The politics of the military-intelligence complex

Back in the day, people used to worry about the military-industrial complex. About its influence, really: the idea was that politicians would support high levels of military spending in their state or district whether it made any sense or not.  There was at least some truth to that:  they didn’t call Henry Jackson the Senator from Boeing for nothing.  The same, in fact more so, for politicians from states that relied even more heavily on military spending, like New Mexico.  Certainly this distorted military contracting: inserting fragments of a big project into nearly every congressional district in the United States is unlikely to be the most efficient approach.  And it saved some unworthy projects from the axe, sure.

If you were designing such a project with a view to maximizing its political appeal, you would do better by hiring a lot of workers (= voters) at modest salaries rather than a few at high salaries.  And that was often the case, for military bases and weapons production plants.  Political contributions mattered as well, but a lot of blue-collar workers were employed in defense plants,  back in the Cold War – at least in some areas.

Still, all the political pull this generated didn’t stop Congress from drastically cutting spending when threats decreased, as they surely did with the fall of the Soviet Union.

There has been a big increase in spending related to the War on Terror, but the pattern has been different.  “Intelligence” spending is now up to something like $80 billion, largely focused on Moslem terrorism, whose objective military strength is something like 10-100 thousand times less than that of the old Soviet Union. A conservative estimate is that we’re spending a million dollars per year per terrorist, maybe more – that’s not even counting Iraq and Afghanistan.

There hasn’t been much associated blue-collar employment – partly because of factory automation, partly because we’re not fielding mass armies or building lots of of weapons.

Nevertheless, I think that the  Washington players have stumbled [and I do mean stumbled, because I’ve never seen these guys do anything else]  upon a pattern that is likely to be more effective at gathering and sustaining political support than that seen in Cold War.  You see, a really big fraction of that intelligence money (about half) is spent in and around Washington.  Little is spent on blue-collar workers, except for construction. A lot is funneled through private contractors  and they pay well, much better than civil service. There are loads of extremely cushy jobs that are ideal for high-level double dippers, ex-generals, people from the Congressional staffs, their spouses and kids, etc..  You can work at the State Department and find a good job for your technically illiterate wife at the CIA, fighting nuclear proliferation. I say that advisedly, since I have heard from people who tried to explain those technical matters to Ms. Plame.  Not that she was any more of a zero than most of the people submitting those 50,000 intelligence briefings a year to their equally  clueless superiors.  It’s a matter of public record that the high muckety-mucks don’t know  a damn thing about the Middle East.  Some of you may think that there are selfless, ultra-intelligent operatives watching over all threats from a secret under ground control room. Let me quote one of them, a Rhodes  Scholar and ex-Navy Seal national security official with ten years of experience: “Unfortunately, though, I’m not employed by the U.S. government, I’m not working at all hours to foil terrorist plots, nor am I part of some secret network of sharp, capable agents, because no such network exists.””And again, neither do I”, he added.

Cold War aerospace was especially politically impotent, because its high-paid jobs were (outside management and sometimes even there) taken by engineers,  who are not, cannot become, and have never even met anyone with any political juice. Not in this country.

In Washington today, the benefits of intelligence spending are flowing much more directly to people in the same class [and often closely connected, by blood and marriage] as those who actually run the the country.  Cuts out the  middleman.





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27 Responses to The politics of the military-intelligence complex

  1. Candide III says:

    There was a well-known joke in the Soviet Union that the employees of Soviet research institutes were of four sorts: ZhORas (zhony otvetstvennyh rabotnikov, wives of ‘responsible workers’, meaning of higher nomenklatura types), DORas (deti otvetstvennyh rabotnikov, children of ‘responsible workers’), LORas (lyubovnicy ovetstvennyh rabotnikov, lovers of ‘responsible workers’) and SUKas (sluchajno ucelevshie kadry, fortuitously surviving employees; note that in Russian ‘suka’ means ‘bitch’). It was a joke by virtue of form, but it corresponded pretty well to the real state of affairs in all but a handful of the leading institutes, and even those had their share of ZhORas, DORas and LORas in the administrative staff.

  2. I once had a conversation with a intelligence-gathering guy, and asked him if the whole setup was any better in its predictions than could be obtained from the open access literature, say reading all the newspapers and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He thought about it, and said probably not. However, if you can find someone with a Muslim first name and a Muslim second name who doesn’t use his credit card on a Friday, it is worth checking how often he visits Jihadist websites.

  3. dearieme says:

    I charge you, gcochran9, with being cynical and unAmerican. Keep up the good work.

  4. Points well taken. I would cite the Sununus as exceptions to your penultimate paragraph, but I can’t think of others. Lawyers dominate the elected class and even more, the lobbyist class. Next is the touristy class that likes to write about foreign culture and stuff. Even business doesn’t make the showing it once did. Science degrees are behind hospitality and media studies in that group now. Thus almost all the national discussions and controversies about intelligence gathering and the war on terror are legal and cultural* discussions. Those are just lots more fun than discussing whether we are actually identifying people who might be dangerous to us in the good old-fashioned raiding-and-intimidation way, and whether we are doing anything that uh, actually discourages them or hardens our defenses.

    When all you have is a hammer…

    *Split 50-50 between foreign cultures and DC power culture.

  5. Jim says:

    In general empires seem to have an initial profitable phase followed by a long unprofitable phase. In our case the initial profitable phase was expansion across the continent. Since that ended at the end of the nineteenth century we have been in the unprofitable phase.

  6. rightsaidfred says:

    This matches my anecdotal experience in other areas of government. My oft repeated story is of a public meeting where a GS 15 came into the questioning cross hairs, and someone asked him point blank what he does at work. The GS 15 got all huffy and said, “I have a lot of reports to fill out.”

  7. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Of course, if you are all drinking from the same trough there are problems if someone slips some poison into it.

    Being so specialized in graft and corruption is not very useful when Temujin arrives and wants to party.

  8. Patrick Boyle says:

    I think you have the Blame affaire backwards. The whole thing was a love story. She may have been a bubble head but she was the one who could hold a job. Not Joe Wilson. I’m sure she was pleasant around the office and she certainly was decorative. It was her husband who was the one who was the career cripple.

    He had been a specialist in diplomatic postings to tropical hell holes. But the powers that be after awhile wouldn’t keep him even in those kind of slots. He was ‘on the beach’ – a consultant who no one wants to consult. His loving wife – the looker in the third row of desks – got him a gig to visit Africa on a make work mission. No one cared what Joe found out and no one had ever cared what Joe thought about anything. But he somehow managed to create some sort of conspiracy theory out of this inconsequential perk to the unemployed husband of that nice girl in the office.

  9. dave chamberlin says:

    Quotes time

    “We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security”

    “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for disasterous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

    Dwight D Eisenhower

    “Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms”

    Groucho Marx

    “Too many pigs and too few tits.”

    Abraham Lincoln upon arriving in Washington as the newly elected president

  10. Truman says:

    Robert Hecht-Nielsen claims that his “Confabulation Theory”, in particular the confabulation equation (, is a major discovery that debunks the “Bayesian religion” by providing a scalable model of cognition in which the parallel processing elements are performing functions similar to the brain’s thalamocortical modules. Among other things, he claims that this is the holy grail of artificial modeling of natural intelligence, that confabulation theory captures, in a scalable algorithm the essence of learning, thought and behavior. He is, in essence, claiming to have achieved strong AI.

    Of course, these are major claims and he could be wrong, but with this in mind it’s interesting that he gave a presentation at Sandia Labs back in 2006 where he proposed an “Extraction System Organization” for the intelligence community with a budget rising to $300B/year by 2015. Particularly interesting was his note that “Collectors and Analysts have no need to know how extraction system works (this knowledge should be highly restricted) – users need only know extraction system’s capabilities and how to use it.”

    The presentation is available here:

    Click to access 08-Hecht-Nielsen-Neurocomputing.pdf

    Hopefully, that new massive NSA facility being built in Bluffdale, Utah will just be a “data center”.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There’s nothing as pleasant to listen to as a discussion of the personal failings of a political enemy. I’m sure that Joe Wilson eats with his elbows on the table, too.

      I offer an alternative view. The Bush administration, that circle of jerks, was looking for a reason to invade Iraq. Probably the most saleable argument was that Iraq was working hard on nuclear weapons. Which is why they claimed that Saddam was searching for uranium in places like Niger. Which was a lie.

      Of course, the claim was stupid in the first place, because the Iraqis already HAD 550 metric tons of unenriched uranium oxide in Iraq. Under UN seal, but with inspectors expelled, perfectly useable. Now if the powers that be had cared a rat’s ass about the truth, which they didn’t (and don’t). or knew jack about nuclear weapons (which they don’t), they would have realized that 550 tons of uranium contains almost 4 tons of U-235, enough for tens of gun-type bombs – assuming that the country possessing that uranium has a means of enrichment. Which is hard to do: harder still do for a country that’s dumb, broke, has zero industrial base, ~80% of the population in revolt or seething, under international sanctions – and has to do all this without being noticed, while US air and satellite recon were watching intently.

      Several missions were sent to Niger (at least 4) – Joe Wilson was one of them. All concluded that there was no sign of any Iraqi attempt to procure uranium, and that they wouldn’t have gotten any if they had tried, since the mine is effectively under French control. And, as I have pointed out, Iraq already had plenty of uranium (nor were they working on an enrichment program in 2003) , so there was no reason to go looking for any, unless the Baathists were trying to drum up reasons for the US to invade them.

      Various lying bastards (Christopher Hitchens, for example) had argued that having an Iraqi diplomat visit Niger had to mean that they were looking for uranium, since what else could you find in Niger, other than sand? I’d guess that the guy was looking to sell oil with some associated kickbacks – which happened a lot.

      • I actually read most of Wilson’s book. (Not recommended, but for the most part it’s not a bunch of partisan bile, just a rather humdrum memoir, most of which is not about anything particularly important.) Curiously, he is among the people who noted that there had been an Iraqi trade mission to Niger, and his own guess (buried deep in the book) was that they were indeed in search of uranium. Which makes his angry dispute of the words “sought uranium from Africa” rather puzzling: that would seem to be, technically, seeking uranium. Not in any way that one would need to care about, of course, for the reasons you pointed out. There’s a long way between seeking and getting, and a still longer way between yellowcake and weapons-grade U235. (Yellowcake you can make at home, legally; video at But these people don’t have the reasoning ability, or the eloquence, to make an argument that something is true but unimportant, so they label it a lie.

        Likewise, one thing that was curiously missing from the conversation about the aluminum tubes were numbers on actual tolerances. It turned out that the supposedly suspiciously-tight tolerances were actually 0.01 mm — an ordinary industrial tolerance, if perhaps a touch difficult to achieve in extruded 7075-T6 tubing. But that only came out later; during the time period when the decision to invade was being made, the press never demanded numbers. I kept looking for the numbers in press reports, and not finding them.

        And this “weapons of mass destruction” phrase is deplorable. It groups together nuclear weapons, which are really at another level, with chemical and biological weapons, which aren’t. Most of the evidence was about the latter two; to use older words, we were invading the place to cleanse it of poisons and diseases. Any reader of the Arabian Nights would know how likely that would be to work.

        Still, it’s not just that the political class is ignorant: in large part, they’re actively chemophobic and technophobic. Going after evil chemicals and evil technology appeals to them, whether it be at home or abroad.

        • gcochran9 says:

          You are mistaken. check out ” the Poltics of Truth” on Google books: do an internal search for “uranium’. One of Wilson’s sources – not Wilson himself – described a conversation with an Iraqi official. This source offered “that perhaps the Iraqi might have wanted to talk about uranium.” But he hadn’t actually gotten around to doing so. There had been no discussion of uranium.

          Funny, but I’ve seen other people say the same thing, even though the passage isn’t particularly difficult to understand. You have to wonder why. Although I sure don’t.

      • I am no PR expert, but my own sense is that “nuclear” was scarier-sounding than “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” It’s hard to tell at this juncture because of the additional associations we have with the latter phrase now. But even then, I thought it cartoonish, an unwieldly method of putting somewhat-similar things into a single basket. From that, I conclude that someone knew from the start that the existent of biological and chemical weapons were the stronger case, used to inflate the impression of how much “nuclear” there was. If there was so much of that, and it’s scarier, why not just stick to “Nuclear Weapons,” mentioning the biological and chemical as an add-on?

        If “WMD” actually was the more-frightening phrase at the time, my argument falls to the ground, of course. As for Wilson, I always thought it a sideshow. No one had paid much attention to his report until Wilson started going around claiming his wife was punished for it. I don’t give Republicans much credit for actually punishing their opponents that deftly, actually. They’re usually clumsier than that.

        I am curious what reason you think that George W Bush or his advisors had for wanting to invade Iraq. Guessing wrongly on that doesn’t undermine the rest of your argument, as knowledge of motives is usually indirect. Are you thinking that he wanted to invade one additional place, or that he had convinced himself on other grounds the country was a threat and went looking for justifications?

        • gcochran9 says:

          There were a number of people in (and some outside of) the Bush Administration that supported the invasion of Iraq and were in a position to influence that decision. Different people had different reasons. What were those reasons? Mostly I don’t know, although for some people I have a pretty good idea. No one should make the mistake of assuming that these people must have had some sort of rational-strategic reason – if nothing else, because people aren’t all that rational, and second because you can’t construct even a a reasonable facsimile of such a reason when you’re profoundly ignorant of the relevant facts, as essentially all of the key players were and are. Or when the idea makes no sense.

          I don’t think they were the most important, but wannabe Israeli nationalists like Richard Perle and Douglas Feith apparently thought that invading Iraq was a good opportunity to reshape the Middle East in ways that furthered the interests of Israel. Again, I don’t think that you can construct a rational-strategic reasons for this – certainly not one based on US interests. It is not as if Baathist Iraq had ever played a significant role in the Arab-Israeli wars, or in the struggle with the Palestinians. Feith and Perle (and the Wurmsers) seem to have thought that it would be possible to install the Hashemites in Iraq and get Iraqi Shi’ites to be supporters of Israel (judging from discussions in ‘A Clean Break’) and of course that’s just crazy. On a cruder level, getting American armed forces on the ground fighting Arabs must have seemed like a good idea, even if there was no immediate payoff to Israeli strategic interests.

          Paul Wolfowitz seems to have had fundamentally different ideas: he seems to have thought that Iraq was mostly Shi’ite [true] and essentially secular [what?!?] , and that it could be transformed into something like Turkey. Kemalist Turkey, natch. The main source for these strange notions seems to have been his girlfriend, Shah Ali Riza. Who better to feel the pulse on the Iraqi street than a Saudi feminist?

          Cheney was much more important, but I don’t know what his reasons were. I’ve heard it said that 9-11 shook him to his core, that he was genuinely afraid and thought that all measures should be used. Including using nuclear weapons – naturally on countries that had nothing to do with 9-11 [anyone other than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan]. And that’s more than a guess: apparently it took the threat of mass military resignations to block that. And some have said that he was thinking about Iraqi oil – Iraq is potentially as large a producer as Saudi Arabia. Of course it seems unlikely that American oil companies could ever garner profits as large as the amount the US Government spent on Iraq, but then a lot of people in the Administration thought that the Iraq War was going to be easy. They thought there would a cooperative general running the place, and that we would be down to 30,000 troops by September 2003. Of course Bremer eliminated that possibility by dissolving the Iraqi Army, even though the President and the NSC had decided against doing so. Nobody seems to know who gave that order: personally, I think it’s that telepathic Sirian lizard that really runs the show. The one with the twisted sense of humor.

          By the way, those American oil majors aren’t getting the prime oil-development contracts, although they are getting subcontracts. We have technical expertise, but the Iraqi government doesn’t want a major American presence. For some reason.

          Cheney’s poor health suggests that he might not survive extensive waterboarding, which is really too bad. I figure that’s the only way we could determine whether he’s really an Iranian agent who had his back shaved, as suggested by the War Nerd.

          I might point out that almost all the key US players seem never to have even heard of nationalism or patriotism. Who wouldn’t want to be run by a US-installed and controlled regime? I’m sure that they were surprised when Allawi, a known CIA agent, got only only 11% of the vote in Iraq. But I was not surprised. Do I have some sort of magical ability that the US government lacks?

          George W. Bush. Again, forget about some elaborate rational-strategic reason. Some think that it was personal, revenge for an attempt on his father’s life. I doubt if that attempt actually occurred: I think it was a Kuwaiti fabrication, made for obvious reasons that were rational for Kuwait. I particularly doubt it because years of occupation in Iraq, and the total destruction of the Baathist regime, never turned up any evidence that it ever occurred, even though any such informant would have been richly rewarded. And he leaned heavily on Cheney [born Wormtongue]. Again some think that Bush was a Jacobin, who really believed that an irresistible desire for freedom burned in the heart of every man, a fire that has managed to hide successfully for all of recorded history. You merely had to give a freedom a chance, and everyone in the Middle East would stop being Arabs. I do think that he clung to that idea as all the other reasons melted away and the whole thing began to resemble an explosion in a well-used Porta-Potty – the alternative was admitting that he’d made a mistake, and Presidents don’t do that. I doubt if that was much of the initial reason.

          Iraq had never been a major player in international terrorism. They became one retroactively, once we decided to invade, but that was just a lie. Still, there have been cases in which high mucketymucks have been told things that the underlings thought they wanted to hear and eventually came to believe them – drinking their own bathwater.

          There were weird ingredients in the Administration’s talk about terrorism. Laurie Mylroie came up with a theory that Al-Qaeda was really a front for the Iraqis (the Mukhabarat). She was wrong, and nuts, but she influenced many of the others reptiles at AEI (American Enterprise Institute) – although most now think she’s full of it. Wolfowitz believed her, as did Perle, and James Woolsey (ex-Cia director, well-known for being unusually stupid]. Cheney believed her, and still does for all I know. Her theory made a number of specific predictions: none of them ever turned out to be true. By the way, I was once invited to give a talk at AEI. I declined, but I still wonder if I should have gone. After all, vermin are always in season.

          I don’t know how important this was at high levels, but there were certainly a lot of people who wanted to bust some Arab chops, whether they had anything to do with 9-11 or not. I know that John Derbyshire thought this way. I told him that he was a bloodthirsty fool, and that he would come to agree that it was a mistake. Which he did, a couple of years later.. To be fair, I probably had the same feeling for a while myself, but I got over it well before we invaded Iraq.

      • Hmm, I did the suggested search, and indeed found the passage you mention, and no other of that nature. I could have sworn there was a passage that was more as I stated, but can’t find it, even with other search terms. So I may indeed have been doing biased misremembering.

        By the way, a 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee report on the issue names the “source” in question as former Nigerien Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki, so whatever those Iraqis had in mind, they weren’t being small-time about it, but were going straight to the top (Mayaki having been Prime Minister at the time).

      • Another oops: that should have been 0.1mm tolerance that the Iraqis specified for the aluminum tubes, rather than 0.01mm. (To be exact, that was the tolerance on inner and outer diameters; and that’s 0.1mm total, not +/- 0.1mm, which would be 0.2mm total.)

      • What, the two armored divisions that Iraq sent to the 1973 war with Israel don’t count as “significant”?

  11. Abelard Lindsey says:

    Instead of the MIC (military industrial complex), we now have the IIC (intelligence industrial complex), which is being funded at a tune of roughly 20% of the old MIC. I think a lot of this money is flowing into the coffers of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and essentially all of the strategic management consultancies (Bain, Booze Allen Hamilton, etc.) as well as all kinds of IT contractors.

    The management consultants had all become IT consultants during the late 90’s “dot-com” bubble and essentially cratered during the tech crash of the early ought’s. They managed to survive by become IIC contractors which they are all today.

    Given the cronism and patronage described by Gregory here, the IIC is as parasitical as the MIC was, and is probably worse for the country as a whole.

  12. Robert Ford says:

    I had been thinking about this yesterday after reading about the SWAT team sent to the home of the family that had been googling “pressure cooker” and “backpack” thinking, “But WHY?” who is this benefiting? wouldn’t it keep us more safe if they spent money arresting gang members who *are actually a threat* and live near me? This explanation makes sense – highborns maintaining their lifestyle.

  13. Pingback: Greg Cochran on why the Iraq war occurred | Entitled to an Opinion

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  15. A Erickson Cornish says:

    Given recent fun involving the US IC, I looked this post up and re-read it. Seems dead on, though I have to disagree with the intimation that Rhodes Scholars are particularly likely to be competent. Small N, but of the two I have known, one wrote an article in the Harvard Ed Review on the personal and academic hardship of growing up something like 1/16 pure Castillian Spanish and attending the same high school I did (upper middle class, suburban, white, relatively high test scores). The other’s official Rhodes profile states she speaks fluent Chinese, which I suppose she does, if one’s main criterion for fluency is ability to order Kung Pao chicken with moderate help. Judging from last week’s DNI report, the people charged with collecting and analyzing HUMINT on Russia do not speak Russian any more fluently than she did Chinese.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I was quoting a seminal article in the Onion about the hyper-competent heroes that man America’s defenses against terrorism, whose only weakness is that they don’t exist – ‘notional’, as they used to say in the XX committee.

      • A Erickson Cornish says:

        Ah, of course- the notional hyper-competent anti-terrorism agents most easily found in the pages of the Onion are an excellent example of competent Rhodes scholars, every last one of them.

  16. Dale Force says:

    Our ruling class has only met foriegners at college, and believe they are typical, so if the dictator is overthrown, there will be a government just like ours (besides Iraq, see Obams Syria, Libya, Egypt, Yemen …). I first saw it when the Shah was overthrown, the MSU Physics Dept was celebrating. The couple who had just finished their PhDs went home to the new Iran…They were back in less than a year.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I was in grad school at the time, and I told people that their optimism about Iran was badly misplaced – that there was no tradition of ordered freedom there.

      I was right. it gets old.

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