If we are so smart, why are we so dumb? I am referring to the “intelligence” that our spy agencies have gathered at great cost in both massive secret black-box budgets and, much more importantly, the surrender of our personal freedom to the snooping eyes of our modern surveillance state.
“We know everything but learn nothing” would be an honest slogan for the NSA, the CIA and lesser-known spy agencies that specialize in leading us so dangerously astray. For all of their massive intrusion into the personal lives of individuals throughout the world, it is difficult to recall a time when the “intelligence” they collected provided such myopic policy insight.
Take the revelations in The New York Times’ exhaustive six-part investigation published Saturday demonstrating that the devastating 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, were an intelligence disaster. The Times “turned up no evidence that (al-Qaida) or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault” that led to the death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Instead, a local militia leader on the side of the U.S.-supported insurrection in Libya with no known affiliation with al-Qaida is a prime suspect, and he and others allegedly responsible were not on the radar screen of the 20-person CIA station in Benghazi because they were part of the insurgency the U.S. supported.
As for the vast collection of phone and email intercepts maintained by U.S. spy agencies, it turned up only one bit of information, a phone call from someone involved in the mob attacking the U.S. post. He called a friend elsewhere in Africa who allegedly knew some folks in al-Qaida, but the friend “sounded astonished” at the news from Libya, “suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault,” according to U.S. officials. In short, the only evidence turned up by the vast spying apparatus was evidence that inconveniently contradicted the al-Qaida connection, so it was not made public.
As The New York Times stated, the Benghazi incident has been billed as “the most significant attack on United States property in 11 years, since Sept. 11, 2001,” an event that launched the much-ballyhooed war on terror. But as with that attack 11 years earlier, the perps turned out to be people the U.S. secret agencies had once trusted. The enemy here was not al-Qaida but rather a homegrown menace empowered by foreign intervention. “The attack was led,” the Times reported, “by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistic support during the uprising against (Moammar Gadhafi).”
These monsters of our own creation continually haunt us. It was, after all, the United States under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan that recruited and armed the anti-Soviet Muslim fanatics who later morphed into Osama bin Laden’s gang.
Gadhafi, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar Assad in Syria, was a defanged dictator and — inconvenient to the U.S. anti-terrorism narrative — like his fellow secular dictators, an avowed enemy of al-Qaida. But that did not stop the regime change ideologues in the U.S. government from meddling once again in a society that they could barely comprehend. As The New York Times summarized the origins of the Benghazi debacle:
“The United States waded deeply into post-(Gadhafi) Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially (al-Qaida). It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.”
We have left it to the secret state agents to determine the nature of our enemies, “the evildoers,” and never dare to question how often their “evidence” gets it wrong. In the process, debates about foreign policy are hijacked by those with access to secret information, be it Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction or Iran’s threat to the stability of the Middle East.
The latest example is the source of the greatest irrationality in the war on terror, committing the U.S. to the side of Sunni fanatics financed by Saudi Arabia in a war against anyone the Saudi theocracy holds in contempt. Just days ago, the Saudi government pledged $3 billion to support the government of Lebanon in its confrontation with Hezbollah.
That follows a $5 billion gift to the military dictators of Egypt, who overthrew a democratically elected government whose Sunni leadership did not sufficiently cater to Saudi dictates. Then there are this year’s foreign aid bribes of $1 billion to Jordan, $3.25 billion to Yemen, $1.25 billion to Morocco and $750 million to Tunisia to docilely follow the decrees of the Saudi theocracy.
The idiocy of anti-terrorism as a substitute for foreign policy is that Saudi Arabia, the one nation most accurately described as a breeding ground for terrorism, gets to play an outsize role, along with outlier Israel, in deciding U.S. policy for the entire region. If people dare dissent — say, any Americans who loathe having their taxes committed in this way — they can be branded as soft on terror. If they go online and express such a view, will they, too, be picked up in the NSA’s catch-a-spy network?
The excuse is that this sacrifice of our freedom will make us more secure, as in the misnamed “National Security Agency,” by our knowing more about our “enemies.” But the record is unmistakably the opposite; this relinquishing of privacy and transparency has stifled genuine public debate about the goals of our policy and left us both stupid and weak.