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On Point

Everyone's A Critic


by Austin Bay
February 4, 2004

Now, everyone's an art critic.

Better a million new art critics than a dozen suddenly frantic mass-casualty morticians.

The art under renewed critique is intelligence assessments, this round of criticism spurred by the failure to find large stocks of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons material in Iraq.

Intelligence is indeed an art, a grand, interpretive collusion of linguistics, geography, mathematics, history, theology, psychology, physics, metaphysics and every other human means of analysis and explanation. I should include gossip. Gossip is another word for what intelligence agencies call "chatter." Like other forms of nasty gossip, chatter has effects. Al Qaeda's "chatter," whether overheard on street corners in Pakistan or decrypted from a curious e-mail, has canceled trans-Atlantic flights.

But another word on art: There's a Jackson Pollock painting titled "Lucifer." When I worked one summer for the now-defunct Houston Post, I used to walk past a poster of Pollock's Satan, an "abstract" of slashes, swirls, black scratches of color, each stroke individually perplexing. Over the summer, passing the poster on a daily basis, I saw Pollock's vision of evil emerge. The splatter became coherent, a unified vision organized by a gifted talent.

Here's a Web link to the painting:http://www.art.com/asp/sp.asp?PD=10023922&RFID=204678

New eyes may see nothing but wild paint, though Pollock's title is a clue that something emotionally cold and dangerous lurks in the arrangement of color.

But if you don't detect it, no big sweat. It's merely framed canvas.

However, in the art of intelligence analysis, the world is the canvas -- a canvas inevitably frustrating the most astute frame of reference. What you don't see on that complex globe, and sometimes what you do see but don't understand, may get millions of human beings slaughtered.

In a world where commercial jets become missiles aimed at Manhattan, where anthrax-laced letters threaten Senate offices, where the nerve gas required to kill 10,000 can hide in an oil drum, the intelligence analyst, that interpretive artist, has extraordinary responsibilities. So do the analyst's political leaders, whether the leader is named Bill Clinton, or George Bush, or John Kerry, or Tony Blair.

Before Sept. 11, the Clinton administration and, for eight months, the Bush administration treated international terrorism as a sophisticated form of organized crime. That was a mistake, for though 21st century terror is like a criminal operation, it is also much more. The goals of theo-fascists like Osama bin Laden are imperial state power. Often, these imperial goals intersect with the less-grandiose but still dangerous aims of anti-American despots. When potential weapons of mass destruction enter the picture, a hell formula results. Terrorists plus rogue states plus WMD. Even if you don 't believe in Lucifer, that's a real-world problem capable of producing here-and-now hell. Is it a black scratch or a nuke on its way to London?

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. Saddam sought nukes. As American forces gathered to finish a war that began in 1990, the stupid Saddam played a shell game, perhaps with himself. It is certain several Iraqi leaders believed they had chemical weapons. It is certain that two of the world's best intelligence operations (United Kingdom and United States) concluded Saddam had them.

It now appears he didn't. It appears United Nations sanctions, U.S. air attacks in 1998, and corruption within the Ba'ath regime curtailed Saddam's drive for these weapons. That's great news. It also took regime change to confirm it.

We've had an intelligence failure that demands detailed examination. However, former CIA Director James Schlesinger nailed it in October 2003 when he said: "But major organizational change is not the salvation. I would submit the real challenge lies in recruiting, fostering, training and motivating people with insight."

Insight -- that sounds iffy and artsy. And it is. That's why, when deadly uncertainty emerges, offensive operations to destroy potential capabilities are often the best choice among a bad lot. The penalty is huge for underestimating the threat presented by terrorists and weapons of mass destruction: millions of dead human beings.

In the aftermath of that unacceptable tragedy, both morticians and art critics will curse the leaders who dithered and didn't attack.

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