Six Questions, Washington Babylon — February 18, 2008, 11:29 am

Six Questions for A.J. Rossmiller on the Politics of Intelligence

A.J. Rossmiller, a fellow at the National Security Network, served with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for nearly two years. He was awarded the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award and the DIA Expeditionary Medal for valorous and meritorious service for his work in Iraq. He describes his time with the DIA in his new book, Still Broken: A recruit’s inside account of intelligence failures, from Baghdad to the Pentagon. A contributing editor at Americablog.com, Rossmiller currently advises a number of defense and foreign policy organizations. I recently spoke with him by phone about his new book. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.

1. You write in your book about political pressure on DIA analysts. How significant was such pressure?

It was a huge problem. In terms of accuracy of information going up the chain of command and in terms of morale, it was probably the most significant problem. We heard all the time that our reports were too pessimistic–”go back and change it.” For example, the December 2005 elections were a big deal. There was an elite and mainstream foreign policy consensus, including in the media, that the secular parties were making a big move and that the moderates had not yet been heard from. I thought that was wrong, and I wrote a piece about a month before the elections predicting that the Islamic parties would sweep the elections. I was one of the younger people in the office, and I think probably the only reason it got published was because I was new and so it wouldn’t matter if I was wrong. Then the day before the election, a guy from the State Department came over, saying that we needed to report on how the secularists were making a big move. All the analysts said there was no evidence for that conclusion, but there was a ton of pressure from higher up to say so anyway. Repeatedly, we needed to tell people what they wanted to hear, even if what was predicted didn’t happen. And of course, after we were forced to say the secularists were surging, they got crushed.

2. Your own politics were probably more liberal than those of most of your co-workers. Were your views dismissed because of that?

Personal politics became more conservative and Republican as you went up the chain of command, but there was nothing partisan about ground-level analysis. I’m a registered Democrat, and most of my colleagues were Republican, but we all got screwed equally when it came to analysis. The Bush Administration set up a system where loyalty and good news was rewarded over accuracy, and that trickled down regardless of political affiliation. My impression was: as long as you were in line with what your boss thought or hoped, you’d do well.

3. You also wrote about poor training and preparation for people who were deployed to Baghdad in terms of culture and customs. How bad was it?

I remember sitting in a room of about 200 people, 97 percent of them military folks about to deploy, and the instructor passed out a culture guide to Iraq. I was by no means an expert, but I had some sense of the regional culture from studying and traveling. There were things that would have been useful for everybody to know, but instead we basically were told that Arabs are irrational, crazy people you cannot trust because they leave everything to Allah. There were hysterical projections of what people would be dealing with. Dehumanization is almost inevitable when you’re at war and doing house-to-house searches, but that was exacerbated even before people went over there. We made enemies needlessly. But there was nothing taught about basic norms or cultural offenses. Instead it was stuff about how Arabs think everything is fate.

4. In Baghdad, you worked at the Combined Intelligence Operations Center, which you described as a “self-licking ice cream come.” What was the main problem there?

We never understood who our customers were, where our analysis should or would go. We’d be sitting there producing reports for each other but were never really sure where they went other than to the next person up our chain of command. To give one example, I wrote a report about the possible dangers of bombs being put in oil tankers or large trucks. At the time we had only seen one or two events like this, and the report went nowhere. Of course, in subsequent months and years there have been dozens, mass casualty events that would kill hundreds of people. It was a major structural problem, as the process was not set up so information got to the people that needed it. If you’re producing information but it doesn’t get to policymakers or military units, it costs lives and hinders strategic progress.

5. Why did you finally decide to leave DIA?

It was an extremely difficult decision. I came in with a lot of passion, but I ultimately became very concerned that the work I was doing wasn’t helping anyone. I was from New York, and like millions of others, I was hugely affected by 9/11. I signed up because I really wanted to do something and thought I had skills — from having studied and lived in the Middle East — that would allow me to contribute in ways that a lot of people could not. In many ways it was my dream job, and it was a tough realization to recognize that I was part of a process that was profoundly broken and wrong. There were lots of things, from the analytical pressures to seeing protesters every week outside the Pentagon, that had an impact. People have asked whether I regret signing up — I actually wonder more about whether leaving was the right thing than I do about going in, but I hope that by talking about this stuff and writing the book I can have some beneficial impact.

6. Is it possible that the problems you point to were addressed after you left?

Based on what I’ve heard from talking to former colleagues and friends still in Baghdad or at the Pentagon, it seems there’s been no significant effort to fix the process. When I left, the leadership claimed it was because I couldn’t hack it professionally, accusations which led me to put my performance evaluations in the book so people can judge for themselves. There’s no motivation for people who are part of the problem to be introspective about these issues, because that requires admitting things are going badly. Regarding Iraq, the Bush Administration and the military are focused on the “surge” and violence levels in Anbar, but no one is looking at the political situation in Baghdad or Basra, the real strategic prize, which is being fought over by Shia groups. All the top people I talk about in the book have been promoted at least once since I left. Maybe the scariest thing is that some who were most instrumental in my old office are now key individuals in Iran-related analysis.

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