Orientalism, Intelligence, and Empire

January 7, 2011

It took me awhile to get a handle on this one. Imperial Secrets: Remapping the Mind of Empire, published by the  National Defense Intelligence College, cites Edward Said, Francis Bacon, Jorge Luis Borges, Michel Foucault, Jeremy Bentham, T.E. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad just in the Introduction, uses the intelligence experiences of the Roman, Ottoman, and British Empires as its core focus, and includes chapters  headed “Thuggee”, “Barzakh”, “Rhizomes”, and “Boukoloi.” This is a book that challenges its readers.

My take is that Edward Said is the real intellectual godfather of this book. His Orientalism was and remains a brilliant exposition of the West’s perceptions of the “mysterious East”. Although like all seminal works, Said’s work has been challenged, and in some ways refuted, it remains a starting point for anyone in the many fields it touches.

Although Imperial Secrets is too rich and complex a work to summarize here, it proposes that the United States, although not a classic empire, can be viewed as such, from the perspective of knowledge gathering, or intelligence, in the lands over which it exercises “imperial” influence. In the chapter on Thuggee in the British Raj, for example, an age-old Indian problem of robbery carried out via the strangulation of victims, was transmogrified by the British imagination into an organized cult of religious stranglers. Informers and punitive laws  then were employed to eliminate this phantom cult. Imperial Secrets uses this narrative to demonstrate the way empires, when faced with unfamiliar social and cultural environments, use an Orientalist discourse to fit those environments into their own frames of reference.

Another interesting theme is the value of informal networks of information, whether through the Sufi lodges of the Ottoman Empire or the transnational Freemasonic lodges of 19th Century Europe. Related to these networks are attempts by empires to use their own agents (T.E. Lawrence or the remarkable American Josiah Harlan, who had at least a shot at becoming an Afghan prince in the 1830s) and the emotional and psychological stresses that influence, or even distort, these agents’ perceptions however deeply they have steeped themselves in the cultures they infiltrate.

As I said earlier, Imperial Secrets is too intellectually challenging to review in a limited space. I haven’t even touched on its examination of Flavius Josephus as the kind of marginal informant that can to some extent transgress the boundary between and empire and its subjects, or the situationist travels of the 16th century Turkish traveler and official Evliya Celebi and their relevance as an example of  detecting information in the empty spaces between intelligence sources. (I’m starting to sound like the book, which may mean that I’m getting the point!)

Imperial Secrets is not a quick read, but it’s a stimulating one. Bear with it and you’re likely to  reap its rewards. You can read it here, get your own copy, or find it in a library.


Critical Thinking and Missile Crises

June 11, 2010

Government Book Talk got quite a bit of traffic for last Friday’s review of  Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, so I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss another book just in from the National Defense Intelligence College. Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis is a study of the practice of critical thinking – which can be defined as simultaneously thinking and thinking about thinking as a means of an analyst “coming to a solution and improving the way her or she reasons.” Although the application of this reasoning technique to intelligence analysis is the focus of the book, the discussion of what critical thinking is, its advantages over either inductive or deductive reasoning, and its value in the analysis of a wide variety of problems and situations makes it a useful tool for academics, business people, or anyone else needing to analyze a particular scenario or set of evidence.

Because I’m not a heavily abstract thinker, I found the author’s case study very useful in getting a better handle on how the absence of critical thinking can result in a major intelligence failure. Prior to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American intelligence analysts had received so much false or exaggerated information on Soviet military activities – including reports of Mongolian and Chinese troops –  that they seemed to believe that any such reports had to be untrue. Disinformation on the part of the Soviets added to the analysts’ disinclination to think critically about the intelligence they were receiving, so the discovery of offensive Soviet missiles was a total surprise to them.  The book also draws analogies to the failure of intelligence during the lead up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and in the 2002 failure to detect the absence of weapons of mass destruction prior to the second U.S. war with Iraq.

The verdict: an excellent textbook for the teaching of critical thinking (there’s a syllabus in the Appendix) and a very interesting take on a crucial episode in Cold War history. You can read it here and buy it here. To find it in a library, go here.


Prisoner Interrogation in Three Wars

June 3, 2010

Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq is an absolutely fascinating read. This book from the National Defense Intelligence College takes both an historical and policy-oriented view of prisoner of war interrogations in three wars. The World War II section examines the Army’s use of Japanese Americans – Nisei – as interrogators in the Pacific, along with incisive discussions of why Japanese soldiers seldom were taken prisoners, why a relatively high percentage of such POWs cooperated with their interrogators, and why they furnished such a significant amount of intelligence to their captors (the Japanese military hierarchy assumed that their men would not become prisoners and so did not indoctrinate them about the importance of not giving up information if they were.) This part of the book also analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the Army and Navy Japanese language training  provided during the war.

The Vietnam section focuses on profiles of the most able interrogators in World War II (the wonderfully named R.W. G. “Tin Eye” Stephens for the British and Hans Scharff for the Germans) and a number of successful American officers during the Vietnam conflict. Throughout the book, the authors make the point that linguistic ability, a deep understanding of the captives’ culture and worldview, and a perception that torture or other violent methods were useless in soliciting information of value are the hallmarks of a successful interrogator of prisoners. This part of the book also describes these individuals’ occasional conflicts with the military bureaucracy, such as Sedgwick Tourison’s experience in reporting more information about the Tonkin Gulf incident than his superiors wanted to hear.

The final section, on Iraq, focuses on policy issues – specifically, whether Army doctrine should permit Special Operations personnel to interrogate prisoners. Again, real-world examples from personal experience provide a study that is both gripping and insightful.

Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq is a thoughtful and provocative analysis of what any army confronts in war – the need to gather intelligence from prisoners, the most effective way to do that, and the ineffectiveness of “harsh methods” in delivering useful information.

You can read the book here or get a copy from GPO here.  To find it in a library, search here.


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