the 1980s.

David’s paper should prove equally interesting and deals with the effects or lack thereof of the famous Baker-Aziz meeting of 9 January 1991 at which Baker issued a veiled threat–often thought to refer to the possible use of nuclear weapons–of the consequences if Iraq were to use CBW against American forces.  Dave gave a version of this paper a couple of months ago at a conference at the CSIS.  Here is the abstract from that talk:

Ever since the Gulf War, scholars have debated why Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons
against Coalition forces or US allies. Many analysts have suggested that Saddam didn’t use WMD
because the ferocity of the Coalition onslaught, adverse weather, difficulties mating toxic materials with
warheads, or other factors rendered Iraq physically unable to deliver them. Others argue that US Secretary
of State James Baker’s ambiguous warning that the United States would retaliate with nuclear weapon
strikes, and/or by replacing Saddam’s regime, deterred Iraqi use. I find that Iraq was physically able to
attack Coalition forces and US allies with chemical and biological weapons, yet refrained from doing so
for fear of US nuclear retaliation. Deterrence, however, was largely existential, as Saddam considered US
nuclear strikes plausible long before US officials issued even the most veiled of threats. My argument is
based on captured recordings of private conversations between Saddam and his inner circle, declassified
US interrogation reports, defector accounts, and recently released memoirs. My findings have important
implications for the ongoing debate over the role of the US nuclear arsenal and the question of a US no first
use declaratory policy.

Kevin will talk about work that he and I did on the lessons Saddam learned from DESERT STORM, how he was able to calculate that he won that war and how these lessons may have served him poorly in the run-up to 2003.  For more on that, see my previous posting here.

INFOWARCON (3): Covert Internet Access for Iranians

Also at INFOWARCON, I heard a very interesting but lamentably short talk by Austin Heap, the founder of Haystack, a small company in San Francisco that is a spin-off of the Censorship Research Center.  Haystack’s product is software which can be run off of a flash drive or a CD so that nothing incriminating is on the hard drive.  It allows Iranians to surf the Web freely.

Haystack put extensive research into determining precisely how the Iranian government filters the web and has designed the software specifically to counter those measures.  In broad terms, Haystack’s software both encrypts signals and hides them inside innocuous-looking traffic.  Austin says that he is prepared for the Iranian government to adjust its filtering in response to Haystack’s efforts and that he has another generation or two of strategies ready to roll out when that happens.

Haystack is also preparing software for two additional countries, which he named to me when I chatted with him after his talk.  However, I noticed that he declined to name them on NPR, so I shan’t here.  Suffice to say, that one of them is in the news a lot.  Haystack’s efforts there could turn out to be of very important to American national securityover the long term.  Right now, Haystack is in the research phase, determining how each of these countries do their filtering, so it will be a good while before the new software makes its appearance.

If you want to get a sense of Austin’s talk at INFOWARCON, you can listen to him on NPR’s “On the Media” where he also appeared last weekend.  I’ve got to say that watching this guy–a kid, really–in his blue jeans, long hair, sunglasses pushed up on his head talking from notes on his i-Phone standing in front of a room of military officers, defense contractors, and assorted inside-the-Beltway types made me proud to be an American.

I can’t mention this topic without pointing to the work of Evgeny Morozov, a native of the bastion of democracy known as Belarus (ha!), who is deeply skeptical about the democratizing power of the Web.  Frankly, I don’t agree with him, but his arguments cannot be ignored in this context.  See, for instance, his “How Dictators Watch Us On the Web.”  At base, Morozov’s argument is that the Web (and new media generally) do provide useful tools for dissidents but that it enables government repression to an even greater extent, primarily by giving the government sources of intelligence about the identity of dissidents and the links among them.

Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 1:22 AM  Leave a Comment  
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New Books Pertaining to Intelligence/Security Services and the Middle East

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.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 AM  Leave a Comment  
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