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SANDERS: The perils of intelligence blabberitis

- - Sunday, June 3, 2012


An epidemic of blabberitis has broken out in Washington.

Had one more faith in the sophistication of the present governing elite, "black propaganda" might be suspected — that is, deliberate disinformation designed to befuddle the enemy. After all, as James Jesus Angleton, old fox of a generation of professional spies now largely gone, put it, information-gathering is indeed "a wilderness of mirrors."

In a rapidly enshrined maxim from 2002, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put it well: "[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know." A common-sense corollary: In geopolitics, including warfare, we can never be sure what an enemy (who may not have even been identified) knows, and therefore statesmanship requires the utmost caution in everything revealed officially or unofficially.

That's why it shocks some of us old-time "spookwatchers" to see details of recent events thrown to the increasingly sensationalist New York Times, desperately trying to stay afloat in a world of drowning print media. It was ever thus, but recent "leaks" have been particularly onerous. They included details of the incredibly professional team sent to capture or kill Osama bin Laden; how those myriad Demilitarized Zone tunnels the North Koreans have dug for decades might become a counterfoil; and details of the cyberwar being waged against the Tehran mullahs. Our adversaries, no slouches at intelligence and international skullduggery, might well have known all or most of this. Still ...

Any discussion of this issue immediately runs into one of democracy's perpetual dilemmas. The very basis of the republic is, to quote Woodrow Wilson in another context, "open covenants openly arrived at." Barack Obama was indeed in the right to make 2008 campaign promises of more transparency in government. But Mr. Obama may well have come to see the problem in an entirely different fashion only minutes after he sat down at the Abraham Lincoln desk. (It is encouraging that GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney recently said that no one could know the depth of the problems of being the world's most powerful executive until he walked in those shoes.)

Furthermore, it becomes clear to us as our years multiply that there are many kinds of "intelligence" — some might say talents. In both our private and public lives, we encounter those expert in pursuing one particular goal who reveal only utter stupidity in other pursuits. We have just had a perfect expression of the phenomenon in the sordid trial of one of our politicians who reached for the highest offices after an incredibly profitable career at persuading juries to recompense injured plaintiffs. But no one, as John Edwards admitted publicly, could have been guilty of such stupidity (or in his "born-again" formulation, "sinned") in other reaches of his life.

Contemporary life's growing specialization may be contributing to the kind of verbal diarrhea now sweeping the nation's capital. With their constant polling, so-called focus groups and manipulation of an all-too-willing media, professional political consultants are increasingly dictating the terms of statecraft — particularly in this unusually heated political season. The possibility of blowing secrets about fascinating events in a bid to massage the curiosity and win the votes of a public always ready for sensation is just too tempting.

Might this phenomenon also be one of the fundamentals of our economic troubles? Merchant bankers of yore were, for the most part, more rounded individuals. Their decisions were based as much on history and culture as on statistical analysis for profit. Today's highly paid, brilliant young capitalists, with their addiction to algorithms and instant communications permitting incredibly large transfers of money in the wink of an eye, haven't much time for a longer view. As the continuing euro crisis bears down on us, ignorance of the cultural impact of history, mores and folkways built up over the several thousand years of Europe's history are taking their toll on the otherwise incredible capacity of the digital revolution to shuffle the financial cards. Commercial intelligence, then, or lack thereof, is just one of the intelligences with which we have to cope — and perhaps as important as any other.

• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at and blogs at