Iraq, Intelligence Failures, and Kelly Clarkson

When A.J. Rossmiller came home from Iraq, word spread across the liberal precincts of the blogosphere about a young intelligence officer who saw the illogic of the Iraq war from deep inside, who spent his time in Baghdad chuckling with disgust as he heard Donald Rumsfeld lie to the country about U.S. intelligence collecting. I admit to being a little skeptical at the time. But in e-mails, in posts at AMERICAblog, and over beers, Rossmiller has shared his effortless insight about Iraq with me. Like many who know him, I came away from every encounter thinking, "What an amazing book he’ll write."

Lots of books have been written about the Iraq misadventure, and more still are on the way. None, I’ll wager, will offer what Still Broken does: a masterful writer’s voice; a raw, personal tour of the trauma of waging a distasteful war; an insider's view of the wreckage of the U.S. intelligence community; and Kelly Clarkson worship.

TAP Online asked me to interview Rossmiller now that Still Broken is out.

Spencer Ackerman: I won't pretend I've finished Still Broken, your excellent memoir/cri de coeur of your experiences as an intelligence officer in Iraq. But what I've read is excellent, and anyone interested in either Iraq or intelligence work will find it fascinating. One thing, though. I'm interested in both Iraq and intelligence work. And you were in Iraq for a whole year, if I'm not mistaken, without leaking to me a single time. Not once. Not even so much as an e-mail I got from you. What did I do to deserve this insult?

Or to phrase the question differently: A lot of people—reporters, progressives, progressive bloggers who report—would have found your experiences in 2005 in Iraq invaluable. A well-timed leak could have cut through the fog of obfuscation put out by the Bush administration. There you were at the Tactical Operations Center, armed with the material that's now in Still Broken, and a private e-mail address. Why no leaks?

Of course, if you answer, "Well, Spencer, I leaked to other people," we're not friends any more.

A.J. Rossmiller: I am, of course, horrified that you haven't read my transcendent tome, but seeing as how you continue to be among the best observers of military and intelligence issues around, I'm willing to let it slide. And your question is an interesting one, one that I haven't been asked before. The answer comes in two parts: First, even if I had wanted to get that kind of information out, I—like, I think, most of the people involved at the analytical level of the intelligence business—wouldn't have had any idea where to go. I became acquainted with the entire set of young D.C. bloggers and journalists after I left the Department of Defense (DoD), not before, and there's no real conception within the machine that anyone is interested in the kind of mundane problems and manipulations that occur when you're in the middle of them. Only when I ruefully described my experiences to others in the world of professional foreign policy did it become clear just how aberrant things were in the intelligence process, which ended up being the motivation for writing the book.

The second part, which is perhaps more determinative, is the fact that even if I had known where to go with information, I didn't have a very good conception of what the rules were regarding talking to reporters (or anybody) about the work, other than, "Don't ever do it." To the best of my knowledge any kind of information transmission had to be cleared From Above, and even if you're simply talking about unclassified information which, of course, everything in my book is, after a lengthy (and costly) DoD review process—it's a scary (and possibly illegal) call to make on your own. The polygraph exams definitely cover whether you’ve revealed confidential information, and it’s a tough thing to ask a young analyst to potentially ruin his career, or worse, by reaching out into the unknown. People at the top know how that stuff works; people at the analytical level do not.

SA: In the book, you admirably confess to your bad taste in music. ("My work was fueled by steady doses of Evanescence, Linkin Park, Sarah McLachlan[!], Metallica, the Dixie Chicks, and the like.") First, kudos for surviving the savage beatings you must have endured from your colleagues. But you also disclose that you wrote an e-mail to friends and family that "took the format of matching Kelly Clarkson lyrics to my observations" about Iraq.

Somehow, though, those lyrics didn't make it into the book. Fess up, Rossmiller: What does Kelly Clarkson tell us about Iraq?

AR: I'm glad you brought this up, because it allows me to address two very important issues. First and foremost, Kelly Clarkson has plenty to tell us about an infinite number of topics, from the mundane to the critical. Can't say enough about the talent there, and she helped keep me sane in Baghdad. I'm obviously not afraid to acknowledge my affection for pop music in all its glory, which brings me to the second point, about the advance praise on the back cover from Joe Klein, who jokes about my bad taste in the midst of a very kind endorsement of the book, saying, "And while Rossmiller demonstrates, repeatedly, that his taste in music really needs an upgrade, he also proves to be an engaging, skillful, and funny writer." Joe takes a lot of flack on the internets, but for the (surprisingly many) people who have asked about that blurb, it is indeed a reference to the text, obviously, and all in good fun—and it demonstrated he had actually read the whole thing, which was a nice compliment in itself.

To answer your question more specifically, though, I'm very pleased to present here, exclusively to TAP Online, a few brief excerpts of the original, unedited version of that chapter!

When you go in circles all the scenery looks the same, And you don't know why . . .
That was for my hours, which were pretty crazy. We worked all the time, and in a wartime environment, as you know from your embed time, everything is the same, every day all day, except for when bad things happen. "All the scenery looks the same" indeed.

It's like the only company I seek, is misery all around; It's like you're a leech, sucking the life from me, it's like I can't breathe . . .
Iraq is a depressing place. This was followed by a paragraph of me complaining to friends and family, which I'll spare y'all here, but it wasn't happy times, basically, again, because everything was the same all the time—nothing to look forward to. Ever.

You thought you had us fooled, at your beck and call; But now who's the joke, and look who's laughing now.
'Cause there are these nights when, I sing myself to sleep; And I'm hoping my dreams, bring you close to me, are you listening?

Okay, this one I really don't have any defense for. Let's just say that when you're a DoD analyst working on Iraq, a song titled "Hear Me" has particular appeal. But really, let's just move on.

SA:So you're two years removed from Iraq, and things are, to my way of thinking, somewhere between grim and apocalyptic. But as a former intel analyst, what are we missing? What are the big trends that mere scribes like myself aren't seeing? What structural dynamic hasn't gotten the attention from the press that it deserves? And to ask an unfair question: What do you think we're likely to see in Iraq after the surge brigades leave this summer?

AR: Ah, the meaty questions! Indeed, the Iraq situation continues to be grim, especially because I believe the recent security gains are temporary at best and a distraction from profound strategic problems at worst. The thing that most observers miss is, I think, the possibility that Iraq could get much, much worse for the U.S.—both tactically and strategically—than it is now. Currently between 80 and 90 percent of the Iraqi population is relatively acquiescent toward U.S. forces, with the anti-U.S. violence mostly being perpetrated by Sunnis and a very small number of Shiites. If the Shiites, especially, were to turn on us in any significant way, the present situation would seem tame by comparison, and the Shiites are increasingly dissatisfied with U.S. strategy (as they should be, seeing as how we're funding and arming their opposition in Anbar). The other structural dynamic that is terribly overlooked is the situation in Basra. While most reporters and pundits look at the Sunni west, the real prize is in the south, and the battle for the vast majority of Iraq's oil wealth is happening without any apparent engagement or even attention from the U.S. It's a profoundly negligent approach.

Also, I'd note that while you call yourself a "mere scribe," readers should know that's not right, and there are excellent sources for Iraq analysis in the media, if not most "mainstream" sources. You are missing very little, and you make the Washington Independent required reading for anybody interested in these issues. To recognize our hosts, Matthew Duss, a regular contributor to TAPPED, is another one consistently right on with these issues. I'm by no means alone in providing reality-based views, and I think it's vital to recognize—and read!—the people who get this stuff right on a regular basis.

As for this summer, this isn't a particularly daring answer, but assuming that the Bush administration continues to mistake Band-Aid solutions for strategy, I think we'll see increased fighting in Kirkuk between Kurds and Arabs, increased fighting in Anbar between the current Sunni groups and U.S.-funded former insurgents (a.k.a. Anbar Awakening forces, a.k.a. Sons of Iraq), and nationwide violence levels somewhere in between 2006 and 2007 levels. Ouch.

SA: One of my favorite moments in the book is something wonky and intel-specific. You write about the character differences between intelligence collectors (the dudes who go out and get information) and intelligence analysts (the dudes who tell us what it means). But you also write that it's a stereotype to say that these guys view each other as being from an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile world -- the Kree and the Skrull from The Fantastic Four and The Avengers, for instance. Really? In my experience the stereotype is true. But you have experience that I don't, so complicate that picture for me.

AR: There are definitely significant differences in personality and approach between collectors and analysts—or cowboys and desk-jockeys, if you prefer the common pejoratives—and there is often distrust or at least misunderstanding that results. What I really wanted to get across, though, is that I think the conflict between the two groups is more due to institutional segregation and lack of communication rather than some inherent fact that analysts are nerdier and collectors are risk-takers, roughly speaking.

In Iraq, I got to work directly with collectors, helping to formulate questions, talking about what information we needed, and generally giving a strategic overview to what can sometimes be a very narrowly focused job. Conversely, collectors gave us context for the sources they deal with, personal views about reliability, and a sense of what kind of information could be procured and what could not. It's easy to see how keeping these elements separate can engender misunderstanding or mistrust. I understand the security issues involved, but there must be a way to increase communication and understanding between the people who get the raw information and those who process it. The benefits are tremendous.

SA: OK, big picture time. In 2009 President Clinton or President Obama appoints you director of national intelligence. You're given carte blanche to fix the still-broken intelligence community. Congress is begging to pass the Rossmiller Intelligence Reform Act. Nothing's off limits. What do you do?

AR: I should start this with the caveat that I never had the bird's-eye view that really gave me a sense of what kind of overall policy changes would fix this stuff. First of all, I'd get every analyst a goddamn computer. It might seem minor, but as I mention in the book, we lost tons of man hours because there were more people than computers in the Iraq office. The Iraq office! After literally years of war! Of course, there were plenty of huge flat-screen TVs on the walls, so we had all the Fox News we wanted.

More broadly, though, I would institute the remaining 9-11 commission recommendations, and I'd standardize the communication systems of the various agencies. I can't really get into the details about this, but it's absurdly difficult for, say, a Defense Intelligence Agency Iraq analyst to communicate with a CIA Iraq analyst—to the extent that I never even knew who my counterparts were at CIA or the State Department. I don't know that a law would be the way to do this, but I'd definitely encourage communication between agencies, including the military, both among analysts and between analysts and collectors.

I would also strongly encourage placement of regional experts in positions of intel leadership -- for example, the primary intelligence adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a Pacific Command guy, for crying out loud, with no expertise in the Middle East. I'd increase recruiting from Middle East Studies programs, throw money at Arabic (and Farsi and Urdu) speakers, and I'd bump salaries up to try to convince talented grads to be intel analysts instead of investment banking analysts.

Most important, intel should be approached in a much more empirical way. It's predictive analysis, and predictions have a way of turning out either right or wrong. Right now there's just no focus on who got what right or wrong, and why. We should give more responsibility and power to people who get stuff right, and less to those who don't. As it is, we don't even know which analysts are in what category. It's a waste, and it means the same people can get it wrong over and over and over with no repercussions (and, conversely, no additional credence to the accurate folks).

I really believe a lot of this stuff can be fixed, otherwise I wouldn't have written the book, but it's going to take hard work, better leadership, and some time. A guy can hope, right?

And thanks to you, Spencer, for great questions, and to the Prospect for facilitating the banter. Tons of information about the book at www.StillBroken.com, and it's available now everywhere books are sold. Cheers!

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