Intel Analyst: Don't Bother with U.S. Media If You Want to Know About Iraq

My new book, Still Broken, recounts my time working as an intelligence officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency, from the halls of the Pentagon to the palaces of Baghdad. It addresses the strategic shortcomings in our efforts to defend this country from enemies overseas, from explaining how the Bush administration continues to mismanage the war in Iraq and turn our intelligence efforts into an ineffective political apparatus to describing my first-hand experience dealing with detainees likely guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I wrote the book because I think it is important that people know the truth about what is happening with our military and intelligence structures in Washington and in Iraq, and I think there are too few reality-based voices speaking out about these issues. In particular, one of the greatest challenges to an informed national dialogue on Iraq is the lack of accurate and insightful news from much of the mainstream media, especially conservative outlets. In the following excerpt, a part of the conclusion of the book, I explain how the media appeared to me while I was inside the system, and what might be done to improve the information flow.

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Most Americans remain unaware of the depth and breadth of the ongoing problems in the intelligence community, and even of just how bad things are in Iraq. To some extent, the lack of information about the changes in U.S. intelligence and military strategy is directly related to the dearth of news reporting on these issues. It is difficult to find credible, timely, and relevant news on Iraq, and even on intelligence and military policy in general. I was one of very few analysts who augmented classified reporting with unclassified information, and I was constantly scouring the media for insightful information. Television news was unhelpful, as always, a flow of talking heads with little knowledge and even less interest in getting into details or subtleties. Print media was inconsistent at best.

For whatever reason, the television idea of "balance" was, for a long time, to report casualties on our side (Bad News) and reconstruction or casualties on their side (Good News). There was even a grim cyclical nature to the reports; invariably we could count on "School Built in Iraq" to become, a few weeks later, a casualty report: "3 Coalition Soldiers, 18 Iraqis Dead in New School Blast." Broadcast media also reported major events, such as elections, government formation, and particularly relevant statements, but rarely explained the "how" and "why" along with the "what." Some long-form TV news managed to address some of the finer points, but mostly television presented a flood of events without context. And in any case, most people can read faster than others can talk, so people can consume far more news in print form than through broadcast, making TV doubly useless.

In turning to print media, I would at least peruse mainstream news outlets: The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times,and magazines such as Time and Newsweek.There was some value there, but they, too, often reported events without conextual explanation. So if I read a piece about the latest surge in Shia-Sunni violence in the Times, the same story with minor variations was often repeated in all the major outlets. Still, I skimmed several corporate media websites every day: CNN, MSNBC, NY Times, the Post, LA Times, and Fox News, among others, to get a sense of the news cycle. Some commentators, primarily political conservatives, have criticized corporate media for neglecting to cover the good news in Iraq, but I found that the larger problem was not that the media didn't cover the good news, but that it did not cover much of anything of real depth in Iraq. While the debate went on over whether the media spent too much time reporting on casualties, a civil war raged. While the media dutifully reported the drafting of the Iraqi constitution, it failed to explain the many problems the document would likely cause. And so on.

The answer to the search for news both current and analytical, I found, often lay in nontraditional online media. Among corporate media, often the most interesting and helpful articles were op-eds, which actually took the time to proffer assessment of the news rather than just transcription of events. Some were better than others -- I avoided Tom Friedman like the plague, for example, but regularly read Fareed Zakaria -- but they were the best place to get unique and insightful perspectives on Iraq, the Middle East, and the so-called War on Terror. The logical extension of op-eds in traditional media was to online magazines and blogs. There were former intelligence professionals, professors, think-tank fellows, and people actually in the countries I worked on who wrote regularly online, and I sought out the best ones to inform my thinking, for both general knowledge and professional analysis.

The world of online news and analysis is as close as it gets to a true meritocracy. There is an advantage to being first, but if the writing is insightful, prescient, and/or entertaining, it finds an audience. Sometimes that audience is niche, to be sure, but I was stunned at the amount of interesting and helpful online writing on topics I needed to know about. I was already reading blogs on domestic politics, just for fun, and while in Iraq I made a serious effort to add foreign policy and Iraq-specific blogs to my reading list.

Through links, searches, and happenstance, I stumbled across valuable sources. Sites written by Iraqis, such as Iraq The Model and Healing Iraq, were regular reads, and they helped give a sense of what was happening on the ground, including what rumors and perceptions were common on the Iraqi street. Multipurpose sites sometimes had good analysis and frequently had relevant links.

Online magazines, especially Salon,had some excellent original reporting, more in-depth and relevant than traditional media, and the best thing about all of these sites was that they linked to other articles and analysis; I often found important, detailed information simply by surfing from link to link. Consistently the best source of news on Iraq and the Middle East was Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and editor of the blog Informed Comment, a treasure trove of information and insight. I read his site every day, and although I sometimes disagreed with his political perspectives, his analysis of the events of the region was precise time and again. Many of my papers owed much to his analysis, and although Professor Cole takes plenty of grief from opponents due to his frequent criticism of the Bush administration, intelligence agencies have quietly asked him to share his expertise with government officials of a variety of ranks and positions, and he has been kind enough to oblige. Thanks to the accuracy of Professor Cole and the other media sources I came to trust, my wide-ranging reading made me look good and, more important, led to accurate assessments that otherwise would not have been made -- at least not as very serious, thoughtful arguments that had never been made in such detail or with such care.

Unfortunately, most people, even those who are ostensibly inerested in the conflict, often fail to utilize these resources. Having been on the ground in Baghdad and in the nexus of strategic inteligence at the Pentagon, I think conservative-leaning news outlets, from Fox News to a variety of websites and commentators, tend to downplay negative aspects of the war, and individuals who rely exclusively on these news sources honestly believe that things are going better than they are. This creates an unfortunate situation in which a partisan divide is not just over issues, but over information, and both sides think the other is being disingenuous. It is interesting that conservative popular media tend to be news-oriented (Fox, Drudge, talk radio) while progressives tend to gravitate toward analysis (blogs, op-eds), and I think this divide has greatly -- and regrettably -- contributed to the political polarization over the Iraq war. Polling indicates that opinions about the Iraq war break far more along political lines than even Vietnam, and this may be largely because people are getting their news from different sources.

After I returned from Iraq, people always asked me what it was like. My friends and family wanted the story, of course, but even people I didn't know, who heard my friends and I talking about it in a restaurant or at a bar, would come over and ask me questions.

"What's it really like over there?"

"Are we winning or losing?"

"What's the truth?"

I would usually say something noncommittal, but I would also note that the media didn't report nearly all the problems and carnage that existed. Most people were interested to hear that perspective, and most were very eager to express their opinions as well. But some simply refused to believe me when I said things were bad. Even a response as vague as "It's as bad as it looks" caused some to angrily inform me that the media were conspiring to keep the truth -- which was that Iraq was really doing quite well, I guess -- from the American people. I would smile politely and extricate myself, but I was surprised at how many people passionately believed that the good news was being hidden.

The lack of insightful reporting on Iraq in the media, which continues unabated (especially on TV but also in most local newspapers), is bizarrely disconnected from the passion and priority granted to the war by most of the public. In my experience, the more information people have about Iraq, the more realistic (or, as my former bosses would say, "pessimistic") they are. In my office, where we constantly read reports straight from the ground, the general consensus -- despite being overwhelmingly populated by conservatives -- was that the Iraq project was a debacle, mainly due to incompetent leadership in the Pentagon and the White House. We joked that President Bush had finally set up the conservative religious government he dreamed of…only it was an Islamist one in Iraq rather than a Christian one at home. Good information on Iraq exists, but it has to be sought out, and as much of the media abdicate their responsibility to inform the public about these vital issues, it is imperative that people educate themselves -- especially if they want to back up their opinions with reality-based information. Knowledge of the situation, from the average citizen all the way up to high-ranking government and elected officials, is key to fixing both the war in Iraq and how it is understood at home.

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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