By Philip Smucker
WASHINGTON - Most of the United States is still suffering through the final stages of a cataclysmic economic decline, but not so my home town of Alexandria, Virginia, nestled along the banks of the Potomac River, a silver dollar's toss away from the white marble statues of our founding fathers.
Recession - what recession? The military intelligence complex is thriving like never before as has been well described through the dog-days of July in the dark pages of the White House Murder INC, on the Potomac, CIA/MOSSAD, Syria and Asef SHAWKAT....since January 24th 2002 in Lebanon.....
A series of investigative reports in the Post have exposed the bloated beast of United States intelligence as is rarely done in the home of "Beltway bandits" and revolving door contracts.
It was the former US speaker of the House, Tip O'Neil, who said that "all politics is local". You would think that - a decade into this "war on terror" - that the US would have learned by now that all war and peace are also local. Al-Qaeda and other global jihadis are tapping into a broad audience of 1.2 billion Muslims, always looking to turn a few more in their favor.
Meanwhile, Washington concentrates its dollars on feeding a voracious beast with no brains.
There is an essential disconnect at work: Islamic perceptions are not understood to be "hard intelligence". The US is still trying to fit a square peg into a round hole - or to apply conventional intelligence to an asymmetrical world.
So the beat goes on. This city relies on its big brains and intelligence re-spun from high-tech devices and analyzed, sliced and diced by "experts" in blue suits and pink ties. The mountain of dubious intelligence that this behemoth produces in one day buries the good work of even the best and brightest Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) linguists secretly ensconced in foreign cultures abroad.
Apart from its lack of focus, there are other troubles with the convoluted system. The Post points out that it includes "too many people obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest". The paper calculated that 854,000 persons are keepers of "top-secret" clearances and that 265,000 of these are contractors.
If there is a single profession that requires dedication and loyalty above all others, it is the work of intelligence gathering. But it has been outsourced.
In Washington, Maryland and Virginia, "loyalty" is bought in cash or in kind. As the Post also points out, "Because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses."
An existing "TS" or "top secret" security clearance can bring a $50,000 bonus to a so-called "body shop" that provides the US government with a flesh and blood human who has passed the test. (Of course, it was Uncle Sam who paid for the clearance in the first place.)
Washington's intelligence-gatherers do important work. They spy on the bad guys and think of better ways to kill them. They also advise America's top brass and plan for futuristic wars in different galaxies.
In many cases, these intelligence-gatherers will have come from the same offices a year earlier and will then work at double the pay to sport a fresh blue suit rather than a grungy green one.
Even as the Post's investigative stories get digested over fillet mignon and washed down with sparkling water and French Champagne this summer, there are the standard calls to kill the bottomless gusher of money spewing forth across the land.
But the Washington establishment can rest assured that any effort to put the bloated intelligence genie back in the bottle won't ever come to much - at least not in anyone's lifetime.
Ever since George Washington warned that, "Over-grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty," vows to curtail military excess have gone largely unheeded in the city of his namesake. (Certainly, it won't be former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's "tea party" that changes the course of recent history.)
One source studying al-Qaeda's leadership explained to the Post how a new Washington intelligence "study" gets started.
She said, "It's about how many studies you can orchestrate, how many people you can fly all over the place. Everybody's just on a spending spree. We don't need all these people doing all this stuff."
Of course not! But if Washington stopped paying these "experts" to defend America, maybe it would have to deploy an army of gumshoe detectives across the globe to discover how to better defend the woeful public. The "intelligence" that they returned with might mean that Washington would have to suffer through the economic hard times along with everyone else in the nation.
And while American's defense requires peace - to achieve that peace the US actually would need to persuade Muslims the world over that it has their best interests in mind.
That is, unfortunately, largely a matter of foreign policy, not "intelligence". While travelling in the Islamic realm for my book, My Brother, My Enemy, the key issues that tend to radicalize young Muslims to take up arms against my own country became rather obvious.
These views spring from a series of key questions that linger like the smoke in a cafe full of Egyptian hookahs (water pipes): Why are American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why is there no peace deal in Israel and Palestine? Does President Barack Obama really want to use his brains and muscle (spelled "leverage") to stamp out a lasting two-state peace deal? And why in the world is Osama bin Laden still running around the mountains of Pakistan?
These questions burn for answers, but young Muslims do not have them. In fact, they don't even have many clues. As long as they remain open quandaries, al-Qaeda will fill the air with conspiracy theories. Its goal is to convince as many new recruits as possible that the US would like nothing better than to permanently "occupy" the Islamic world with its own troops and with its "proxies".
At this stage, some readers will blame Muslims for being suckers for conspiracy theories. It is worth remembering, however, that here in the United States there are at least as many bizarre theories about how the World Trade Center crashed to the ground in September 2001 and why Bin Laden is still at large as there are across the Islamic world.
In any case, let us consider the logic of how a young Muslim male or female might conclude from the facts on the ground that America is out to get them. The two "occupations" that concern them the most are America's in South Asia and Israel's in the West Bank.
These occupations were motivated by apparently unrelated events that unfolded at different times in history.
Seen through the rose-tinted lenses of Washington, these are not occupations at all. We still think that president Woodrow Wilson set the course of modern American foreign policy by opposing - at least in words - colonial designs. And unless anything has changed - which it clearly has not - Washington still stands for freedom, democracy and an end to all oppression.
To his credit, Obama is trying to pick up where his predecessor George W Bush dropped the ball. He has expressed abhorrence for pre-emptive war. He also wants to finish the job in Afghanistan - clean out the rat's nest as it were - and pressure Israel - at least a little bit - to end its occupation of the West Bank.
To this end, an army of "intelligence" experts is backing General David Petraeus as he pushes ahead with a counter-insurgency strategy that includes the implicit promise not to occupy Afghanistan. (Ironically, good counter-insurgency requires far less "American intelligence" and far more "Afghan intelligence" in the form of tip-offs from villagers and locals.)
It should not be hard to understand, however, that the Afghan population, which is the key to success, remains skeptical of American intentions. The war on their own soil is now the longest in America's history. This is thanks in good part to the "intelligence" errors that led to a bungled invasion of Mesopotamia.
Yet it is the other key occupation in the Islamic world that forever mires America's effort to be seen for what most of its citizen's would rather be: a peacemaker and an advocate of democracy.
Since 1967, there has been talk about ending Israel's occupation in the West Bank. Yet few Muslims I spoke to in my travels believe anymore that a peace deal is likely or even possible. They don't need to read or listen to Jewish author Akiva Eldar's excellent explanation in Lords of the Land about the Israel Defense Forces' intimate ties with the Israeli settlement movement to be convinced of this.....
They already have their own sources of information. Unfortunately, these include radical Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who told me in an interview for my book that "without resisting the occupiers, the occupation, the occupier himself will never be convinced that he has to leave".
While Washington has convinced itself that it is facing an "offensive" jihad from across the Islamic world, that same "jihad" is usually viewed as a defensive one by the young Muslims susceptible to Hamas' manipulations. There is an even worse bit of loose intelligence just hanging out there waiting to be seized upon, however.
Israel's "occupation" in the Holy Land is conflated in the minds of Muslims with the idea of American military "occupation" in South Asia and beyond. Al-Qaeda's propaganda geniuses - as opposed to "intelligence experts" - have crafted their own stealthy recruitment campaigns to incorporate these views. Their simple and direct message: "America and Israel want you under their boot."
A handful of leaders at the Pentagon and within Obama's national-security apparatus already know this. Petraeus testified before the US Senate in March after his Central Command submitted a detailed 56-page "Posture Statement", that said, "The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel." The statement further added, "Meanwhile, al-CIAda and other CIA/MOSSAD puppet militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."
It is hard to argue with perceptions, though, particularly when you are so busy lavishing billions on brain power inside the Beltway. As sure as George Washington never tossed a silver dollar across the Potomac, that won't change anytime soon.
Philip Smucker is the author of the just-released My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas across the Islamic World. (Prometheus, July, 2010.) His previous book was Al-Qaeda's Great Escape. (Potomac, 2004.) His short HD videos that accompany the book are available on http://www.philipsmucker.com