The Costs of Scandals, Real and False

Paul Pillar

The Washington Post's media reporter, Paul Farhi, had an interesting article earlier this week about the life cycle of news stories about “scandals.” The pattern Farhi discerns is that an incriminating report or accusation that quickly pushes a story to the status of “scandal” gets lots of attention, but that subsequent information that undercuts or negates the original version of the story gets much less. And so some stories retain in many minds the elevated status of “scandal” even after the factual basis for assigning that status has crumbled.

Among the examples Farhi cited was the IRS policing of tax-exempt status, in which the later information indicating that the enforcement efforts involved were directed at groups all across the political spectrum received far less attention that the original version of the story, according to which the enforcement was aimed only at conservative groups. Another of his examples was about the White House allegedly leaking classified information about a foiled terrorist plot, with the later, more accurate but less noticed, information being that the leak had actually come from a former FBI agent with a criminal record.

Farhi is writing about this as an issue of how well the press does its job, and there is indeed an issue there. But there are some other consequences of how “scandals” are treated and perceived that also deserve notice. For one thing, the term scandal has been debased. The problem is not just incomplete or erroneous information about happenings that have acquired that label, but also a looser standard for applying the label. A term that used to be reserved for what is legally or morally outrageous is now applied to what is just politically edgy. That's too bad; our useful vocabulary has been diminished, as has our moral sensibility. Teapot Dome was a true scandal; much of what gets that label today is not.

There also are unfortunate effects on policy debate and ultimately on policy itself, in two respects. One is that much of that debate is ill-informed, in the sense of being based on that early and erroneous reporting. Moreover, the public's understanding of many issues reflects an imprinting on whatever was the first version of the issue that came to the public's attention. The problem is thus one of public psychology as well as inconsistent press coverage.

Another consequence for policy and policy debate involves the opportunity costs of so much attention being sucked up by “scandals.” The president and members of Congress are having their time badly diverted from matters that are far more important for the well-being of the republic. Of course, this is often a problem less of inconsistent press coverage than of willful political manipulation. Whatever the exact impetus, the public, press, and Congress alike are because of this diversion paying much less attention to many things that deserve much more attention. A list of those things could go on and on: strategic issues in the eastern Pacific, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and much else.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsEthicsMediaPublic OpinionThe PresidencyPsychology RegionsUnited States

Mirror-Image Hardliners

Paul Pillar

Despite the many and obvious differences between the United States and Iran as the two countries take tentative baby steps toward a less destructive relationship, there also are some striking symmetries in taking those steps. Policymakers on both sides want an agreement to resolve differences over Iran's nuclear program, are wary or even skeptical about achieving such an agreement, but are nonetheless trying to negotiate one. Both sets of policymakers are having to deal with resistance from hardliners on their own side who would not welcome an agreement. Both are having to fend off accusations that they would be giving up too much in negotiations. For both, the task of managing the hardliners on their own side is made all the more difficult by the statements, and sometimes actions, of hardliners on the other side.

The Obama administration, to its credit, recently has been investing some high-level lobbying time in an effort to stave off a move in Congress to add still more sanctions against Iran to the mountain of them already in place. Such a move would undermine the negotiating effort and reduce the chance of reaching an agreement. It would be a slap-in-the-face response to recent positive movement on the Iranian side and be taken by many Iranians as another indication that the United States does not really want a deal and instead is just stalling for time while sanctions wreak more damage on the Iranian economy.

The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is making corresponding efforts to stave off efforts by the hardliners on his side to undermine the negotiations. This was clearly the principal purpose of a talk he gave to students on Sunday, in which he said, “No one should consider our negotiators as compromisers...They have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work.” Khamenei's comments are the strongest refutation yet of the notion that the diplomatic initiative of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif may not have the supreme leader's backing.

While making clear that he does back the initiative, Khamenei also expressed his skepticism about whether negotiations can succeed in the face of the indications of permanent hostility on the other side, specifically mentioning the repeated threats of military attack against Iran. In a comment that mirrors cynical references in the United States to Iran's “charm offensive,” Khamenei said, “We should not trust an enemy who smiles. From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another side they immediately say all options are on the table.”

For anyone in the United States who wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon and thus ought to be supporting the negotiations that are the best way to secure that objective, support must include full awareness of the challenge that the Iranian leadership faces in managing hardline resistance inside Iran. In particular, support in this respect means carefully avoiding giving Iranian hardliners any additional ammunition in support of the argument that negotiations are at best a waste of time and at worst a danger to Iran.

Support also means not being turned off by the inevitable hardline utterances on the Iranian side. Some such utterances will come directly from hardliners who do not want an agreement; others will represent part of the hardliner-management effort of leaders who are making the policy and who do want an agreement. So this week, for example, with the anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, there will be more “death to America” chants and songs. This sort of thing, too, is a mirror image of some of what is heard in the United States. It corresponds to the more bellicose war-threatening statements directed against Iran, which has included even the outrageous extreme of a major bankroller in American politics calling for a nuclear weapon to be fired at Iran.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranUnited States

America's Amnesia About Intelligence

Paul Pillar

Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

The nation tends to lose sight of any phase in a cycle beyond the one it happens to be in at the moment. Memories of these matters are short. Most Americans have already forgotten how in the national mood that prevailed in the first couple of years after 9/11 much of what today gets labeled as a “scandal” would not have been considered at all scandalous.

Similar cycles operate regarding other dimensions involving intelligence, with the same pattern of public and political responses in one phase laying the seeds for a later and different sort of crisis. After 9/11 a leitmotif of the recriminations was that there was insufficient sharing of information across bureaucratic boundaries and between governmental agencies. Then later, with more sharing taking place, an army private or a contract techie could get access to, and publicly compromise, boatloads of information that went well beyond their own areas of responsibility. The chair of the Senate intelligence committee, Diane Feinstein, has acknowledged that the post-9/11 emphasis on more sharing probably has had something to do with the recent problems of megaleaks.

A review of the history of intelligence failures and what has been said about them afterward shows there is no limit to the scope of what might come to be deemed a failure. Anything that is later seen as a surprise outside the intelligence community is interpreted as a failure within the community. It does not matter whether or not the subject matter is something that policymakers had already been focusing on. Intelligence is not just expected to provide answers; it is expected to prevent surprise even if the relevant questions have not been asked, or even thought of, by anyone else. Accordingly, most of the intelligence community's work is not in response to specific questions or tasks levied by the policymaker-consumers, although such levies always take priority. The intelligence agencies constantly have to be seeking not just new information but new insights about new topics or even just new possibilities, if there is any chance that the possibilities will involve something that might bite us in the future.

This is part of the background to why most of the current voluminous discussion about what the president knew or what he directed regarding collection by NSA is uninformed and off the mark. It does not reflect how the intelligence community operates, or how it must operate if both it and the president are to do the jobs expected of them. NSA and the other intelligence agencies conduct their operations according to a rigorous and well-established system of establishing and regularly revising priorities for intelligence collection and analysis. Policymakers are full participants in that system, and there will be no surprises to them regarding the overall shape and scope of the agencies' collection activities. The intelligence agencies also have battalions of lawyers whose job it is to ensure that the agencies operate strictly within the limits set by statute and by executive orders. At the same time we cannot, and should not, expect the president or his senior aides to get so mired in micromanagement that they are approving the turning on of individual switches at NSA or other individual collection efforts. They simply don't have the time for it.

A refusal to recognize these realities flows partly from simple ignorance of how the intelligence process and the intelligence-policy nexus works. The ignorance involves the misconception, for example, that most intelligence work involves receiving a high-level request for a specific answer to a specific question, and delivering a specific collected tidbit in return. Tidbits there are, but the yield from collection aimed at, say, foreign leadership communications is at least as likely to serve as part of the information base for analysts who then, based on a variety of sources, present policymakers with a comprehensive and firmly-grounded assessment of what a foreign government is up to.

The refusal also stems from the incentive of politicians, pundits, and press to frame an issue so that there will be a story either of a lackadaisical, bystander president or of a rogue intelligence agency. Either of those stories is juicier than the reality.

Look back again at the history of what are deemed intelligence failures and we can also see another expectation habitually placed on intelligence agencies: that they ought to be aggressive, creative, and resourceful in going after every piece of information abroad that they can get their hands on and that might help to ward off possible threats or otherwise to inform U.S. foreign policy. This is just the sort of expectation that is usually made of any enterprise, in government or in the private sector, that we hope will achieve excellence. Cracking as tough a collection nut as high-level communications in a foreign government is the sort of accomplishment that in other times and circumstances has been seen as a feather in an agency's cap. Imagine the confusion and consternation when in the current times the feather is described as a scandal.

Another unrealistic aspect of much of the current discourse about this whole affair is the notion that clear lines can be drawn between friends and foes and that clearly different rules can be applied to each. This is unrealistic partly as a matter of foreign policy and how foreign states play in U.S. interests. Every state has varying degrees of shared and conflicting interests with the United States, and nearly every one of them is part of a problem as well as being part of a solution. The other element of unrealism again has to do with expectations placed on intelligence and what comes to be seen as a surprise and an intelligence failure. The biggest surprises occur where previous patterns—which might have been the basis for categorizing foreign states and making different rules for dealing with them—fall apart. The surprises involve instability where we thought we had stability, a threat arising where we didn't think there was one, or a foe appearing where we thought we had a friend.

The preferences and sensitivities of friends have long been a complication for intelligence collection. In the 1970s the shah of Iran was considered a good, close friend of the United States, who did much to sustain the U.S. defense industry with his arms purchases and who was relied upon as a pillar of stability in the Persian Gulf. The collection sensitivity with the shah concerned not so much collecting information on his own government but rather the rubbing of shoulders with the Iranian opposition to better understand it. The shah's government did not like us to do that because it implied a recognition of the opposition and possible fears for the stability of the regime. Then came the Iranian revolution, which now occupies a prominent place on most lists of U.S. intelligence failures, with the principal explanation for failure being inadequate collection of information about the pre-revolutionary opposition.

The oscillation in American attitudes toward U.S. intelligence agencies will continue. The amnesia about earlier phases in each cycle also will continue. When the next big failure occurs, we will have forgotten the dis-empowerment that people are calling for now, and how it may have contributed to that next failure.

TopicsCongressPublic OpinionThe PresidencyIntelligence RegionsUnited States

Winston Churchill Returns to Washington, DC

Jacob Heilbrunn

Winston Churchill returned to Washington, DC yesterday. The former British Prime Minister was the star of the show at the Capitol's National Statuary Hall, where a bust dedicated to him was unveiled before worshipful legislators, including House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. Even Roger Daltrey of the Who was summoned to sing a dedication—"Won't Get Fooled Again"—to Churchill.

It was a rare moment of comity for Congress. Everyone could agree that the old boy was a great man who had sealed Britain's friendship with America at a time of crisis. Boehner called him "the best friend America ever had." Of course America was also the only major friend he had—Churchill was desperate to persuade Franklin D. Roosevelt to assist an embattled England in 1940, when the Nazi empire was at the apogee of its power. Later on, Roosevelt would snub Churchill at the Big Three Conferences—staying at the Soviet embassy in Tehran in 1943 (where he his suite was of course bugged) and trying to cozy up to "Uncle Joe," as he called him, at Yalta in 1945.

FDR was no fan of the British empire. In fact, he saw it as an obstacle to peace after the war was concluded. It was Harry S Truman who probably had more in common with Churchill, at least when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Washington, under Dwight Eisenhower, became even more hawkish than the British prime minister who wanted to see if a detente could be reached with Moscow after Stalin died.

Since then, Churchill has become the statesman that American politicians routinely invoke. George W. Bush stuck his bust in the White House. Barack Obama got into a bit of hot water when he removed it—insufficient piety. John Kerry recently announced that facing down Syria on chemical weapons was a "Churchill moment." Neoconservatives routinely use his name to invoke a new Munich—whenever and wherever possible. Whether Churchill would recognize himself in all the fulsome tributes is somewhat questionable. His career was a failure—or would have been seen as one—had the Second World War not occurred. He had switched from Tory to Liberal back to Tory and was widely viewed as unreliable and unstable.

But in Washington, Churchill has become a vital strut in the belief that American is an exceptional nation, destined to bring democracy abroad. Secretary Kerry announced at the dedication,

With so many challenges all across the world today, struggles to be won, pandemics to be defeated, history yet to be defined, Churchill can be heard once again with this bust, asking all of us to define our time here not in shutdowns or showdowns, but in a manner befitting of a country that still stands, as he said then, at the pinnacle of power.

Boehner added that the area around the bust will now be known as the "Freedom Foyer." It's a remarkable tribute to a leader who commands more reverence in America than he does in England itself. At a moment of polarization, he is the one thing its politicians seem able to agree on. He has literally become an idol. In this regard, he has, to borrow the title from his great series of books about World War II, created a new grand alliance.

TopicsCongress RegionsUnited States

Five Scariest Geopolitical Events That Happened on Halloween

The Buzz

From its ninth-century origins as a ceremony dedicated to remembering saints and the dead, Halloween has evolved—or, depending on one's perspective, devolved—into a largely secular holiday associated more with crunchy Candy Corn and costumes reflecting the increasing vacuousness of Western popular culture than with solemn reverence for the departed. But beware: an eerie number of frightening historical events have occurred on Halloweens past, events that resulted both in tremendous levels of bloodletting and far-reaching transformations of the world’s geopolitical landscape. Below is a list of the top five scariest historical events that happened on October 31. Read on, if you dare….

#5 On the night of October 31, 1954, the indigenous Algerian Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN, launched attacks on French government assets in Algeria, igniting the Algerian War of Independence, a brutal liberation struggle characterized by massive human rights abuses, including torture by both sides. The conflict divided France politically and cost numerous French prime ministers their jobs. It also brought down France’s Fourth Republic, which involved riots, revolts, and even rebellion by a section of the country’s army. After nearly seven-and-a-half years, over 40,000 terrorist attacks, and hundreds of thousands of battle deaths, the French withdrew in June 1962. The following month, Algeria, which France had since 1848 considered to be an integral part of French territory, declared independence, effectively ending the second French colonial empire.

#4 After the March on Rome from October 22-29, Benito Mussolini was sworn in as Italy’s prime minister on October 31, 1922, fulfilling his threat that "either the government will be given to us or we shall seize it by marching on Rome." Before long, Il Duce turned Italy into a police state. In what was quickly revealed to be a hopeless attempt to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire, Mussolini presided over Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, during which Italy employed chemical warfare agents on a massive scale; the conflict led to approximately 20,000 battle deaths. After the demise of Italy’s colonial presence in Africa, Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis effectively put Italy in the position of being a puppet state subordinate to Germany. The result was Germany’s brutal occupation of Italy and the Allies’ invasion in 1943, which, in making Italy a key battleground during World War II, also devastated the country. In the end, despite supposedly making the “trains run on time”, Mussolini’s Italy was characterized by rampant corruption, dictatorship, racist laws and, finally, utter ruin.

#3 Turkey joined the Central Powers on October 31, 1914, which would eventually result in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the drawing of conflict-prone national borders across the Middle East. On November 2, Russia declared war against Turkey; France and Great Britain followed suit on November 5. Although the Ottomans were eventually defeated, the road to victory was hard, bloody, and horrific; the Gallipoli Campaign, generally considered a defeat for the Allies, was particularly costly. Eighteen months after jointly declaring war, France and Britain, with Russia’s assent, signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, spelling out each party’s proposed sphere of influence in a post-Ottoman Middle East. After Russia’s revolutionary Bolshevik government was subsequently denied any claims to Ottoman territory, it published the text of the agreement in November 1917, exposing French and British imperial designs on the region. The eventual implementation of Sykes-Picot resulted in the drawing of national borders that in many cases failed to correspond to demographic realities on the ground, thereby sowing the seeds of many future conflicts in the Middle East, a phenomenon that still haunts the region to this day. Nonetheless, the demise of the “sick man of Europe” ushered in a period of French and particularly British regional dominance that lasted for over four decades.

#2 However, everything started to come crashing down for Great Britain and France when they entered the Suez Crisis, one of history’s most infamous foreign policy misadventures, on October 31, 1956. In collusion with Britain and France, both reeling from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s recent nationalization of the Suez Canal, Israel invaded Egypt's Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956, after which Britain and France called on Israel and Egypt to cease all hostilities, withdraw ten miles from the Suez Canal, and allow Anglo-French forces to occupy the Canal Zone. When Nasser followed the Anglo-French-Israeli script by refusing these conditions on October 31, Britain and France intervened militarily against Egypt the same day, which also happened to be just days before the U.S. presidential election, infuriating President Eisenhower. The Soviet Union, which almost entered the conflict, stood by the US at the United Nations to condemn the British and French actions, which compelled British Prime Minister Anthony Eden to declare a ceasefire. At the end of the day, Britain and France, neither of which accomplished their military objectives in the campaign, during which over 2,100 men lost their lives, were discredited in the region, ushering the era of American preeminence in the Middle East.

#1 Characterized by tremendous turmoil and bloodletting, the Protestant Reformation was sparked on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1648, the Reformation concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, a series of peace treaties signed between the major European powers that ended the Thirty Years’ War, among the most destructive of Europe’s many conflagrations. Beyond ending Europe’s wars of religion, the peace treaties are also widely credited with establishing the principle of sovereignty, the fundamental basis for the modern international system of nation-states, which fundamentally redefined Europe’s age-old political fault lines.

Image: Composite of Flickr/Kevin Gill. CC BY-SA 2.0, and Wikimedia Commons/Andre Koehne, CC BY-SA 3.0.