Thursday, January 15, 2009

CIA reviews my book — my response

In the Intelligence Officer's Bookshelf, the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence (vol. 52, No. 4) had a short review by Hayden B. Peake of my book, Smokescreen: Canadian security intelligence after September 11, 2001. Peake:

Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) analyst Michael Cole felt an “urgency in writing this book” that was “exacerbated by the increasing signals in 2007 that the United States was readying itself to wage war against Iran.” (xiv) This confession of analytic prowess, gained after 29 months of service “amid the dullness and the ugliness that an intelligence officer deals with on a daily basis,” (xv) — service he found boring — sets the tone of SMOKESCREEN. It is a critical chronicle that runs from his deficient training — ”death by PowerPoint” — to his strategic world view — that America, not al-Qaeda, has made the world a more dangerous place after 9/11. In between he complains about CSIS tolerance of incompetence, ingrained institutional racism, the high value placed on “spineless intelligence officers” (70), and the lack of a foreign intelligence collection mission. He also finds that the “need-to-know-principle” is self-defeating and that there is a need for more oversight (undefined). He concludes that the “US intelligence Community remains a mess.” The corrective, he suggests, citing some wisdom found in “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf” (92), is with people [,] not organizations, though he is not optimistic of success. Nevertheless, in chapter six, “Fixing the System,” Cole presents pages of recommendations for improvement. There is nothing profound or unexpected there, just common sense. But nowhere in his book does Cole address a key issue: why he wasn’t willing or able to stay and help correct the deficiencies. Instead he moved to Taiwan.


Coming from an institution that I certainly do not spare in my criticism of Western intelligence, Peake’s review, though not flattering, is surprisingly fair and neutral (with the exception, perhaps, of the snipe about “analytical prowess” regarding the coming war with Iran, which hasn’t happened — yet). Given the institutional mindset that prevails at CSIS, the CIA and their like, the reflex would be to discard criticism — especially criticism by “outsiders” — without giving it a second though, a practice that I saw time and again while at CSIS.

Peake concludes by taking me up to task on my being unwilling or unable to stay and help correct the deficiencies and instead moving to Taiwan. The question is a fair one, and one that I attempted to answer in a previous version of my book before that section was cut out in the editing process. Before I answer it here, however, I must qualify his reference to my moving to Taiwan, which could give the impression that I eschewed my responsibilities and ran away. The reason for my decision to relocate to Taiwan — and those who know me are already fully aware of this — is that it offered promising career opportunities and I had had a longstanding interest in the Taiwan Strait issue, which, after graduating from the War Studies Masters program at the Royal Military College of Canada, I felt like studying first-hand. What’s more, I’ve become, as a journalist, a participant in it. (Another reason, I must add, is that this beautiful country is the birthplace of the woman that I love.)

Let us now turn to Peake’s question. Why did I leave? A very good question indeed, one that haunted me for months, with much to-ing and fro-ing before I made the decision in fall 2005. In a previous iteration of my book I stated my disagreement with the great (and sadly late) Edward W. Said of Columbia University, who (I think it was in his book Representations of the Intellectual) said that academics should never work for government lest it risk polluting their minds and integrity. With all due respect to Said, a great mind if ever there was one and an intellectual who has had tremendous influence on my worldview, I argued that in fact every intellectual should work for government for a while, otherwise how can one understand how it works, how can one experience its deficiencies if one does not partake of the dullness, the pervasive ossification, the detrimental hierarchy, the careerism? Ironically, Said’s argument played a role in me decision to leave, as an intellectual who had spent almost three years in government. I felt that I’d learned enough about the system — not just CSIS, but the community of which it was part — to write about it. In fact, having been on the inside, I felt it was my responsibility, as someone who felt a great sense of alarm at what was going on and with the direction our government had chosen, to write about it, something I could not have done had I remained at CSIS, given the Security of Information Act that barred me, as an intelligence officer with the highest security clearance in the country (Top Secret, NATO Umbra Orcon), from speaking out publicly.

An equally valid reason why I chose not to stay was that I did not think one could bring about change from the inside — at least not as quickly as I believed it should. With Ottawa (first Liberals, and then the Conservatives) falling in step with US/Israeli policy, waging war in Afghanistan and supporting Israel’s criminal war in Lebanon in 2006 (and again today, in Gaza), I felt someone had to do something before it was too late. Again, there were far too many constraints on the inside. God knows I tried, raising the issue of our self-defeating support for Israel, our lack of criticism regarding allied intelligence (often single-thread, or uncorroborated), the danger of racism and all that on a number of occasions, only to be shot down, insulted by superiors and treated like an idiot. I was soon made to understand that people like me were a cancer within the system and that the surgeons at the top — from the director to the DO to the DDO to the chiefs and heads — would not hesitate one second to use the scalpel on me, to excise my thoughts. Sadly, it is my firm belief that CSIS has worked in isolation for far too long, has developed enough antibodies to critical thinking, for it to be changed from within. But in fact, CSIS is only a reflection of our government’s strategic worldview, and if CSIS is to become a better, fairer and more accountable service in future, how Ottawa views and engages the world in general will have to change. As long as Ottawa remains a participant in empire, as long as it myopically supports Israeli war crimes and colonialism in the Middle East, as long as Ottawa remains a willing participant in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition system and as long as it maintains what is — let’s say it — a racist view of the world, CSIS will have carte blanche to do everything I criticize in my book.

Was it worth it? That has yet to be seen. But one thing I can tell you: It is being read, it is provoking reactions. It is now in public libraries and is on the reading list of a course on intelligence in the modern age at Carleton University in Ottawa, where, I hope, its inclusion will help prepare more critical minds to serve Canadians. Readers, some of whom are involved in cases past and present, have even contacted me. Oh, and it is at the Info Center at CSIS as well, being read by intelligence officers, perhaps helping them ask the questions they long should have been asking.

That, in a nutshell, is why I left. I didn’t flee, as those experiences remain part of who I am — I just chose not to stay.

1 comment:

ROB STEWART said...

excellent response! to add my bit...

I too have worked in gov't (though not at CSIS), and was blown away by the degree to which institutional and bureaucratic inertia reigned supreme, as well as the ability to tie people up in utterly useless work that did nothing but propagate the system (rather than the fundamental goals of particular departments)...