Reflecting on the Wisdom of an Intelligence Professional, by Way of a Book Review

David Firester’s Book Review of Crumpton, Henry A. The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Penguin, 2012.

The allure of Hank Crumpton’s book, for the layperson, is probably that it’s an eye-opening journey through the seemingly secretive intelligence world.  To the student of intelligence, however, it is both a cautionary tale and a road map that indicates what sorts of obstacles may lay ahead.  The book’s title tells us much of what we need to know about its contents.  First, the notion of an “art” of intelligence is, as Crumpton mentions, a conjoining of concepts laid out by two of history’s great thinkers: Allen Welsh Dulles and Sun Tzu (13).  The former was a more contemporary American intelligence leader and the latter was an ancient Chinese military theoretician.  Both of their works continue to be used today, as a tool for thinking about strategy and tactics.

The second portion of the title that Crumpton has crafted has to do with the “lessons” he has drawn from his own experience.  Throughout the book, one can see that the key to success is learning the right lessons and applying them accordingly to the changing threat landscape, not one’s preordained sense of what it should, did, or might look like.  Some would call this adaptation, which is precisely the process that he, and the Intelligence Community (IC), had to go through.  There were, of course, mistakes to be made.  The important point to remember, however, is that an individual or organization learns from them and improves themselves.

Building on the two themes, outlined above, I will review some of the vital insights that Mr. Crumpton has elucidated.  I’ll try to blend the lessons he learned, with an eye toward those that we might learn.

With regard to the practice of intelligence as an art, there is a theme that regularly revolves around the various non-state actors (311) and their contribution to both the threat milieu and their ability to stifle such threats, if properly coopted.  In the first instance, there are transnational terrorist and/or criminal organizations and resource bases, some human and some technological, which they count on to support their local, regional, or global operations.  Asymmetry isn’t merely a description of the local insurgent/incumbent battlespace.  It’s a condition that has global implications (323).  Much of this discussion is synthesized quite eloquently by the author between pages 279 and 282.

In the second instance, these same resources are the very ones we should seek to undermine, exploit, or otherwise induce to our advantage.  In other words, our enemies’ key infrastructure can be embraced and repurposed for what, in our view, is the good side in the fight (293).  To this end, Crumpton discusses the contributions that many unsung private sector partners have made.  He should know.  He was the head of CIA’s National Resources (NR) Division for a couple years.  This specific clandestine interplay, between the public and private sector, is not typically the focus of popular literature.

Another artful description of the intelligence practice, which is a good segue to the next topic under review, is summarized on page 301.  “In the intelligence business, often there are only partial answers and limited or unknown results.  An intelligence officer’s professional challenge, among many others, is living with incomplete results.  The painting is never finished.  There is always something to add, something unknown, something that changes.”  Although this analogy isn’t necessarily new, it might serve us well to remember it in our daily lives.

Adaptation is an essential ingredient for a successful intelligence enterprise, which necessarily serves policy ends.  Throughout the book, however, Hank Crumpton reveals the elements that hinder, or facilitate the requisite changes that need to be made.  In terms of hindrances, he discusses the interagency difficulties that he experienced, some of which had to do with the essence of another agency’s focus and mission; e.g., FBI, or the Air Force.  Others, however, were rooted in the personalities of individual policy makers; e.g., Paul Wolfowitz.  Still other obstacles came in the form of rigidity of thought by key leaders within the military; e.g., General Tommy Franks, or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Perhaps the key statement on adaptation, which Crumpton makes in passing on page 58, deserves amplification.  In talking about his recruitment abilities, he went on to state, “I adapted through constant experimentation – with a wealth of failures along the way.  I studied my failures and quietly celebrated my successes.”  The reason this is such an important insight is that it is an expression of humility, the key characteristic that seems to have been lacking in each of the individuals and organizations he cited as hindering adaptation.  What is perhaps more striking about such a remark is that whether the reader is a layperson, an intelligence professional, a businessperson, or even a parent, we should heed the notion that we are not infallible.  Further, what sort of introspection do we conduct on a regular, or even an occasional, basis?

Another point that Crumpton makes in a variety of ways, is that when policy failures may have been made, it is those who have contributed to them in the first place that so brazenly point the finger in the direction of the intelligence community (5, 310).  It’s convenient and safe for politicians to do so.  There is no incentive to look inwardly for answers to perceived failures.  This is probably a natural phenomenon and one that attends most humans’ psychological composition.

Although some academics (310), and members of the media (114), typically scrutinize the IC, Crumpton reminds us that they don’t necessarily have the tactical experience, nor the professional training to make sense of the world into which they are peering.  (He does mention some academics who get it right, on pages 124 & 277-78.)  This point should resonate with many readers, who are experts in their field and are relentlessly second-guessed by laypersons.  It is even more painful when outsiders, misguided by their own lack of expertise, engage in provocative conjecture, or intentionally fabricate a story that, due to secrecy considerations, can’t be fully challenged in the public realm.

If, somehow a reader comes away thinking that Hank Crumpton is writing from a partisan standpoint, it would serve them well to re-read sections of the book that point to three separate administrations’ misperceptions of the threats that were clearly highlighted by the IC.  The Clinton administration, according to the author, suffered from a sort of impotence with regard to international terrorism (111, 130).  Further, the author asserts that an inadequate response to threats was fueled, in part, by political considerations (155, 166).  His assessment of the Bush administration that followed was that its attention was sometimes misdirected (166-67), particularly the attention of key members in the policy community (188, 239).  He specifically states, “Policy makers were seeking to drive intelligence conclusions rather than letting intelligence collection and analysis inform policy.”  Regarding the Obama administration, he notes their effort to destroy CIA members’ lives because they disagreed with the legality of their prior actions, despite their lawful quality at the time in which they carried out their duties (6, 125).

Conclusion: Learning from Others’ Insights

Although there are many other interesting details in the book, such as North Korean diplomats’ obsessions with pornography (45), one of the key points was how the intelligence process served the interest of national security, which often went underappreciated.  Central to success in this regard was the provision of incentives and rewards to assets, whose accounts could be corroborated.  My own assessment of his point about tailoring support to allies on the ground, by way of specific air drops, makes me think of it as a form of counterinsurgency by proxy.

Speaking truthfully to superiors, taking risks, thinking outside the proverbial box, vigorously pursuing leads and capitalizing on them when they panned out served the interests of proper adaptation.  Another element for success consisted of the occasional need to outmaneuver bureaucratic recalcitrance, by forging alliances with policy makers who were cognizant of the implications that phlegmatic thinking had on national security.

For detailing his own learning process, Henry A. Crumpton’s book is essential reading for students of psychology, bureaucratic politics, military strategy and intelligence studies.  I also recommend it for those who may tend to look askance at the IC, so long as their eyes are open and their minds yearn to gain what their instincts might otherwise lead them to avert.

David Firester specializes in intelligence analysis and is founder of TRAC Intelligence.

David Firester’s Book Review of The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, by Lieutenant General (ret.) Michael T. Flynn

Book Review of Flynn, M. T., & Ledeen, M. A. (2016). The field of fight: How we can win the global war against radical Islam and its allies. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

By David Firester

To begin with, I will say that the book is not exactly what one might expect from a recently retired General.  For starters, there were numerous spelling errors, an assortment of colloquialisms and some instances in which the prose took on a decidedly partisan tone.  The means of documenting sources was something akin to a blog-posting, in that he simply copied and pasted links to pages, right into the body of the work.  I would have liked to have seen a more thoroughly researched and properly cited work.  All of this was likely due to the fact that General Flynn released his book in the days leading up to Donald J. Trump’s announcement of his Vice Presidential pick.  As Flynn is apparently a close national security advisor to Trump, I can understand why his work appears to be somewhat harried.  Nonetheless, I think that the book’s timeliness is useful, as the information it contains might be helpful in guiding Americans’ election choices.  I also think that despite the absence of academic rigor, it makes his work more accessible.  No doubt, this is probably one of Mr. Trump’s qualities and one that has catapulted him to national fame and serious consideration for the office he seeks.  General Flynn makes a number of important points, which, despite my foregoing adverse commentary, gives me the opportunity to endorse it as an essential read.

In the introductory chapter, General Flynn lays out his credentials, defines the problem, and proceeds to inform the reader of the politically guided element that clouds policy prescriptions.  Indeed, he is correct to call attention to the fact that the Obama administration has deliberately exercised its commanding authority in forbidding the attachment of the term “Islam” when speaking of the threat posed by extremists who advocate and carry out violence in the religion’s name.  As one who suffered at the hands of the administration for speaking truth to power, he knows all too well what others in the Intelligence Community (IC) must suffer in order to hold onto their careers.

In chapter one, he discusses where he came from and how he learned valuable lessons at home and in service to his country.  He also gives the reader a sense of the geopolitical context in which Radical Islamists have been able to form alliances with our worst enemies.  This chapter also introduces the reader to some of his personal military heroes, as he delineates how their mentorship shaped his thinking on military and intelligence matters.  A key lesson to pay attention to in this chapter is what some, including General Flynn, call ‘politicization of intelligence.’  Although he maintains that both the present and previous administration have been guilty of this, he credits the Bush administration with its strategic reconsideration of the material facts and a search for better answers.  (He mentions this again in the next chapter on p.42, signifying this capability as a “leadership characteristic” and later recalls the president’s “insight and courage” on p. 154.)

Chapter two of The Field of Fight features an excellent summary of what transpires in a civil war and the manner in which Iraqis began to defect from al-Qa’ida and cooperate with U.S. forces.  In this task, he explains for the layperson what many scholars do, but in far fewer pages.  Again, this makes his work more accessible.  He also works through the process of intelligence failures that are, in his opinion, produced by a superordinate policy failure housed in the upper echelons of the military structure.  In essence, it was a misperception (willful or not) that guided thinking about the cause of the insurgency, that forbade an ability to properly address it with a population-centric Counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy.  He pays homage to the adaptability and ingenuity of General Stanley McChrystal’s Task Force 714, but again mentions the primary barrier to its success was bureaucratic in nature.

The main thrust of chapter 3, aptly named “The Enemy Alliance,” is geared toward tying together the earlier assertion in chapter regarding the synergy between state actors like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the like.  It has been documented elsewhere, but the Iranian (non-Arab Shi’a) connection to the al-Qa’ida (Arab Sunni) terrorist organization can’t be denied.  Flynn correctly points out how the relationship between strange bedfellows is not new in the Middle East.  He briefly discusses how this has been the case since the 1970s, with specific reference to the PLO, Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, Bosnia and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s.  He also references President Obama’s “curious sympathy” (p. 92) for enemies in places such as Venezuela and Cuba.

General Flynn then reminds readers of some facts that have either been forgotten, or virtually unknown, by most Americans.  Namely, the role that Saddam Hussein actually played with regard to the recruitment of foreign terrorists, the internal policies of appeasement for Islamists in his army and the support he lent to Islamists in other countries (e.g., Egypt, Sudan and Afghanistan).  He also reminds the readers of the totalitarian mindset that consumes Islamist groups, such as al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State.  All the while, and in contrast to what his detractors might opine, General Flynn is speaking of Radical Islam as a “tribal cult,” and not taking aim at the religion itself.  This chapter is perhaps the most robust in the book and it is the sort of reading that every American should do before they engage in conversations about the nature of political Islam.

Chapter four is a blueprint for winning what used to be called the ‘global war on terror.’  Although such a phraseology is generally laughed at in many policy circles, it is clear, as General Flynn demonstrates, that some groups and countries are locked in combat with us and our partners in the West.  Yet, as he correctly points out, the Obama administration isn’t willing to use global American leadership in order to defeat those who see us, and treat us, as their collective enemy.  General Flynn’s prescription includes four strategic objectives, which I won’t recite here, as I’m not looking to violate any copyright laws.  The essence of his suggestions, however, starts with an admission of who the enemy is, a commitment to their destruction, the abandonment of any unholy alliances we have made over the years, and a counter-ideological program for combating what is largely an ideologically-based enemy strong suit. He points to some of the facts that describe the dismal state of affairs in the Arab world, the most damning of which appear on pages 127-128, and then says what many are afraid to say on page 133: “Radical Islam is a totalitarian political ideology wrapped in the Islamic religion.”  Nonetheless, Flynn discusses some of the more mundane and pecuniary sources of their strength and the means that might be tried in an effort to undermine them.

The concluding chapter of General Flynn’s work draws the reader’s attention to some of the works of others that have been overlooked.  He then speaks candidly of the misguided assumptions that, coupled with political and bureaucratic reasons, slows adaptation to the changing threat environment.  Indeed, one of the reasons that I found this book so refreshing is because that sort of bold introspection is perhaps the requisite starting point for re-thinking bad strategies.  In fact, that is the essence of both the academic and practical work that I have been doing for years.  I highly recommend this book, especially chapter 3, for any student of the IC and the military sciences.