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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.

FRIED­MAN: Thanks.

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.