Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Passion of John Brennan

Pix Credit: Daily Mail

Pix Credit HERE: Disposition Matrix
It must come as something of a surprise, though 2020 has been the year that disabused us of the idea of surprises among political actors, that John Brennan, within whose tenure at the top of the United States security apparatus, those bureaucracies sought the perfection of drone based assassination (and other activities of use to the United States) under the pacific administrations of Mr. Bush II and Mr. Obama, to hear this gentleman  decry the death of "Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi (top inset) [who] was killed in an ambush involving an explosion and then machine gun fire on a road between the countryside town of Absard and the capital of Tehran" (as reported HERE). Echoing, or at least augmenting, the remarks of the highest leadership in Iran, Mr. Brennan was quite clear about his opinion, and quite insistent that it be heard and influence mass opinion but more importantly influence the key political actors now soon to occupy the White House (and from there to repopulate the security establishment with people more congenial to their way of thinking). 

Khamenei - who has the final say on all matters of state - said Iran's first priority after the killing was the 'definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.' He did not elaborate. And, in an intervention that risks inflaming conflict even further, a former head of the US's Central Intelligence Agency labelled the assassination a 'criminal' act and branded it 'highly reckless'. John Brennan - who was director of the CIA from 2013 to 2017 under the administration of president Barack Obama - said he did not know who was to blame for the murder of Fakhrizadeh-Mahabad but labeled it a 'criminal' act.(as reported HERE).

This intervention by Mr. Brennan --quite well timed and well publicized by a complicit press establishment with motivations of its own (eg perhaps to facilitate (c)overt communication, to enhance its role as the maker and provider of news, etc.) --  will likely be explained by those "in the know" along well established lines.  These appear to outsiders to converge in rage--perhaps better antipathy--born of personal (political) choices, which have served as the means by which he along with others might have made an artform of curating intelligence (and its analysis) to suit the times and their tastes (as well as the tastes of those they serve). In Mr. Brennan's case, that will likely be characterized as a tasty stew of antipathy toward Mr. Trump (and his security apparatus, many of them anyway (though how much of that is also staged for the amusement  of the masses and their misdirection remains unknowable)), and the current leadership in Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

It might also be meant to serve as signaling of an openness to the aspirations of the geopolitical inclinations of the current leadership in Iran and in the post Ataturk Turkey that appears to be under construction (Mr. Brennan's hand in that affair remains unknowable as well). It is certainly meant as a swipe against old adversaries who now appear to be easier targets.  There is likely more to this easy than is apparent. One notes, though, the easiness with which one who is used to judging but is not a judge pronounces oneself on the legal character of an act which he clearly did not approve (or perhaps that was undertaken without his approval and thus for that reason disapproved). There is likely more for those with the security clearances to see past the theater. In any case one might attach some importance (certainly the press has) in a case where a significant former leader of a powerful security establishment, who has become a television and pundit celebrity (he is not the only one among those with high and sensitive responsibilities to the nation) to place themselves at the center in a way that may mark their slow transformation from agents of the United States to entrepreneurs of the self.  It may signal as well a strong desire to return to the presumptions and obsessions of the security apparatus--the world view they curated so assiduously for public and private consumption--before 2016.

This post offers some very brief reflections that build on this most curious and quite public pronouncement (one that comes after several years of such pronouncements). It comes from the perspective of a complete outsider and what that outsider might read into this most recent effort by this celebrity, whose success in that respect at least appears to continue to rise on utterances like this one. 


The Wiz, No Bad News
 1. Careerism and the Sycophant. The bureaucratization of the security apparatus, and its close connection with the political branches produces quite significant tensions of the most banal sort.  These were very much in evidence since the heady post-Soviet days of the Clinton Presidency and its arrogant belief in itself. Who does an ambitious careerist serve?  She must serve herself, of course, and her career.  That is a general problem in hierarchically organized bureaucracies.  But often it is possible to harmonize self servicing with the responsibilities of the job--and in the case of a job in the security apparatus, with a responsibility to the nation. It is also possible to give way to temptation, especially where one must service a superior to service one's own ambitions (e.g., here).  That is also common in bureaucracies.  But the careerist also serves the institution--certainly against other institutions and their ambitions.  Security services that succumb to the temptation of curating information to suit the listener fool both themselves and their audience. 

2. The Puppet-master. It is a very short step from curating news to suit the temperament and fantasies of one's superiors to managing that news to suit one's own. One wonders whether the problem, increasingly acute globally among national security apparatus organizations is also institutional or merely cultural.  Data harvesting, increasingly undertaken by electronic means, produces enough data to challenge the ability of the human mind to process.  And so the human mind retreats from the field.  It does not process.  Instead, it builds analytics to process for one.  Those analytics do many things.  But three are worth considering here.  The first is that it organizes information, the second is that it assigns significance to each datapoint, and the third is that it determines how to assemble these data points no narratives that can be understood by the simple (politicians, policymakers, and others with responsibility for making  choices based on data, or based on a decision to ignore the data nicely arranged in a narrative that can be understood). At each point there is a human choice.  Where that human choice is conscious, and where it is consciously directed toward producing a narrative that pushes its listener toward some desired conclusion, then one imperils the integrity of the system.  Or put in the terms of power, one shifts, effectively policy power from those who have formal decision making authority to those who control the story (and the analysis) on which such policy is justified. 

3. Diva. There has always been a notable tendency for individuals to grasp at influence, especially when they are playing a subordinate role near the top of power hierarchies.  But the culture of that influence grazing is shaped both by the times and the technology available. The Americans live at a time of an infatuation with reality television, with true confession teleplays and movies, and with outsize notions of heroes in spandex. The tragedy of security operatives becomes acute where they become public performers in political contests.  Mr. Brennan's feud with Mr. Trump exposed both (at the expense of the nation, perhaps) in a light that both may come to loathe.  But it is difficult to see what appears to others when blinded by the righteous light of one's own views. When one makes something personal, the cost of the loss of perspective is usually personally borne. There is little that breeds distrust than an older person with strong opinions backed by secrets that may hinted at but may not divulge. There is something askew about an administrator of secrets indulging in the mass politics in the style of his political adversary.

4. End games. Actors in the security apparatus make awkward advocates for political causes--and are more awkward shills for political figures. Americans have a high tolerance for some movement between the bureaucratic and political (electoral) establishments: George H.W. Bush had been the 11th Director of the CIA more than a decade before he became the 41st US President. But what does one do when the opposite occurs: when a president offends the sensitivities of the intelligence community; when he rejects their professional advice; when he mocks them? In the ordinary course, I suppose, the intelligence community could *sigh* (in an institutional sort of way if such a thing is possible) and continue its work; perhaps it might even use that moment for self reflection of the sort that sometimes be useful.  Or it could be offended; it could be defensive.  And in the process of offense and defense do what it has been accused of doing in other even more important issues involving policy--it could contribute to the construction of a narrative that suits its own vanity and in the process undermine that of their (institutional) adversary. Yet the issue is great--what does a political establishment do when its chief despises its intelligence community; what does it do when the intelligence community despises its chief?

5. The Loquacious Security Operative. None of these behaviors bodes well for a Republic, much less one facing its own inner and outer demons.  Worse yet, perhaps, is the habit, increasingly evident, of a loquaciousness on the part of senior officials in the business of gathering, analyzing and advising on (other states') secrets (and our own). Yet that creates something of a quandary.  The heads of a state's security apparatus are always speaking.  Sometimes they speak to each other; sometimes they speak at each other.  Conversations may be direct or indirect, they may use words or be conveyed by gesture or events; or they may be uttered by others playing a (conscious or unconscious) role.  That is all to be expected in the world in which they and their colleagues (and I use that term loosely) inhabit. Loquaciousness, then, may be a bad habit. it may be a tool, it may misdirect, or it may reveal (in this case factional conversations).  And yet, in the context in which it appears contemporaneously, it is not clear how it advances national rather than personal interests. 

 6. Intergenerational warfare and the art of speaking. Lastly, I end this reverie by turning away from the personalities to the object to which their attention ought to have been drawn.  The current generation of officials appear to have lost a certain discipline with the fall of the Soviet Empire. With some exceptions (there are always exceptions, but exception marks what is common, oh so very common to an age), the concept of duty appears be be undergoing revision. Perhaps in an age of the therapeutic, a duty is self ought to be paramount.  That might ultimately prove regrettable.  But the value of self love s that it never lives long enough to see what it leaves in its wake when its object moves to another plane of existence. Yet self love is a fertilizer that overfeeds the sense of the self--and it produces the arrogance that tempts disaster. That is the arrogance that began infecting the upper levels of the academic, institutional, and bureaucratic elites from the time of the end of the first Communist Empire.  It has blinded its wielders to the rise of other empires, and has permitted an indulgence in internalized warfare that potentially debilitates the collective which is it meant to serve. It sees itself in everyone and it assumes that rules--includig those of duty, of honor, and of fidelity to basic ancient principle, need not apply to those who wield the instruments of their manifestation. And that, perhaps, witnessed time and time again since the 1990s, and increasingly after 2001, is the most regrettable end to the meanderings of thought that the pronouncements of a former head of an important apparatus of our security infrastructure leads.




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