Paul Pillar

ISIS and the Politics of Surprise

The recent burst of recriminations about what the U.S. intelligence community did or did not tell the president of the United States in advance about the rise of the extremist group sometimes called ISIS, and about associated events in Iraq, is only a variation on some well-established tendencies in Washington discourse. The tendency that in recent years has, of course, become especially strongly entrenched is that of couching any issue in the way that is best designed to bash one's political opponents. For those determined to bash and frustrate Barack Obama at every turn, it is a tendency that trumps everything else. Thus we now have the curious circumstance of some of Mr. Obama's Republican critics, who in other contexts would be at least as quick as anyone else to come down on U.S. intelligence agencies (and most other parts of the federal bureaucracy) like a ton of bricks, saying that the president got good information but failed to act on it. (Some critics, however, have tried to lower their cognitive dissonance by saying that “everyone” could see what was coming with ISIS.)

Relationships between the intelligence community and presidential administrations over the past few decades have not fallen into any particular pattern distinguishable by party. One of the best relationships was with the administration of the elder George Bush—perhaps not surprisingly, given that president's prior experience as a Director of Central Intelligence under President Gerald Ford. Probably the worst was during the presidency of the younger George Bush, whose administration—in the course of selling the Iraq War—strove to discredit the intelligence community's judgments that contradicted the administration's assertions about an alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, pushed for public use of reporting about alleged weapons programs that the community did not consider credible, and ignored the community's judgments about the likely mess in Iraq that would follow the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime. Relations also have varied under Democratic presidents. Mr. Obama, given the evidently deliberate and methodical way he weighs input, including from the civilian and military bureaucracy, before major national security decisions, probably has been one of the better users of intelligence, at least in the sense of paying attention to it. His remark on 60 Minutes that led to the accusations about ISIS, however, did sound like gratuitous blame-shifting.

One very longstanding and bipartisan tendency that this recent imbroglio has diluted (because the political motive to attack Obama is even stronger than political motives to attack intelligence agencies) is to assume that any apparently insufficient U.S. reaction to an untoward development overseas must be due to policymakers not being sufficiently informed, and this must be because intelligence services failed. It is remarkable how, when anything disturbing goes bump in the night overseas, the label “intelligence failure” gets quickly and automatically applied by those who have no basis whatever for knowing what the intelligence community did or did not say—in classified, intra-governmental channels—to policymakers.

The current case does demonstrate in undiluted form, however, several other recurrent tendencies, one of which is to affix the label “surprise” to certain events not so much because of the state of knowledge or understanding of those who make national security policy but more because we, the public—and the press and chattering class—were surprised. Or to be even more accurate, this often happens because those of us outside government weren't paying much attention to the developments in question until something especially dramatic seized our attention, even though we actually had enough information about the possibilities that we should not have been surprised. Thus the dramatic gains by ISIS earlier this year have been labeled a “surprise” because a swift territorial advance and gruesome videotaped killings grabbed public attention.

Another tendency is to believe that if government is working properly, surprises shouldn't happen. This belief disregards how much that is relevant to foreign policy and national security is unknowable, no matter how brilliant either an intelligence service or a policymaker may be. This is partly because of other countries and entities keeping secrets but even more so because some future events are inherently unpredictable—given that they involve decisions that others have not yet made, or social processes too complex or psychological mechanisms too fickle to model. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was referring to this epistemological reality in the comment that he made recently about the Iraqi army's collapse and that the president erroneously characterized in his 60 Minutes interview. Clapper was not saying that the intelligence community messed up on this question; he instead was observing that this type of sudden loss of will in the heat of battle has always been unpredictable.