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Rethinking Intelligence: Interview with Ben Friedman

Ben Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute. He co-edited two books, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato 2010), and U.S. Military Innovation Since the Cold War: Creation Without Destruction (Routledge, 2012).

Published: August 4, 2014

Interview Transcript 

Ben Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute. He co-edited two books, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It (Cato 2010), and U.S. Military Innovation Since the Cold War: Creation Without Destruction (Routledge, 2012).

Mike German, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School, interviewed Ben Friedman on August 4, 2014. The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Q: Hi, my name is Mike German. I’m a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. Today I’m with Ben Friedman, who is a research fellow at the CATO Institute where he studies Defense and Homeland Security policy. You’ve written that Americans want more Homeland Security than they need, and you can imagine politicians in a democracy want to give people what they want. So why is a problem that we give Americans more security than they need?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think the demand for Homeland Security is generated largely by events and politics that don’t actually reflect the risk of terrorism to the United States, which is what Homeland Security is supposed to be about preventing. So there’s a variety of reasons that human psychology clings to risks that are rare but dramatic, like the September 11th attacks, and rates their impact as more deadly than they probably are, according to objective analysis. There are other risks that are the same way. Kidnapping by strangers, shark attacks, these sorts of things that very rarely happen but make a big impression on people, and there’s a whole variety of research in human psychology that shows how people sort of overrate these dangers, and also when people sort of become activated and aware of the dangers as they did with regard to terrorism particularly after September 11th they’re insensitive to the idea that there’s a certain amount of tolerable risk, because going after that creates more problems than it’s worth. So if people are told there’s arsenic in drinking water, as there is in even the cleanest drinking water, they want the amount of arsenic in drinking water to be zero. But if you study it sort of rigorously you understand that well, getting it down to zero would create such costs, and it wouldn’t be worth it, because the risks at very, very low trace amounts, aren’t that great, and you can sort of think of terrorism the same way. Our psychology, once we think about, says well we want zero risk of terrorism, but when we’re spending billions of dollars a year and doing other things to our laws and civil liberties even that have, I think, tremendous costs, it’s maybe not worth- and then, of course our politics I think are another source of over-rating the risk. I mean, we have all these sort of political entrepreneurs who have in Congress, and in other places, people who want something from the government, who have sort of an incentive to hype the terrorism risk. So the perception that people get isn’t really the reality, so it’s an example of where democratic debate kind of fails.

Q: And of course, we’re vulnerable to terrorist acts in an open society, but you’ve written that vulnerability and risk are two different things.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, right. Vulnerability is sort of possibility, all sorts of possibly bad things are could happen every day when you wake up and get out of bed, you could be run over by a bus or killed by a meteor or lightning but you know, we don’t worry too much about these things because their possibility is so remote, their probability is so remote. So risk is really how likely it is, times the consequence and when you do public policy, ideally you want to worry about risk, not just possible scenarios. Because we can always dream out possible scenarios to justify any sort of law or spending measure.

Q: So, I want you to help me scope out the intelligence, national security, Homeland Security enterprise. What are we talking as far as dollars?

FRIEDMAN: Well Homeland Security, we’ll start with that, it’s in the ballpark, depending on how you count, of 50 billion dollars. There’s a difference in counting between discretionary and non-discretionary or mandatory spending, and there’s a difference on what we say is Homeland Security spending: what the government, the Office of Management and Budget says is Homeland security spending, and what the Department of Homeland Security spends. But what the Department of Homeland Security spends is in the $40 billions, unless you count mandatory, it’s a little more, so it’s in that general ballpark. So that’s where we are, and then the Department of Defense, the other big part of our national security or the big part of our national enterprise, when you include the wars, now spends around 500 billion dollars, or when you include the war, it’s more than 500 billion dollars a year. And then if you want to put in veterans, that’s more than 100 billion dollars a year, which as I think we ought to, that’s  a cost of our national security certainly, the Veterans Administration. And, there’s probably some parts of State Department, if not all of it, that you want to count, so if you sort of are very inclusive and count all these things that have to do with national security and the federal government, it’s probably approaching a trillion dollars.

Q: But you’ve written that the dirty little secret of national security politics is that we’re relatively safe, and in fact we’re living in a relatively stable and peaceable world. Do you still think that’s true?

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely, there’s a great book by Steve Pinker about, of Harvard, about the decline of violence, particularly political violence over centuries and I think for people who actually look at the incidence and deadliness of war, there’s not really much controversy that war between states, inter-state war has become less frequent by a large amount over the last few centuries. Of course we had terrible cataclysms with World War I and II but since then wars between states have become way less likely. Civil wars have been declining in intensity, in other words, the number of people killed and in incidents, the number of in-civil wars, for a few decades now, there’s less coups and less genocides, and less political violence in general over the last few decades, or probably longer, depending on how you count. So the world actually has been getting less violent and chaotic, contrary to what you often hear, and of course in the United States, one of the particularly safe parts of the world because of our geography and our neighbors who aren’t a threat to us, and because we have so much military power and wealth and capability that we could activate if we needed to defend ourselves, so we’re not in danger of invasion or civil war, as many states traditionally were. We’re in sort of safe corner, so by historical standards, not that we’re perfectly safe, but by historical standards, I think we’re quite safe.

Q: And you mentioned we are a very wealthy country, so if we overspend some on security and overreact to these potential national security threats, what’s the problem with that?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think the way I like to put it is we make security policy like rich people shop, If you’re wealthy and vacation, and let’s say you have a few million dollars in the bank, that probably doesn’t mean that you should spend $10,000 or $20,000 on a gambling trip to Las Vegas, where you blow all the money on various things that don’t enhance your general welfare. That’s not necessarily a good investment for you, even though you have plenty of money. The fact that it doesn’t bankrupt or ruin you doesn’t make it wise. And U.S. security policy, just because we’re so safe, often isn’t ruinous to our security. What we’re doing in the Middle East, and even what we did in Iraq, had a relatively small effect on our economy. The number of people killed was terrible and tragic, but in the United States as a whole, it’s not that big of a number of people. The relatively limited impact still doesn’t make it a good idea. So, you have to assess the wisdom, even of policies that seem sustainable and not ruinous, because lots of really dumb things are sustainable.

Q: And you’ve written in a world where there are a lot of possible threats. But as with other hazards, the best strategy for dealing with uncertainty is gathering information to assess the magnitude of the danger. That sounds like it’s the mission of the intelligence community to go out and gather the facts to identify what our national security policy should be. What’s the intelligence community’s role in correcting the politician’s tendency to over-emphasize threats?

FRIEDMAN: Well ideally, threat assessments coming from the intelligence community would be sort of rigorously factual, and not beholden to political interest that want an alarmist or even an overly non-alarmist or Pollyannaish view, but of course that’s difficult in reality when you have an intelligence community that by design and sensibly is a creature of democratic politics, however much we insulate it as a civil service, a series of civil service bureaucracies from the pull and push of day to day politics. It can’t be totally remote, from the political forces in the United States. Otherwise it would be an enemy of the Congress and it would be defunded. But ideally yeah, the job of the intelligence community would be to speak truth to power at least the other power, and say, “Well that threat’s part’s not ten feet tall, it’s two feet tall.” there are examples, certainly in U.S. history of that happening.

Q: So in February 2014, when the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper came to the Senate to give the worldwide threat briefing, here’s what he said: “Looking back over my now more than a half a century in intelligence, I’ve not experienced the time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Now of course if you go back more than 50 years you’re talking the height of the Cold War. Do you think we face that kind of a threat today?

FRIEDMAN: No. Certainly not. The Cold War was a circumstance. Maybe there are more crises today, but they’re way smaller. I mean it requires a very capacious definition of crises. In the Cold War you had- at least in the early 60’s, the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which were really serious threats and the chance of an exchange of nuclear missiles was not as low as we would have liked it to be. I mean, it was historically high, it was a very dangerous. There’s nothing like that today. The threat of terrorism or cyber-attacks is sort of ever-present, but it occurs with some frequency and we don’t have cataclysmic results. We have tragic results, but not the sort we had to worry about at the start of the Cold War. Not the sort we had to worry about if we lost World War II, not the kind of thing that European powers experienced, that France experienced as a result of losing, or even fighting, in the world wars, which even the victors lost generations, large chunks of generations, and suffered enormous economic loss. We don’t face any sort of threat like that today.

Q: Are there opportunity costs we lose when we over-emphasize threats, and over-spend on threats that are pretty remote?

FRIEDMAN: Always. Every public policy decision you make, there’s a trade-off, and people advocating particular position in politics rarely admit that there’s a conflict there. That there’s a trade-off, that you get more of something as a result of getting less of something else, that even liberty and equality compete, as Isaiah Berlin famously wrote. But in security politics, resources are always finite, no matter how rich you are. And that’s why things can still be a bad idea, even if they’re not ruinous to you. A dollar spent on something is always a dollar less spent on something else.

Q: Including other security risks.

FRIEDMAN: Right, including other security risks. There’s a trade-off between the risks that the Navy confronts within its own budget, and there’s a trade-off across the national security bureaucracy between terrorism and traditional threats like the Chinese military. We’re always making those choices. Even if we deny that we’re making them, it’s impossible to avoid, because resources are finite. And to me, being politically responsible means forcing those choices to be made in an open way; forcing the recognition of choice. I think that’s what a robust and successful national security debate would do. Not necessarily even the right choices, but let’s at least not pretend that we’re avoiding those choices all together.

Q: Does the intelligence community actually harm itself by making these inflated assessments, and thereby undermine its own credibility when real problems might come about?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, if they make those mistakes, they do. I think we can break up the intelligence community a little bit, to think about it. I mean, Sherman Kent, who was one of the original CIA analysts, Central Intelligence Agency intelligence analysts and sort of the father of analytical intelligence in the United States, wrote about how the CIA’s incentive in large parts is to be right. And they need to serve the President and they need to get along with their political masters, but in the long term they do have an incentive, at least a strong incentive, which competes with other incentives to be correct, and therefore I think is the reason that at least if you look back at big intelligence failures in the United States, like where we over-estimated threats, like the missile gap, back in the Cold War and before that the bomber gap, the CIA was closer to being right than the military intelligence agencies, particularly the Air Force intelligence agencies, which in those days was very tied to the Air Force leadership, which wanted an alarmist view of the missile threat from the Soviet Union, so they could buy more of their own missiles. And before that, the bomber threat so that they could buy more of their own bombers, so the incentive structures are a little bit different. The CIA is not certainly immune from political pressures and have made mistakes as a result. And they were still wrong, by the way, about the missile crisis. They were just closer to being right than the Air Force intelligence or military intelligence.

Q: And is that part of the problem, when you have the entity that is doing the threat assessment also the one that would be doing the activities responding to the threat, so there’s a sort of built conflict of interest?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, our information about natural security in general comes from the providers of national security. It’s not provided by the market, it’s not like if you want to find out if you need a new car, you don’t get that information from the person selling you a car. You don’t want to go to the car dealer and ask about that. You want to find out about your options about cars, from car dealers. But in national security- because of the nature of it, because it’s hard to get information about what’s going on -it was zero stand, or where missiles are deployed in North Korea. The government does that, and this particular part of the government, but it’s a little bit unfortunate that the same people, or at least the people who work for those people, that are receiving the funds from the taxpayers for national security are the ones telling us about the threat. It’s not sort of an ideal situation, but it does lead you to one idea that can help a little bit which is a sort of a pluralism in intelligence assessments. I think one of the big failings we had prior to the war in Iraq was the centralization of intelligence estimates, so we had a national intelligence estimate. And in the national intelligence estimate that was historically and famously wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability, in that report you had footnotes that had sort of partial dissents, but that all got papered over. And the more it got elevated into a central, from the different intelligence estimates into the one document, and from the one document to the executive summary, the points of disagreement get cut out. But I think often in life you learn more about whatever it is you’re trying to learn about some conflicts, from conflicting presentations, which is one reason we have juries and criminal trials get a case from two sides. So that there’s a virtue in not centralizing our analysis, and not centralizing the national security apparatus through jointness and all these other celebrations of centralization we hear about so much and instead encouraging fights.

Q: And of course the collectors, a lot of the techniques they use require secrecy in order for them to gather that information. How much does the secrecy required for legitimate intelligence activities undermine our ability to get a straight answer out of intelligence agencies?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think secret government or covert government, the sort of arm of our government that does covert activities and the arm of the government that occupies, that operates under a veil of classification, it’s almost by definition stupid government. Because it doesn’t take a great appreciation about the virtues of democratic debate and open debate to say, well if you have no debate about it, you’re not going to have meaningful oversight. You’re not going to have a requirement for the advocates of policies to stand up and defend their positions in public, and in long term- not in every case, but in general- that’s going to lead to dumber, more ill-considered policies just as if you make all your decisions in life about things that are complicated and difficult without consulting anyone who knows something about it, you’re liable to make dumber decisions. I mean, giving a secret oversight where Congress, or elite, select group of Congressmen and Senators can see national security documents or estimates in a special room and get briefed in that way. Secret oversight is kind of an oxymoron, because the tools that Senators and Congressmen have involve enflaming public opinion. They can’t really do their jobs to oppose policies if they can’t make noise about it in public, that’s the basic logic of democratic politics. And if they can’t do that, then the administration doesn’t have to come before Congress, or whoever is advocating something and say here’s why this is a good idea, or here’s why we’re afraid of this thing, and then their views don’t get evaluated, they don’t get checked, so secrecy undoes the checks and balances that are sort of the wisdom of our Constitutional government.

Q: And the founders of our government recognize that executives tend to be a little over-aggressive in terms of war. How has Congress done to check that ability?

FRIEDMAN: Badly. Yeah… Congress’s willingness to oversee the national security state, particularly war and peace, has I think consistently declined since World War II. I mean, during the Cold War you had a tremendous amount of discretion handed over to the executive branch, and I think the reasons for that I think are complex. Some of it has to do with the emergency that occurred in the Cold War and how some changes we made as a result of that, that maybe made sense for a crisis, or for a particular moment, stuck around because that’s the nature of laws and politics and – the conditions that cause things or the conditions, laws caused by particular conditions outlast those conditions. But I think, also it has to do with our power, and the growth of U.S. power has made the consequences of dumb foreign policies remote and the ability to exercise power all over the world as we did in the Cold War built up this national security apparatus, which has its tentacles in lots of different districts around the United States. We have bases in production facilities and contracted labor to make helicopters or aircraft or what have you, and so the benefits of our national security policy have been concentrated in these areas, and the costs, because we’re so powerful have become more diffuse, where we all pay a few more dollars taxes, volunteer military fights the wars. But we don’t really feel the impact; we don’t really feel the cost. So there’s sort of this imbalance of interest, which I think creates this situation where Congress lets the executives run amok.

Q: And it does seem bipartisan, no matter who’s president, which party is in office, and both sides of Congress seem to support the idea of, this idea of U.S. primacy around the world and interventionist foreign policy. Why is that a problem?

FRIEDMAN: Well, in general…

Q: Or, do you agree with that?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, it’s definitely a problem, there’s a lack of debate now about U.S. grand strategy, or whatever term you want to use. What is it in general? What’s our theory of how we make ourselves safe in the world on a global basis? And there used to be more dispute about this, there were different points of view. Realists in foreign policy debates wanted a more restrained foreign policy, and I wanted a more restrained foreign policy. I consider myself a realist. But the primacy view says, well we need to sort of be the cop everywhere, it’s our forces that sort of overshadow fights between other states, and that prevents them from growing militaries that becomes a threat, so we’re the great hegemon, we’re sort of almost ourselves the world government, and U.S. military presence all around the world achieves that. In the wake of the Cold War, in particular, that’s become the bipartisan foreign policy view. Liberal internationalists on the left agree with that, and neo-conservatives on the right agree with that, and those are basically the two dominant entities in the Democratic and Republican parties. But I think there are a lot of things wrong with that. One is that stability, I don’t think, actually depends on a hegemonic state sort of attempting to police the fights between different states. I think we’re over-estimating our role in securing the peace. I think history proves, particularly where there’s bodies of water between states, as there is in Asia, that balances the power, tend to be fairly stable. And I think the primacy view sort of ignores the fact that it’s getting us into avoidable trouble. We here in the safe part of the world are sort of expanding our military frontier to places where there’s instability and danger, and by declaring that we’re going to defend a whole bunch of different countries, get ourselves into avoidable fights, and that costs something. We have to pay for military capabilities to do that. We keep ourselves sort in a perpetual state of quasi-war where we always have something to worry about, as we did in the Cold War, and as we now do because of the different countries where we’re worried about terrorism. And, I think that changes our domestic institutions in a way that is contrary to liberty, that takes civil liberties from us in the long-term. So there’s all these sort of creeping costs of primacy that I don’t think we really pay attention to or debate much.

Q: And are there metrics to measure whether it’s actually making us safer?

FRIEDMAN: It’s really difficult, I think, to measure what’s making us safer. But we have metrics about how safe we generally are and we sort of, in the broad, sense do social science to come up with theories about what’s delivering peace, and I think if you look at the social science about the causes of peace, the decline of inter-state war that I talked about it’s really interesting that very few people subscribe to the view that it’s benevolence and power the United States of America, that’s caused that. Very few people who study this issue seriously say that, but it’s the dominant view in Washington, D.C. so we have this sort of discrepancy between scholarship that studies this issue, and the debate in Washington. But I think in general, we should try to do retrospective policy analysis to say, well how did this work in actually making us safer? And I think on a discrete basis in sort of different policy areas, you can do that roughly at least to get a sense.

Q: And again, if you have an institution known as “the intelligence community”, you would think that they would be doing the sort of studies working to improve national security policy.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, well, the intelligence community does a fair amount of retrospective analysis of intelligence success and failure, but I think in the public eye, that analysis is extremely colored by the tendency to blame policy failures on intelligence estimates. So I don’t think that it’s the view of the intelligence community that September 11th was their fault, and I think if you look at the history of all the intelligence estimates prior to the 9/11 attacks, you see there was actually a fair amount of warning and talk about the Al Qaeda threat. But the 9/11 Commission comes along and says, “Well, there was a failure of imagination”. I don’t think there’s a lot of empirical basis for that claim, the specifics of the attack, we didn’t know and there were communication failures. But in general, I think the intelligence wasn’t that bad. If you look prior to the War in Iraq, based on what we actually knew, of the actual facts that were available, the intelligence estimates were not bad. I think it’s fairly clear that the mistake was having the war, and the Bush Administration wanted to have the war regardless of what the intelligence said. That wasn’t an intelligence failure, it was a policy failure. I think you could say the same thing about 9/11, so I think we often overestimate the importance of intelligence estimates in policy failures.

Q: And again we can expect an executive to have the tendency to overreach in those areas. Does Congress have the tools to do independent assessment of these threats, of these claims or these grand strategies?

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely, yeah, the Congressional hearing process is one that when used well, can deliver all sorts of results. I mean, the subpoena power that Congress has to do investigations can unearth lots of secrets that people didn’t want to get out, and in general the prestige and power of Congress allows it to get media coverage, so it can do robust oversight, so what you need, I think, is a fight where you have a Congressional committee, and divided government helps in this regard. You need to get good oversight, you need a fight, you need a disagreement between some powerful group of people in Congress that can have a hearing, and the administration. I think it’s not useful to sort of just wish for a responsibility of oversight, I think we need to sort of fall back on the division and powers inherent in the Constitution and say, well how do we make them jealous of powers, and get them to do oversight in that way, and why is that in some ways malfunctioned?

Q: And of course, the other element that our founders hoped, I think, to secure popular government was a free press. So how has the press done in challenging threat assessments?

FRIEDMAN: Poorly. I think the press- I think it’s actually a bad idea to expect a lot of independent analysis from the press. Of course, there will be occasional times, magazine articles, one particularly motivated individual who challenges threat assessments. But I think if you look at the broad scope of the history of when did the press really help in a democratic sense, as a tool of oversight and when did they sort of act as the fourth estate? Well, I think it was times where there was a fight between powerful entities, again, and I repeat myself a lot about that, because I think it’s important. Even in Watergate, right, we have this sort of myth I think, of gum shoe reporting by Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post and unearth this scandal, but we had the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was and the guy who wanted to be head of it who was Deep Throat was mad at the Nixon Administration. They were feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein at the Washington Post. That was as much the cause of Watergate becoming a scandal as the reporting, and then of course you got a Congressional committee set up and they had subpoena power and they started dragging people up there, and revelations occurred in that way. So there you had a fight between powerful people. When we had a leak to the Washington Post in recent years that we had secret intelligence, we had secret prisons overseas where we were doing enhanced interrogation, or we’re not sure what because they were secret, and Dana Priest wrote that story in the Washington Post. We don’t know where she got that information, but I bet it was part of the government, a person in the government, who didn’t like that and wanted to do something about it. So it’s always fights within the government, I think that produce, revelatory reporting so reporting can be a megaphone that gets the democratic crowd upset by something and that could be very powerful, but I think it’s wrong to think all the energy itself has got to come from the journalists themselves. There has to be some fight I think for them to exploit.

Q: And as far as just simply informing the public, there are all kinds of think tanks out there. How good of a job do they do as informing the public about the true nature of threats that the country faces?

FRIEDMAN: Well we have an idea in think tanks—I work for a think tank—about what think tanks do. And it’s enshrined, to a degree, in our tax code, which gives you the ability to make a tax-free donation to a think tank, because they have a public policy purpose to inform the public. And that does occur, but I think it doesn’t occur independently of the politics that are all around the think tanks in Washington DC. And politics isn’t a dirty word, but think tanks are a servant…

Q: You can’t take the politics out of politics.

FRIEDMAN: You can’t take the politics out of politics. Yeah, think tanks are a servant of the political forces that fund and create them, and it’s important to be aware of that. At the CATO institution we’re a libertarian think tank, we work for a libertarian ideology, so people ought to understand that we’re coming from a particular place. Other think tanks have another sort of political agenda, but the idea that they’re immune and independent, totally independent, I think misreads things a little bit. So I think in a political system as we have now, where both parties and foreign policy are advocates of this primacy or this hegemonic U.S. military that turns the globe, it’s not going to be the think tanks, at least not too many of them, not the ones that are attached to the parties where people working there want to go into administrations, and so forth. They’re not going to be the ones who are going to turn us in a new direction; they’re a reflection of the power realities more than sort of an independent group of people observing them.

Q: And you mentioned the importance of transparency to give the public an opportunity to judge the perspective that they’re hearing from. But, there’s very little transparency with the intelligence community and with this intelligence enterprise, including the Congressional committees on intelligence.

FRIEDMAN: Right, there’s extreme secrecy. The most interesting questions in national security Congressional hearings tend to elicit the response “I’d like to talk about that in a closed hearing”. So there’s this problem that information is controlled and classified and there’s not a lot of transparency, so…

Q: And yet when we do get the transparency, when there are these massive leaks like we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, typically despite some original, initial screaming and yelling about the national security harm, after a while there’s sort of the admission that it didn’t do that much harm. Do you think there’s too much secrecy?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely. First of all, the extreme amount of secrecy encourages criminal behavior by patriotic people, or by people who at least have reasonably good motives. I’m not saying that people should break the law by leaking information, but when so much information is classified and when there are controversial things that are happening that aren’t being made public, it becomes more likely that someone is going to leak that information, that’s concerned by the policy that’s going on. And then, you’re creating this whole class of criminals that may not need to be criminalized. As a country, I think we would be far better off if we allowed those people to share that information legally and openly. I think cheap, available information is the lifeblood of democratic debate, and democratic debate doesn’t always work. We often get bad policies as a result of robust debate, but I think over the course of U.S. history and that of other democracies, debate with more information available to the general person out there who picks up the newspaper more often produces better public policy, and the division of power that the Constitution puts in place recognizes that. At least in the world I occupy at a libertarian think tank, there’s a lot of Constitutional formalism I encounter where people say, well the Constitution says Congress has war power, so we should do it. And I like to say, well okay, but it says that for a reason. It’s not just because a bunch of guys with wigs on thought it was a good idea. It’s because there’s a theory there about what produces good foreign policy, which is two or more competing actors trying to get power will produce a better outcome than one wise man alone in a room, even if he’s elected.

Q: If there was somebody out there who wanted to learn more about this issue, what would you suggest they read?

FRIEDMAN: Well there’s plenty, but we at the CATO Institute put everything online at And our foreign policy and defense department has a website, as do our civil libertarian scholars who focus on NSA wiretapping, and all those important issues. So that’s all online, and I think people should read books – Paul Pillar’s book about national security and intelligence and the relation between the two talks about how we blame the intelligence community a lot for things that are really policy failures. We have a book coming out at CATO about threat inflation and U.S. foreign policy, that will be out in a couple of months and if more than twelve people read that, it will be a big success.

Q: And you have Terrorizing Ourselves?

FRIEDMAN: That’s true, yeah, we did another edited volume where I was an editor, called Terrorizing Ourselves, about Homeland Security and counterterrorism policy and as a title implies, we’re often creating fear that’s an enemy of intelligent, foreign and defense, policy and in that way kind of helping out our enemies and what we can do to fix this.

Q: Great, well I appreciate your time.


Q: Great, I really appreciate it. … Do you have any interest in saying anything about the current debate with the torture investigation? It sort of came through, unless you have something particular to say about it?

FRIEDMAN: No, there’s nothing. I don’t have a burning desire to say something about that.

Q: It’s a mess.

FRIEDMAN: Right. I sort of think, CIA directors who seriously misread Congress should maybe not have the confidence of the President, but beyond that, I don’t.

Q: Yeah, it’s shocking.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I guess one thing I would say is, just you know when you look at the controversy about torture and the torture report and the fight between the Senate and the CIA and John Brennan, without saying a lot about John Brennan, I think it’s interesting if you look at… here’s President Obama, who was elected opposing the war in Iraq, who was elected saying that we shouldn’t torture in the United States and getting rid of some of the coercive interrogation tactics we had then, who was in large part, a critic of a lot of the things we were doing in national security. It’s interesting now, here we are, all these years in the Obama presidency, that the vast majority of people who he named to leading positions in the intelligence community and at the top of the national security apparatus were along for the ride on a lot of the things that we didn’t -—that Obama, and the people who elected him, I suppose, didn’t like even interrogation stuff, and it’s interesting that almost everybody he’s put in a position of power about war and peace supported the War in Iraq, or at least if you look at Susan Rice, couldn’t articulate an opinion one way or the other, despite writing articles about it, because it was risky politically to take a stand at that time. So we have this whole group of people who are advocates of war, who have been consistent hawks and those are the people Obama put in power and I think it really just goes to show how powerful this tendency towards sort of marauding primacy and U.S., the necessity for the United States to have a lot of wars is, and our national security establishment, it’s a bipartisan thing. We at the CATO Institute talk sometimes about, if somebody really wanted to create a national security apparatus, a cabinet of doves, where would they go? And it’s hard to find people who have any sort of reasonable government experience who have any sort of consistent dovishness, it’s a real depressing thing, but that’s how it is.

Q: And there’s not even a strategy if you could find those people that they could say, here, this is what will make the nation a safer place in the long-term?

FRIEDMAN: Well, not a strategy that people in D.C. adhere to on a regular basis. I mean, we have this concept of restraint which sometimes goes on as the name off-shore balancing, which I think is a little different, but different people have different names. But it’s a much more restrained take on foreign policy, the idea we should have fewer alliances, we should only have allies for temporary periods, we should fight fewer wars, we should dispense with the idea that we can stabilize the whole world. There are a lot of ideas.

Q: So who are some of the writers who you would say have produced good materials on that issue?

FRIEDMAN: Barry Posen of MIT just wrote a book called Restraint. I don’t remember the subtitle, but he’s got a book that just came out on restraint, so sort of articulating this foreign policy view. Harvey Sapolsky, Daryl Press. Harvey Sapolsky is emeritus at MIT, Daryl Press is at Dartmouth, and Eugene Gholz, who’s at the University of Texas at Austin, have a famous article called “Come Home America: a strategy of restraint in the face of temptation”, that’s over a decade old now, but it’s a great article. It sort of articles this view pretty well, and if people look at some of the stuff I’ve written about restraint they can go right through the footnotes, and find all of these articles by these guys. So there’s a lot of restraint advocacy in the academy, but in Washington D.C. it’s sort of foreign concept.

Q: And it’s almost as if both parties go to the same bench. In other words, whether it’s Robert Gates or Robert Muller, who stayed on from one Republican president to a Democratic president, stay on, and not surprising that the policies don’t change when it’s the same people.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, right, and you have somebody like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is head of the State Department policy planning organization for the beginning of the Obama Administration, who agrees, as far as I can tell, about 95% of the time with Paul Wolfowitz, who’s a frequent advocate of military intervention in the Middle East and so forth, about what U.S. foreign policy ought to be, and she’s entitled to her views. But it’s worth noting the level of agreement between the neoconservatives on the right and some of the leading likes of the more liberal foreign policy establishment.

Q: Absolutely. Alright, well, I appreciate what you’re doing.

FRIEDMAN: Alright, thanks!

Q: Alright, great. Thank you, Ben.