Thursday, April 1, 2004

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April's Books of the Month

This month's international relations book is Amy Zegart's Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC [FULL DISCLOSURE: The very talented Ms. Zegart and I went to graduate school together]. This recommendation comes in the wake of important questions about how to reform America's intelligence-gathering apparatus for the war on terror. Zegart demonstrates the bureaucratic hurdles to either reforming or creating efficient foreign policy institutions are considerable.

The general interest book is Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Here's a precis of Pinker's argument:

This book returns to that still-controversial territory in order to shore it up in the public sphere. Drawing on decades of research in the "sciences of human nature," Pinker, a chaired professor of psychology at MIT, attacks the notion that an infant's mind is a blank slate, arguing instead that human beings have an inherited universal structure shaped by the demands made upon the species for survival, albeit with plenty of room for cultural and individual variation. For those who have been following the sciences in question including cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology much of the evidence will be familiar, yet Pinker's clear and witty presentation, complete with comic strips and allusions to writers from Woody Allen to Emily Dickinson, keeps the material fresh.

Plus, as far as I'm concerned, this book has now acquired totemic status.

posted by Dan on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM


I'm reading "The Blank Slate" piecemeal, which is possible, and a boon to those daunted by the prospect of having to read a complete tome in order to "get the picture". The book is very well written and thought, and very relevant to current political and social movements, as well as to one's view of his/herself.
Actually, any assertion of the blank slate theory denies evolution. That's pretty simple, but Pinker really supplies the specifics.

posted by: Joe Peden on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM [permalink]

1) It will be interesting to see if Amy Zegart has continued good health in the coming months. hee hee

The last person I recall giving the Intelligence Community a scathing review was John Millis, staff director of Porter Goss's House Permanent and Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

2) On March 6, 2000, the Washington Post reported some very blunt assessment given by John Millis during a talk at the Smithsonian. (See¬Found=true ). The article noted that Mr Millis was "strikingly pessimistic about the future of America's spy agencies" and cited Mr Millis's assessments: "...
Signals intelligence ...'is in a crisis,' threatened by hard-to-decode digital cell phone traffic, hard-to-tap fiber optic cable and proliferating encryption software that, for all intents and purposes, is impossible to break.
....All of these changes, meanwhile, are taking place in a post-Cold War environment in which intelligence targets -- rogue states, weapons proliferation, terrorists and narco-traffickers -- have multiplied and become harder than ever to penetrate....

"Such an environment, Millis said, puts a premium on ... [h]aving an effective clandestine service ... [which] enables the president to make effective use of covert action, from paramilitary operations to maneuvers designed to influence another country's political system, Millis said.... 'We must have the capability of influencing foreign media,' Millis said. 'But we almost have totally gotten out of that business. It's ridiculous for [us] alone out of all the major nations in the world' to have nothing in the covert action tool box between 'a feckless demarche and calling in the bombers...' "

3) What the article did not mention is that technical systems of doubtful value get enormous sums --while the human spies of the Clandestine Service get the shaft --because the human spies do not have multi-billion defense corporations lobbying strongly (i.e., handing million-dollar campaign donations to Congressmen ) on their behalf. Lockheed Martin does not make billions when we sneak a spy into a denied area.

4) It was too bad that Mr Millis was not listened to -- a few case officers handing out trival sums in Afghanistan circa 2000 might have gotten a rumble on 911 -- the snitches have to be motivated and they have to be able to contact someone incountry.

5) A few months later, in June 2000, the Washington Post reported that John Millis had been found lying in a bathtub at a cheap motel outside Washington. He brains were blown out and a shotgun was lying beside him. See¬Found=true

6) What I found interesting is that the Washington Post and New York Times immediately dropped the matter -- no additional reporting beyond "he's dead". Strange for two outfits that milked the Clinton blowjob for a year's worth of stories.

Anyone ever read Plato's metaphor -- that the mass of humanity is a pack of idiotics endlessly distracted by the shadows on the wall's of the cave -- never thinking to look to see who's standing at the fire behind us and making those shadows.

Of course, with our enormous technology , we're beoyond all that. Instead of looking at shadows on a rock wall, we watch Peter Jennings on the nightly TV news, scan the New York Times, listen to "experts" (who are desperately jockeying for influence/grants/consulting contracts)and read right wing Internet blogs.

posted by: Don Williams on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM [permalink]

A review of Zegart's book:

posted by: torsor12 on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM [permalink]

"Anyone ever read Plato's metaphor -- that the mass of humanity is a pack of idiotics endlessly distracted by the shadows on the wall's of the cave -- never thinking to look to see who's standing at the fire behind us and making those shadows."

Gee, Don, I'm so glad we morons get to listen to a voice of obviously superior intellect telling us the right way to think. It must be very irritating for you to actually have to read blatherings from the idiots who don't have your insight.

Obivously, you have figured it out--no ifs, ands, buts, or shades of gray. It's all black and white.
Of course, when the revolution comes, we can eliminate those damn right wingers and make the world safe for those with the truth (like you).

posted by: MWS on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM [permalink]

Regarding John Millis:

posted by: Barry Meislin on 04.01.04 at 11:27 PM [permalink]

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