May 6 2011

Arm Chair Diplomacy

Or perhaps this should be “Arm Chair Intelligence Analysts” or “Arm Chair Conspiracy Theorists.” In the wake of the Bin Laden killing, the speculation about the relationship between the United State and Pakistan is practically laughable. Not only are the opinions of most media pundits useless, but the thoughts of so many commenting in blogs and on newspaper sites, too. We seem to have a very Hollywood view of how international politics works. Super agents, corruption within intelligence circles, conspiracies of governments, and so on. But if you watch some of the deeper interviews of actual diplomats on C-SPAN, Charlie Rose, and so on, it’s pretty clear that the real world of diplomacy is nothing at all like Hollywood.

First off, diplomacy tends to be very slow. The groundwork for an American assault in Abbottabad was laid over the past five or more years. To think that the Pakistanis were totally ignorant of the United State’s intentions with regard to surgical strikes inside Pakistan borders on idiocy. Certainly they are cooperating with the U.S. But they must put on a good political face for their own people, so they will rattle sabres about retaliation, but they won’t walk away from $3 billion in aid. No way. It is arguably far more important for Pakistan to have a political alliance with the United States than not, if only because of the political value this has in relation to India.

Second, the baroque theories about Pakistan’s knowledge of Bin Laden — that Pakistani officials knew about Bin Laden’s location simply because he was close to the Kakul military base, that Bin Laden was actually under house arrest by the ISI, that the CIA had set up Bin Laden’s house as a trap for other al Qaeda officials — show a tacit misunderstanding of intelligence trade craft. Additionally, the proposition that the CIA didn’t have better confirmation of Bin Laden’s presence is possibly just as ridiculous. Yes, Bin Laden didn’t have a phone or Internet connection. But the indirect methods of data collection have been around so long that how they work is even in popular media. I’d venture a guess that a device to snoop on Bin Laden from a nearby hillside could be built from commercially available electronics, and so the counter-intelligence measures Bin Laden would need would be far greater than he certainly had (other than sealing himself inside, which is pretty nearly what he appears to have done.) It was reported today that the CIA was operating nearby. And while that may simply be a political or intelligence ruse, it does likely mean that agents were keeping an eye out and possibly getting the confirmation photos and audio we may not see for decades. (I personally think the President would not have mounted this operation without a much higher level of certainty than is being reported in the press. What would have been the result if this operation had been undertaken against Pakistani civilians with no connection to terrorism?)

Third, to go back to the idea of a ruse: The theories running amok through the body politic are creative, to say the least. But they seem to ignore the fact that deceit is one of the primary activities within intelligence operations. The CIA is very good at creating stories, slights of hand if you will, that distract from the actual facts. This is their job. They are good at it. So I’m personally extremely skeptical of any story sourced from CIA officials and believe that everyone else should be as well. My skepticism isn’t dismissive or judgmental. What I mean instead is that I’m ignorant and naive when it comes to understand intelligence operations; I’ll leave that to intelligence professionals, and rely on journalists to ferret out the true stories after the fact.

Wild speculation is fun, certainly, but I rather see Americans focusing their attention on real, substantive progress on international, domestic, and cultural issues. We can get our thrilling stories of secret agent derring-do in the plush seats of a movie theater.