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President Carter in his State of the Union address encouraged the adoption of a charter for our intelligence agencies to guard against abuses while simultaneously addressing the "need to remove unwarranted restraints on America's ability to collect intelligence." Congress has now responded with proposals for legislation which provides for reduced congressional oversight of the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency; for court-authorized investigations of Americans in the U.S. who are "known spies" (precisely what is a "known spy"?); for closure of CIA files to Freedom of Information Act inquiries without need for justification by issues of "national secuity;" and for permitting a wide range of "intelligence operations" stopping short, it seems, only of assassination. This last curious phrase raises several interesting general questions: is there a difference between legitimate intelligence-gathering and "intelligence operations?" And, to what extent can recent foreign policy debacles be attributed to "intelligence failures"; that is, to problems of incompleteness or inaccuracy of data?
In the aftermath of the startlingly rapid collapse of the Shah of Iran, images were evoked of a CIA shackled by an overzealous Congress--the latter being depicted as opportunistically demonstrating its "integrity" to the post-Watergate cynical American public by raking the CIA over the coals. But the "handstied CIA" explanation was seriously challenged when Jesse J. Leaf, former CIA analyst in Iran, revealed that as early as 1973 CIA operatives cautioned Washington about the vulnerability of the Shah (an act which Leaf alleges cost him his job). Furthermore, the eventual resurgence of the opposition to the Shah was predicted outside of government circles as early as 1969. At that time, Hamid Algar, U.C. Berkeley's Iran scholar, ended an analysis of the role of the Muslim clergy in Iranian politics with the prophetic statement, "When the integrity of the nation is held to be threatened by internal autocracy and foreign hegemony, protests in religious terms will continue to be voiced, and the appeals of men such as Ayatollah Khomeini to be widely heeded." In the imminence of the collapse of the Shah, American government officials stood alone in maintaining that he would weather the storm.
A more convincing explanation of our foreign policy "failure" in Iran is that the breakdown occurred not at the level of data-gathering, but in the inhibition of the CIA's ability to execute that broader category of tasks referred to as "intelligence operations"--a euphemism for covert interference in and manipulation of political forces in a foreign country. This inhibition had much less to do with American congressional investigations into CIA abuses than it did with the Shah of Iran's insistence that the CIA not involve itself with opposition political groups, and that all "intelligence operations" be conducted through Iran's own SAVAK--an obvious attempt by the Shah to safeguard against any shift in CIA support to the opposition were it to appear at any point that the Shah himself had become "expendable."
No doubt the inability to infiltrate opposition groups in Iran also left the CIA with less than complete data about the inner workings of the revolutionary forces there. But equally certain is that sufficient public information was available for analysts of Iran in the academic world and elsewhere to anticipate the downfall of the Shah. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the U.S. government's persistent refusal to take account of the Iranian opposition expressed its vested interest in denying realities, which stemmed from a prior political decision to promote the Shah as America's "unconditional ally" (to use Henry Kissinger's phrase) over and against the protests of his people.
In light of the disastrous impact of such a policy in Iran, it is disturbing to witness that its principles do not seem to have been adequately questioned by policy-makers in Washington. That this is the case is suggested firstly in the above-mentioned moves of the administration and Congress, which seem determined to restore the CIA's ability to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations under the public rationale of enhancing "intelligence-gathering" techniques.
Secondly, the U.S. government's stubborn refusal to deal with opposition groups appears destined for repetition in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where American public officials continue to deny the legitimacy of the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization among Palestinians--again, in contradiction to publicly available facts. The objections to PLO participation in negotiations--that it is "terrorist," that it denies the right of Israel to exist, that it does not represent Palestinians, but is merely a "Soviet tool"--simply do not bear up to scrutiny. The use of violence against civilians did not prevent our negotiating with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, nor of recognizing the necessity of bringing Zimbabwean guerrillas into a political settlement in Rhodesia--nor, incidentally, is such an argument invoked against our dealing with Israel, which employs considerable violence against Palestinian and other Arab civilian populations (which accounted, for example, for 2000 Palestinian and Lebanese lives in Israel's 1978 invasion of Lebanon).
Now, the alarming indications are that previous foreign policy blunders are on the way to being repeated--at considerable risks to the civil liberties of Americans, the safety and welfare of peoples of the Middle East, and ultimately to America's broader interests. However, the basis of this misdirection is not a matter of inadequate data, but involves implicit assumptions about America's global role and definitions of "national interests" which guide and direct what policy-makers do with data. It is these assumptions and definitions, as opposed to methods for gathering intelligence, which may require amendment if we are to avoid future foreign policy disasters. Above all we need "intelligence"--information--far less than we need intelligent policy.
George E. Bisharat is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies. He is also former coordinator of the Middle East Resource Center in Washington, D.C.
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