Don’t Blame the Spies: An Interview with Paul Pillar

Conducted by Nick Rugoff and Christopher Howell

Paul Pillar is a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in which his last position was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. He is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He has also headed the Assessments and Information Group of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and from 1997 to 1999 was deputy chief of the center. Professor Pillar is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve and served on active duty in 1971-1973, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. He graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth, received a B. Phil from Oxford, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton.

The Politic: What do the recent uprisings across the Middle East mean for al Qaeda?

PP: So far, the uprisings are bad news for al Qaeda for two basic reasons. First, there has been substantial political change in Tunisia and Egypt that has occurred for reasons that have nothing to do with the extremists; al Qaeda was totally sidelined. Additionally, as more democracy emerges in the Middle East and creates more peaceful channels for people to pursue their political objectives and voice their grievances, the violent channels advocated by extremists like al Qaeda will become much less attractive and relevant. That is the case so far, but much can still happen that would provide opportunities for groups like al Qaeda to make inroads. This is especially true in places where there are power vacuums or overall chaos – Libya is a good example. Moreover, if hopes for greater political change in places like Egypt are disappointed, al Qaeda’s message may again sound credible.

The Politic: What do they mean for Israel?

PP: The Israelis are deeply worried about these events for several reasons. The primary concern is not that we’re going to have a new Egyptian-Israeli War or anything like that, because everyone understands that Israel retains military superiority over any one, or any combination, of its neighbors. The worries concern the push for greater popular sovereignty in Arab countries, which highlights the lack of popular sovereignty among the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This also undercuts part of the narrative that Israeli spokesmen have repeatedly invoked – the idea that authoritarian regimes in the Arab world are largely to blame for continuing to stoke the conflict with Israel in order to distract their own people and justify their own oppression. If those authoritarian regimes are replaced with democracies, this narrative wears thin. Finally, there has to be worry about the damage done to another major narrative used in the United States, which is that we have an extraordinary relationship with Israel because it is the only democracy in the Middle East. If political changes in Arab countries lead to Israel no longer being the only democracy in the Middle East, this would undermine the most important basis for this ongoing relationship.

The Politic: What are the implications of the Libyan intervention for other “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea?

PP: I worry that an unfortunate message has been already sent, given what we’ve done by using force to support an ouster of Qaddafi. Qaddafi took a very important step in reaching an understanding and formal agreement with the United States and Britain eight years ago. He agreed to get out of the terrorism business, cooperate on terrorism issues, and give up his programs to develop unconventional weapons. The unfortunate message now is that the West is not to be trusted. Qaddafi is a ruler who took significant steps to reverse many of his earlier policies, and still winds up being the target of regime change. Therefore, people such as the rulers in Tehran will reach the conclusion that they would be suckers to get drawn into an agreement with the West about something like giving up a nuclear weapons program. I believe what has happened in Libya has potentially killed any type of nuclear agreement with Iran, at least for now.

The Politic: What is the role of the United States in the “new” Middle East?

PP: I think President Obama set the correct tone in his 2009 speech in Cairo. Although I disagree with the direction we’ve taken in using military force in Libya, in many ways the tone that President Obama has tried to set in the Libya crisis is still consistent with his message in Cairo. Overall, we are headed in the right direction as the United States is giving up the hope and pretense of controlling events in the region, and of being the dominant force in the region, particularly by exercising its military power. Instead, we are seeking ways to have a better, more stable, and more peaceful relationship with a variety of peoples and regimes in the Middle East, to the benefit of everyone involved.

The Politic: What are the United States’ obligations to the people of Libya?

PP: I believe that Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule (“you break it, you buy it”) comes into play. This is a major unanswered question that we are still left with in the wake of President Obama’s recent address to the nation. If Qaddafi does fall, where does the responsibility lie for the immense and very messy task of constructing a new political and economic order in Libya? We’re talking about a country that was under this weird regime for four decades where Qaddafi endeavored to destroy or break down anything that resembled civil society or an alternative power structure. When trying to build a new order, there will be very little to work with. My own view is that to the extent that we do get involved, as we already have, in exercising military power to hasten the demise of the current regime, then we do have a major share of the responsibility for taking care of what is left.

The Politic: Given your experience in the CIA, what are the biggest or most common mistakes an analyst makes and how can he or she avoid them?

PP: A slightly facetious answer is that if one were to identify any one or small number of mistakes, then one has already made a mistake by spending too much time on particular types of errors to the exclusion of others. This sort of thing comes up often whenever there are the recriminations after a failure or perceived failure, and we have an investigation. We hear a lot about reforming and fixing, but it’s always about the perceived mistake from the most recent crisis or flap. This is is an example of preparing to fight the last war. There are many different ways in which errors are made every week, though the great majority of them never become public, and to focus on any particular one would be a mistake.

The Politic: Has the role of the CIA changed since under the Obama administration?

PP: Not in any significant way. From what I can see from the outside, the very bad relationship between the intelligence community and the Bush administration has cycled back to something a little closer to the norm. In terms of the basic functions performed in support of the formulation and execution of policy, I don’t see any fundamental change.

The Politic: What does the criticism following Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.’s recent remarks say about the relationship between the intelligence community and political issues?

PP: It shows that the intelligence community will always be in a no-win situation in certain respects. Director Clapper was criticized for making a public comment about Qaddafi’s staying power. If he had not made that comment and if the United States, after getting more deeply involved at higher cost in Libya, found that Qaddafi was especially difficult to dislodge, Director Clapper and the intelligence community would be criticized for not saying enough. These sorts of no-win situations are day-to-day dilemmas that the intelligence community faces and they’re never going away. Jim Clapper is only the most recent intelligence chief to get in the line of fire in this respect.

The Politic: Has the technological revolution caused an over-reliance on Signals Intelligence to the detriment of our human intelligence capabilities?

PP: That’s an old story as it relates to signals intelligence and other technical intelligence; it’s been around for decades. There’s no one method of collection that’s better than any other or one that’s inferior to another. Proper intelligence collection makes use of all the available disciplines, so I don’t think there’s a particular problem here.

The Politic: What are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about the intelligence community?

PP: The single biggest misconception is that if it’s properly constituted and properly run, it can find out just about anything about just about any subject in the world. People seem to believe that if we run things right, our policymakers won’t be faced with a large amount of uncertainty. That is a misconception because there will always be a great amount of uncertainty, no matter how well our bureaucracy collects and analyzes intelligence.

Another major misconception is that intelligence drives or guides policy. That is the way it is supposed to work in the textbooks, but if you look historically at the major foreign policy decisions – big departures like going to war or major redirections of policy like those of Ronald Reagan – these are almost never determined or even guided in any significant way by conclusions from the intelligence community. They are the product of other influences and forces, including the policymaker’s own interpretations of how the world works.
THE POLITIC — April 2011

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1 Comment

  1. Too little, too late. Every socitey has a limited number of people willing to step up and lead a revolution in the face of almost certain death, or at the least many years of horrendous torture. Obama’s desire to goof off rather than pay attention to world events has guaranteed that Gaddafi has had plenty of time to identify and kill many of those people. The protests started a month ago and those people made a lot of progress towards their goals, but Gaddafi has pushed them back and regained control of many key areas. The people of Libya are also very worried that our President and the UN will be similarly ineffective as they were in the early days of Bosnia and Iraq. Our enemies know that Democrats rarely back up their threats, and if they do they will surrender and retreat at the first sign of real danger. Years of demands that we give up and surrender in Iraq is proof of that.It’s offensive and insulting to have a President that holds so little regard for human life, and who feels playing golf and going to parties is more important than dealing with the multitude of tragedies our world has seen in the past few months.During Bush we could count on cover story after cover story about how horrible he was for goofing off so much, yet not barely a peep from the media about Obama’s ability to ignore rebellions, earthquakes, and tsunamis in favor of having the time of his life. I’m betting that by the time Obama and the UN get around to actually doing anything meaningful about Libya, it will be far too late and any chance the people there had of a better life will be long gone.

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