Friday, April 25, 2008

Leave Broke Enough Alone, Part I

In Still Broken, A.J. Rossmiller, recounts his tenure as an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency ("DIA" - which is the Department of Defense's intelligence shop), which traces his personal eveolution ranging from his initial can-do enthusiasm to eventual dissilusionment and frustration. The narrative arc of Still Broken spans Rossmiller's time spent in intelligence gathering and analysis both in Baghdad and later in the labyrinthine halls of the Pentagon (an ample metaphor for the bureaucratic tangle that serves as the book's primary antagonist).

The recurring vignettes depicting the intrusive politicization of the intelligence gathering/analysis process, the inefficiency, lack of connectedness and bureacratic turf wars are as prevalent in each half of the book as they are inextricable parts of the overall story of the invasion of Iraq itself - from the selling of the war, to the mismanagement in the aftermath. While the generalities surrounding this tale are familiar to many in abstraction and slogan, Rossmiller provides a clearly written, unbiased, first person perspective of how this dysfunction actually plays out on a day to day basis.

Nevertheless, despite Rossmiller's well-supported diagnosis of an intelligence apparatus that was and is "Still Broken," the next step in the treatment regimen is less convincing. Though they can be detected plaintively in the background throughout, the essential questions raised by Still Broken are never really fully reckoned with by the author: Are we capable of forging a long-term, structural fix for what ails our intelligence community? Relatedly, is the cure likely to kill the patient?

Baghdad via Middlebury

To hear Rossmiller recount the decision making process that took him from then-recent graduate of liberal arts bastion (emphasis on the liberal) Middlebury College in bucolic Vermont, to pistol-packing, FOB trotting DIA member in Baghdad is to gain insight into his character and, to some extent, his naivete. Deeply affected by the attacks of 9/11 (he grew up just outside of New York City) and infused with a belief in the virtue of giving back to his country, Rossmiller eschewed graduate school and other more lucrative career paths in favor or a low paying post with the DIA. In fact, upon settling in his new position in Washington, Rossmiller soon applied for a position in Iraq at a time when the DOD was having a difficult time locating enough volunteers. His reasons are a testament to his selflessness: a deployment was easier for him than many of his colleagues with children and other more pressing domestic needs.

The enlightenment of A.J. Rossmiller and, vicariously, the reader, begins upon his arrival in Baghdad. What is immediately striking is the size and expanse of the occupation facilities, even those just in and around Baghdad. One is left with the impression that these structures are not of the temporary variety, but rather that they form the skeleton of a permanent presence. Yet side-by-side with the massive outlay associated with the preparation, fortification and furnishing of bases and other formations (down to quirky amenities to create a home-like ambience), is the jarring juxtaposition of how little preparation went in to actually preparing for and managing the occupation itself; the intricate, painstaking process of replacing a large nation's entire governing infrastructure. In terms of resources, focus and prioritzing, the Iraqis are the constant afterthought.

Amazingly - or not - Rossmiller's team hits Baghdad without a mission, due largely to the lack of communication between the various branches of the government charged with managing the occupation, as well as the departing team's own lack of clear purpose. After some time wasted adrift, Rossmiller (thanks to the bureaucratic navigating acumen of some of his managers) ends up on a team whose main focus is kidnapping, assassinations and insurgent financing - what Rossmiller calls "the three most critical tactical elements of the chaos in Iraq." Here's the truly alarming aspect though: fully three years into the war, and his is the first team specifically allocated to those vital issues. Glad they finally got around to it.

Unfortunately, that incident is but a microcosm of the overall confusion, lack of direction, lack of coordination and disconnect between the intelligence gatherers, analysts, soldiers and leadership. Even where intelligence assets are focused on a given phenomenon, the products produced by the analysts often fail to make it up the chain of command to anyone capable of using them. It is as if the analysts are producing the literature for their own consumption, even though their ability to act on that burgeoning knowledge is nil. They are mostly forced into the role of scribe: reacting to events and recording the play by play; though Rossmiller did manage to carve out a role providing actionable intelligence at one time during his tour.

Worse still, as soon as some semblance of a functioning operation is established, turf wars and battles over budget dollars force the disbandment and reorganization of the newly productive teams. The futility of the mission - at times Kafkaesque - is so maddening that Rossmiller and his colleagues begin using the phrase, "forever" as a catchall to describe any number of breakdowns and backward policies that lead one to conclude that the mission in Iraq shows no sign of nearing any discernible end game. One is left wondering if this is a bug or a feature.

Still, above all, there is one anecdote that stands out as the exemplification of the backwardness of our mission. Toward the end of Rossmiller's rotation in Iraq, he was brought in to help with some detainee in-processing - he had been tracking some insurgent activity, and earlier that night there had been a raid conducted using his intel.

One of the soldiers came over to the main table, his face tired but his eyes alert.

"We didnt' find the guys we were looking for, but grabbed some dudes at the targets' houses and then did some follow-on ops, too. We've got around forty or fifty coming in," he declared.

This news was alarming. Some of the evidence against our targets was questionable to begin with, and now we had dozens of guys who just happened to be in the houses we hit? In an environment filled with bad sources, double-dealings, a lack of knowledge of culture and language, and endless cases of mistaken identity, it was likely that few if any of our detainees were involved in the sinrugency, and probably none would have intelligence value. I figured we would have to let most of them go.
Rossmiller was wrong of course. Instead, the deeply traumatized and humiliated prisoners were shipped off to Abu Ghraib prison - where they will remain imprisoned for months or years without formal charges or contact with the outside world. The process resembles a Catch 22 of sorts: anyone picked up in the field is sent to Abu Ghraib because those doing the initial processing figure that Abu Ghraib will sort out the insurgents from those wrongly detained. Yet at Abu Ghraib, the SOP is to assume that all incoming detainees are guilty and thus detain them for at least three months. Rossmiller captures this impact of these techniques on counterinsurgency efforts. He points out the dubiousness of thess practices to one of the participating soldiers, and the soldier replies:

"Yeah, well, we'll get affidavits that they all had weapons and resisted detention, and that enough to lock 'em up for a while. Anyway, if they're off the streets, they're not setting IEDs, right?"

"I guess," I replied. But if they weren't before, they would be when they got out.
It actually gets worse. Throughout the gruelling and time consuming processing, as several of the detainees try in vain to ascertain the charges against them, some begin to ask, out of concern, about another detainee (the brother of some, cousin of others) who is mentally handicapped and/or deaf and mute. Later in the evening, Rossmiller sees some soldiers attempting to interrogate a detainee who stands mute, confused and otherwise fits the description of the mentally challenged detainee. Rossmiller tries to intervene and explain the situation, to no avail. "Naw, he's fuckin' faking. I'm sending him to Abu G," is the only response he gets. Perfect.

Toward the end of the night, one of the detainees asked for permission to speak, and was eventually granted that right. What he said left an indellible mark on Rossmiller:

"When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."
Rossmiller recalls:

That day I saw an entire family of brothers sent away - seven in all, I think. One of them was almost certainly retarded...A civilized country and a civilized people cannot presume guilt. Guilt without evidence is anathema to a functioning civil society, and rule of law is vital to win a war that is more about minds than weapons or troops. Pragmatically, a system that incarcerates scores of innocents is a broken one, destined to be fought by those it victimizes.

In Part II, I will focus on the author's time back at the Pentagon after his return from Iraq, as well as some of the questions raised by the book, related to how, indeed, a civilized country should comport itself when faced with a system broken in these ways.

(A.J. Rossmiller currently blogs at AMERICAblog, and I consider him to be a go-to reference for all things Iraq-related and otherwise)

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