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.