Jeff Stein on Continuing Incompetence

Frankburns "Anyone who’s spent time in uniform will recognize the stories that A.J. Rossmiller tells in “Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, From Baghdad to the Pentagon.”

Like the Army field hospital so authentically portrayed in M*A*S*H, Rossmiller’s memoir of two years as a Defense Intelligence Agency Iraq analyst is darkly funny, with its own versions of Hawkeye, B.J., Colonel Potter, and of course, Frank Burns.

Unfortunately, it’s all too true. And frightening, from the viewpoint of national security.

In M*A*S*H, the good guys usually win.

But at the DIA, in Rossmiller’s telling, victories were rare. The intelligence analysts’ carefully researched and sourced reports on Iraq were usually at odds with the rosy pronouncements of Bush administration hawks, and regularly quashed or re-written. No matter how often their forecasts proved to be accurate, or how little evidence their bosses marshalled to contradict them, the analysts were constantly browbeat and berated for being “too negative.”

Rossmiller joined the DIA in 2004, fresh from Middlebury College with a degree in political science and a concentration in Middle East Studies. A bright future lay ahead, with a multitude of possibilities. But “infuriated” by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he writes, “it felt wrong not to contribute in such a time of national need.”

The training at Fort Benning, Ga., “was mostly tedious but occasionally entertaining,” he says. “The sections on the region were like Middle East for Morons.” The one-page summary of the “Culture Guide to Iraq,” for example, included such gems as “Arabs are an emotional people who use the power of emotion in forceful and appealing rhetoric that tends toward exaggeration” — a description that just as well fits Bush officials railing about “mushroom clouds” to build support for invading Iraq.

But it’s his six-month tour at the Combined Intelligence Operations Center, or CIOC, situated at the Baghdad airport, where the M*A*S*H analogy really seems apt.

For starters, his team’s arrival was a surprise, “and nobody knew what to do with us.” The counterinsurgency intelligence operation they were supposed to set up was already in place.

His leaders came up with another mission “on the fly,” the creation of a HUMINT (human intelligence) Support Team, which would sort out information from spies (as opposed to, say, electronic intercepts) and reel it back out to military units.

“Virtually none of our extensive preparation was useful for this mission,” Rossmiller writes, but they settled in and went to work.

The teams’ senior intelligence officer “looked like Burl Ives on human growth hormone,” with “an attention span as limited as his patience,” who was “always volunteering the group for work that had nothing to do with our assigned duties.”

The captain commanding the unit was infuriated by the analysts’ practice of rolling over to each others’ desk on their chairs. They ignored his requests to stop it.

One day he bellowed, “I order you to get up out of your chair when you want to talk to somebody!”

“The entire aisle erupted in laughter,” Rossmiller writes.

Analysts jumped up and began mocking the captain, yelling, “I order you!” at each other.

But the CIOC’s real problem was that it was “a self licking ice cream cone,” Rossmiller writes.

“Products were written . . . and then read by other people in the CIOC. Good analysis was done . . . and never seen by anybody who could do anything about it. We rarely received feedback, and we never had a solid conception of who our customers were or what missions we were serving.”

That would change when Rossmiller, a lowly GS-9, was eventually transferred to the Direct Action team, whose unofficial motto was “track ’em and whack ’em.” There he was an uncomfortable witness to U.S. soldiers screaming in English at Iraqis they’d rounded up. When they didn’t get satisfactory answers — there never seemed to be one — they dispatched their bewildered, hooded and quite possibly innocent captives to the soon-to-be infamous Abu Ghraib prison for interrogation.

After six months, Rossmiller left Baghdad with an assignment to the Pentagon to analyze intelligence and prognosticate on the chaotic Iraqi government. His entire time there, he and many other analysts never had their own desks or computers. Many of the computers weren’t equipped with the proper software to allow access to both top secret and unclassified materials.

To Rossmiller, the DIA’s Iraq intelligence teams, located in temporary, cramped offices along a hard-to-find hallway off a corridor, seemed like a nuisance or afterthought.

Unfortunately, one of his worst Baghdad bosses landed there, too, a right-wing war booster who was “running around the office and asking people what they were working on so he could add his opinion (that is, inject his ideology)” into their intelligence reports.

“He would launch tirades over minor analytical disagreements,” Rossmiller writes, “once telling an analyst, in all seriousness, ‘Well, it’s clear I have to do more micromanaging here!’ ” There were already layers upon layers of supervisors who could, and would, edit, rewrite or boil down the analysts’ reports.

On another occasion the boss sauntered up to a U.S.-born Hispanic on the team and asked, “So, Jose, what do you think of these immigration protesters?” He clearly disapproved.

Jose, of Puerto Rican heritage, demurred.

“Look at you,” the boss added, “You’ve clearly adapted and assimilated. . . . And you speak English so well!”

Such ignorant buffoons and bullies are all too common in Rossmiller’s devastating account.

Intelligence officials constantly berated and insulted the analysts’ sober reports on the growing chaos of Baghdad, the hopelessly splintered Iraqi government and the fighting among Sunnis and Shiites that had spun into a civil war.

The J-2, or top intelligence officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fell back on rank to intimidate them into changing, or completely repudiating, their reports.

”You’re digging yourself a hole, mister junior analyst,” the (unnamed) J-2 would bark, or “I quit reading when I see stupidity in reporting.”

How ironic, in hindsight. It was the Joint Chiefs and other military brass who dug themselves into a big hole in Iraq by suppressing the intelligence.

After a year of that, Rossmiller quit, but not before “speaking truth,” as he puts it, “to power.”

It was a rare practice at DIA.

And a recent one, according to W. Patrick Lang, the DIA’s top Middle East analyst during the administration of President George Bush, which ousted Iraqi troops from Kuwait in the “100 Hour War.”

Hearing about Rossmiller’s account, Lang said it reminded him of “the old joke about there being a real U.S. intelligence community somewhere for which the existing agencies provided cover.”

We can only hope.

Jeff Stein"

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15 Responses to Jeff Stein on Continuing Incompetence

  1. Not really the fog of war just the fog of bureacracy revealed. Amazing but true perhaps that “WARS” are not won but just not lost. Geography and casualties used to be the metrics for success. What is it now? If estimates of 25% of Iraqi population has left or relocated when that figure hits 100% perhaps we have “Won.”

  2. Duncan Kinder says:

    The kindest thing that I can say about this situation, ( and my actual thoughts are less kind ) is that our Iraq strategy has been “Cartesian” rather than “Baconian” in its orientation.
    That is, it has been more concerned with implementing fixed, a priori concepts than responding to dynamic, a posteriori facts.

  3. 505th PIR says:

    Reading this and stepping back to look at the greater context of it all I am wondering if OIF ought to be renamed operation Blue on Blue.
    4000 of our finest murdered by “The Decider” and his delusional neo-con junta.

  4. alnval says:

    Col. Lang:
    I’m reminded again of the dilemmas posed by your post “We wuzn’t fooled, or something…”
    My conclusion to all of it is simple: Where is it written that we won’t or can’t fail?
    People are constantly getting “stuck.” They get themselves caught in conflicts they can’t resolve by using the tactics that have worked for them before, and, despite evidence to the contrary, they persist in repeating the same mistakes over and over again. ‘It’ll be better tomorrow’ is a mantra we all claim will save us from the disaster staring us in the face – the ultimate perversion of hope.
    Organizations are not immune from this kind of thinking; it’s part of what makes change so difficult.
    I’ve often thought that the only way out of this dilemma is an honest-to-god disaster where it becomes so evident that things are not working out that doing anything else becomes a more tenable alternative.
    Depressions and World Wars fall into that category. I had thought that 9/11 would too.
    It could have, but the country was not allowed to get involved in solving the problem, but instead was asked to continue to be “normal.”
    In extraordinary circumstances normal solutions don’t always help. Clearly, our continuing in the same old behavior as if 9/11 were a familiar problem that we’ve solved before hasn’t worked out.
    What’s tragic is that we’ve done this, in part, for ideological reasons as if the power of ideological strictures would help overcome the weight of reality. We’ve lost our way.
    The MASH analogy is a good one as would be Heller’s “Catch 22.” As Stein points out, the problem is that BJ, Hawkeye and Colonel Potter are no longer examples of how we can win in spite of ourselves. Or, in LTC Yingling’s terms, examples of our potential for creative intelligence and moral courage. Instead, they have become examples of who is entitled to be scapegoated for not playing by the ideological rules, or, for not being on the ideological team.
    Are there solutions? A further disaster would be one. I certainly hope that there are others less painful.

  5. The New York Crank says:

    This just proves the validity of one of the terms on the list of the world’s most popular oxymorons: Military Intelligence
    Yours crankily,
    The New York Crank

  6. Walrus says:

    all I can do is sake my head in disbelief. God help America.

  7. W. Patrick Lang says:

    It wasn’t like that on my watch. pl

  8. McGee says:

    Thanks for your post. Now I do need to get a copy of Mr. Rossmiller’s book and read it, but boy could I write a screed on this. Your post brought me back to my days in MI. Back then (mid to late 60’s) the young Middlebury grad with the foreign studies background would’ve been drafted upon losing his student deferment, and then “enlisted” upon learning that his education and aptitude qualified him for Military Intel and perhaps never wearing a uniform. For the additional one-year commitment he would’ve been sent thru either the Intelligence Agent or Counterintelligence Agent course at Fort Holabird in Baltimore (referred to fondly by grunt and officer alike as Fort Ha Ha, as Colonel Lang will attest), perhaps then sent on for additional training at the Army Language School in Monterey, and eventually assigned to an MI Company or Field Office where the average educational level of the enlisted personnel was 5+ years college. There he would’ve encountered the same MASH-like conditions you describe, but with a major difference. His reports would’ve gone up the chain exactly as written, because this was a military unit where we did follow orders, and altering a field agent’s report was strictly verboten. Mind you the reports still could’ve been ignored, but if there were a flood of them not so much….
    I could go on but will have to read the book first. Thanks again for your post.

  9. jonst says:

    alnval wrote:
    “Depressions and World Wars fall into that category. I had thought that 9/11 would too.”
    Maybe that’s it, alnval. Maybe it was ludicrous, and self defeating, to put a spectacular, and deadly, criminal act of terrorism, in the same catagory as the Depression and WWII. Those events threatened our Republic. In both cases, had things gone wrong, the nation would not have survived as a Republic. This was not so with 9/11. However, it may very well be so with our reaction to 9/11.

  10. anna missed says:

    I watched the film “no End In Sight” the other night. What the film makes especially clear is the continuous trail of tears from the State Dept. diplomatic personal. There is ample evidence that all the liberal talk about bringing reform and reconstruction to Iraq post invasion – has never amounted to anything but talk. They have been systematically ignored up to this point in time, and the lions share the “Fiasco” and “Emerald City” character of the occupation can be attributed to this fact (amongst all the others). I think the “incompetence” label being applied to a willful ignorance is wrong.

  11. Oh good grief says:

    I find myself very much with ‘anna missed’ here. I don’t ultimately ‘buy’ the incompetence label.
    If the higher ups really wanted genuine intel, they would move the world to get it, and they would heed it.
    I think we have to put 2 + 2 together and get 4. The idea from the beginning was the decentralization and destruction of the state (economy, education, medical services) of Iraq.
    That goal has been achieved, it is now being maintained.
    Who really believes the American government wanted to know what happened on 9/11? If they had, they wouldn’t have organized the inquiry the way they did. They would have searched the country to find the real talent to do a real investigation, and not have destroyed evidence, or hired paid shills, or cut short the investigation, or avoided obvious questions, and not delivered any public accountability.
    Sometime people get what they want: a destroyed state, and confusion around the supposed motivation.

  12. W. Patrick Lang says:

    You suffer from the illusion that the universe has meaning.
    You need to have had more experience of actual government at the imperial level. pl

  13. Oh good grief says:

    I accept the criticism, and hope (against hope) that you are right.
    Strange, eh?

  14. Dr. Bob says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Inspired by McGee’s post, I thought I’d post these notions.
    As an Fort Ha Ha Alum I hope my former classmates can relate..
    Nice article on Rossmiller.
    While under-cover in Vietnam I can tell you that
    Saigon was ripe with M.A.S.H type incidents. When we were being followed to agent/source meetings, we notice they mostly were “anglos” translation…Other friendly intel agencies trying to steal my source.
    I was constantly running into Holibird classmates under bogus covers. It was surreal.
    After being in Saigon for six months and running around as a MACV civilian. The army made us put on our uniforms to go on R & R ….and oh yes..there was a full bird colonel I’d called “Jim” all this time sitting three rows ahead of us. My partner (a lawyer) told him we were on an asignment and that we would fill him in when we got back.
    Oh, did I mention the agent that blew his cover when he drew his revolver, aimed and put two rounds in his forearm as he attempted to steady his aim.
    Or…oh hell, you get the picture.
    I bet you could write a book on this very subject. Most people think intel groups are like James Bond.
    Not so methinks!
    Thanks for the inspiration McGee,

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