Utilitarian Postmodernists and the Office of Special Plans

I’ve always been curious about the Gary Schmitt and Abram Shulsky (S&S) essay “Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence (By Which We Do Not Mean Nous).” But I was too lazy to hunt it down. Now that Pat Lang has helpfully provided a link (PDF), I’ve finally read it.

There are several analyses of the essay’s implications for intelligence gathering. Lang provides a historically-grounded one from David Habbakuk (PDF). Tom Barry analyzes the concrete implications of S&S’s thought for intelligence. Seymour Hersh addresses it briefly here in the context of the Office of Special Plans.

None of these analyses consider how close S&S come in this essay to admitting the similarities between Straussian thought and postmodernism–or what that admission portends for our intelligence programs. I’d like to make the case that S&S articulate the stance of Utlitarian Postmodernists in this essay and that the essay is a recipe for the creation and manipulation of narratives rather than a program for a different kind of intelligence program.

S&S first bring up postmodernism to discredit criticisms of Strauss’s esoteric reading.

Many critics argued that it gave license for fanciful and arbitrary interpretation of texts; once one asserted that an author’s true views might be the opposite of those that appear on the surface of his writings, it might seem that the sky was the limit in terms of how far from the author’s apparent views one could wander. However, the deeper reason for the unpopularity of this doctrine was different; after all, Strauss was a piker compared to the very popular (at least for a while) doctrine of deconstructionism which gave readers complete carte blanche when it came to interpreting texts, and which completely lacked the rigor Strauss brought to the problem of textual interpretation.

Habbakuk notes how ridiculous this logic is. Whatever the failures of deconstruction, proving its failures (which S&S don’t do) does not make a case for the strengths of Straussian analysis.

Frankly, much desconstructionist analysis is shoddy. But a good deal of it is incredibly rigorous. Indeed, good deconstruction offers a means of discovering just the kind of hidden meaning that I understand Strauss’s followers to seek. With one important distinction–the role of intention. Straussians treat this esoteric reading as intentional, whereas deconstruction does not assume the author’s intention is primary or even necessary at all.

Now, the real failure of deconstructionism and other postmodernist approaches to analysis is not so much the leeway they offer (that’s a factor of academic self-discipline rather than the method itself). Rather, it’s the way they endorse a kind of passivity. The object of postmodern analysis, in most instances, goes no further than observation. You point to the structures of power inherent to the texts that make up our reality and … that’s about it. You get tenure, write three more books making such observations, and retire with your fourth wife, a former graduate student of yours, in the South of France.

None of the great postmodern theorists took the obvious next step: Admit that (at least within the realm of power–I’ll leave the refutations of gravity to others) competing narratives can and do have the power to create reality, regardless of the veracity of those narratives. And then tell people how they can use that observation to change the existing power structures.

Perhaps this failure had to do with the postmodernist approach to intention, the belief that authors cannot fully execute their own intentions. If you believe the author has limited power, then why advocate for a more politically engaged role for authors?

But the Straussians, with their opposite approach to intention, have gone the next logical step, taken an observation about the way narratives affect power, and used it to accumulate power themselves. Thus the moniker, Utilitarian Postmodernism.

Which is what I think S&S admit they’re doing when they make their second mention of postmodernism.

Rather, the dissatisfaction was political in origin; the notion of esoteric writing is clearly at odds with the main political tenet of the Enlightenment, i.e., that a good polity can be built on the basis of doctrines that not only are true but are also accessible: their truth can be “self-evident” (to quote the Declaration of Independence) to the average citizen. Even those post-moderns who no longer believe that it is possible to discover any truths at all on which a free polity might be based somehow still cling to freedom of speech, which was originally defended on the grounds that the propagation of anti-republican heresies can do no harm as long as pro-republican truths are left free to refute them.

Be this as it may, Strauss’s view certainly alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.

The first paragraph is a fair critique of Enlightenment aspirations. The Enlightenment (and, more recently, Jurgen Habermas) claim you can achieve more reasoned government by subjecting political decisions to scrutiny and rational debate. I don’t much care for S&S’s insinuation that the “average citizen” just can’t get much that transpires in political discussions. But I think they’re right–if your entire political system assumes a certain transparency, a truthfulness in argumentative statements, it leaves your system incredibly vulnerable to those who exploit this assumption and tell lies.

(Note, some of my academic work examines the non-rational, purportedly fictional interventions in the public sphere that Habermas ignores to make his historical claim that a golden age of rational speech once existed. Such study makes me confident that these interventions can be just as valuable–and potentially empowering–as Habermas’ favored true rational speech. So I disagree with S&S’s portrayal of the trap postmodernism gets into with democracy.)

But now look at what S&S are suggesting about their own, Straussian project. They use postmodernism to illustrate the problem that deception presents for democracy. And then they proclaim that deception is inevitable in political speech. You’d think they’d then say democracy is impossible. But they don’t do this.

Effectively, they’re admitting that democracy is vulnerable to manipulation by deceptive speech. But they’re going to exploit that vulnerability to their own advantage.

So what does this have to do with intelligence gathering?

The analyses I linked to above assume S&S advocate an intelligence that takes a different approach to discover the truth, but still tries to discover it. This still assumes intelligence practitioners will take the role of the postmodern academic–as passive observers. They assume that S&S are only disputing the method of analysis, rather than the role of intelligence in general. So, for example, Habbakuk shows the results that presuming deception rather evaluating deception may have had.

So it would come as no surprise to find disciples of Strauss inclined simply to take for granted that opponents are attempting to deceive them — rather than treating the possibility of deception as a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Ironically, moreover, when one is leading with murderous thugs and shameless rascals, precisely the difficult hypothesis to consider is often not that they are lying but that, however brazenly they may have lied in the past, in a given instance they are telling the truth. And prejudging the issue in such away can mean not simply a specific error — but the development of a question and answer complex which is radically false. So, for example, if one started off assuming that Saddam was concealing the existence of active weapons of mass destruction programmes, one would not explore the implications of the hypothesis that he had no such programmes. One implication of such a hypothesis, obviously, would be that evidence suggesting he had such programmes would necessarily be false. Accordingly, questions as to the intentions and purposes behind the false evidence would arise. Among the directions in which such an investigation would naturally lead would be towards the possibility that some of the evidence produced by Ahmed Chalabi originated in Iran. So the question and answer complex generated from hypotheses about Saddam would necessarily entail hypotheses about the policy of the government in Tehran.

Presuming Saddam is deceiving you may blind you to the possibility that he’s telling the truth, that he has no WMD (although I think the reality is different–to the extent the Neocons were fooled it’s because they assumed Saddam was deceiving in the most obvious way, hiding his WMDs, rather than considering the possibility that Saddam was deceptively pretending he was hiding WMDs).

But I’m arguing that OSP didn’t get fooled by Saddam or by Chalabi, as Habbakuk suggests. Rather, the critical deception was not Saddam’s or, by itself, Chalabi’s. It was that of OSP, which knowingly  propagated Saddam’s and Chalabi’s deceptions to accomplish their goal–military intervention.

With their statements about postmodernism, S&S reveal their awareness of the implications that deceptive statements have for democracy. But they neither renounce their own brand of deceptive statement nor do they posit an alternative to democracy. And in the context of this awareness, they argue for a different kind of intelligence. Given this background, it seems S&S are arguing for an active, intelligence-producing role rather than intelligence gathering and analysis, no matter the method. And given what Shulsky’s OSP produced (literally, produced), this seems to be the more accurate reading.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. Anonymous says:

    You quote
    â€So it would come as no surprise to find disciples of Strauss inclined simply to take for granted that opponents are attempting to deceive them — rather than treating the possibility of deception as a hypothesis that needs to be tested.â€

    It would seem that they also failed to consider the possibility that their erstwhile ALLIES (Chalabi and friends) were also deceiving them, and that their statements should be approached with skepticism. Some of the neocons seem to me to have a kind of naivete that would be almost touching if it hadn’t cost so many lives. Or maybe they (I’m chiefly thinking of Cheney here) truly didn’t care what the â€truth†was–if it helped sell the war it was â€trueâ€, i.e., good for selling the war, and that was enough. That would explain why Cheney refuses to recant his statements about al Qaeda and Saddam, for example.

    I graduated from college before all this deconstruction stuff became popular, so I confess I never really understood it or its appeal. Sure, people’s prejudices influence what they write, and what they read into what they read. So?

    I also understand the notion that on one level there is no real â€truth†to be discovered, that all perspectives are relative. But this also means that all ideas (or mental constructs of any kind) also lack any inherent existence or independent reality. That the ideas of the neocons are no more â€right†than anyone else’s, and therefore it is preposterous to take a country to war on what is at best a partial and not a whole view of reality. It is why it is also preposterous to try to silence ones critics, rather than listen to and learn from them, because the whole mosaic requires many eyes to see.

    It may be necessary in politics to deceive at times. but it really does matter in the service of what ideal this lying is done. Bush/Cheney/Rove and the neocons obviously understood they couldn’t sell their war with the truth, so they resorted to lies, and are still doing so today. The problem with this approach in a democracy is that when the going gets rough, you can lose support for the war if it is based on deception. And that is what we are seeing now.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There are any number of postmodern textual approaches, each of which disregard intentionality, and only one of which is â€deconstruction,†properly speaking. Deconstruction per se involves a subversive reading of the key binaries that structure a text, and effects the binaries’ collapse. Deconstruction, done well, is quite withering, if a little cute. As a result, many other subversive approaches to texts have borrowed some arrows from the deconstructionists’ quiver.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Donut Postmodernism:

    Postmodern lying intentionality you happens every day in every county in U.S. Cops lie under oath and everyone — DA, judge, defense lawyer, bailiff, courtroom deputy and court reporter — all know the cops lied that it’s o.k. These â€justice factory†bureaucrats are the â€postmodern streetâ€: A clique, they decide who’s guilty and investigate only what confirms their diagnosis.

    Anyone who challenges the lying is tagged as naive and, at the same time, uncouth, for bringing up the obvious.

    This is April 1945 Hitler bunker denial. The reality they create is more valid than the Russian artillery shells exploiding in the courtyard.

    Was Goebbeles the original Straussian?

  4. Anonymous says:

    A lot of people have read Shadia Drury’s smaller book on Strauss (she has a new, bigger one out now, I believe), but the better primer on all this stuff is her brilliant Alexandre Kojeve : The Roots of Postmodern Politics. Unlike Strauss’, her writing is utterly limpid (clear writing is a ’political’ act in this context). Kojeve is an intellectual forebear/colleague of Strauss. As you can see from the title, she calls it what it is.

    I disagree with S&S’s portrayal of the trap postmodernism gets into with democracy.)

    Not sure I quite understand what you mean in this paragrah. Would you name one of these ’non-rational, purportedly fictional interventions in the public sphere’ ? Just curious.

    Was Goebbeles the original Straussian?

    No, but Goebbeles was a Schimitt-ian (Strauss also knew Schmitt).

    Interesting discussion over at Legal Fiction, which has so far boiled down to the contention that since the neocons believed what they were saying, they weren’t lying; or that they are guilty only of incompetence and not Maciavellian evil. I assert that they knew they were lying about some things, but honestly believed in their ’cause’ enough to rationalize that – which is essentially what every tyrant does. Being tyranical/secretive doesn’t mean that your ultimate aim is a mistake, but the odds are much better that it WILL be mistaken (which, of course, Strauss would basically disagree with). As Mimikatz suggests, there is a difference between telling lies as a matter of course vs telling them only when you have to.

    Thanks, as always, for the great post, EW

  5. Anonymous says:

    I see little is new about inflammatory rhetoric from a leader or a committee of oligarchs’ spokesperson in conjuring a timely insult as the immediate and impelling reason for war; it is simple enough to speak to the ordinary mind; and the committee database multifold enough to satisfy democratically elected representatives’ various degrees of curiosity with respect to inductive fact finding.

    Roberts’ Phase I was quite a fact finding, filtering; though Reid has placed an altered Phase II chip on the table.

    Although the deductive approach to foreign policy is interesting, I perceive it as a trifle hyperbolic; rather, it resembles more the concomitant consciousness the inductive scientist intelligence gatherer senses during fact gathering. Without launching into emotion and will, the philosophical underpinnings of thoughtful policymaking involve much more of a whole person than the Liars Club would ever produce, however subtly parsed.

    For me the tenor of the debate resembles closely racism, and religionism; Unamuno had a quirky chant about metaphysicsism at that dawning part of the previous century which also belongs in the triad.

    Leadership in a democracy is in a state of morphing now with the instantaneous link afforded by internet. I leave the proportions of the impact of this interlocution to generalist futurists to map.

    Individuality in a biological and philosophical sense is eternal, at least from our perspective in evolutionary time; and I leave to the scifi buffs the elucidation of where on the number line we are. Perhaps it is an appropriate asymptote to attempt to address and define.

    But, historically, the most brutal movements have had great exegetes as ancillary leaders at their helm; I cite no specific historical cliques but there are several in our times in our part of the western hemisphere.

    Interestingly, it was a pope who handily decided where demarc precisely lay separating the old world and new world.

    There is another phase shift in ancience and modernity afoot here, and the descriptions are available in many kinds of literature, fiction, meditational, mathematical, unified physics.

    It is to be anticipated that the Arab peoples who form the loosely knit Arab League are having a voice in the shift of our economic history at this time when the energy moguls are in fact planning for nonfossilfuel-based energymotors but hedging the r+d timelines in the name of profiteering, especially by utilizing a kind of political judo on democratic forms of government; the monarchies and dictatorships are a gimmee, and the democracies are proving resilient.

    We need to be mindful, as well, of how the French Enlightment led to dire times, and that part of ’old Europe’ opted for the kind of parliamentary system which preserved much from their monarchical past. If one wants to wax sterotypal about this, as we write, the German government leadership is enduring a similar unforeseen cohabitation government form; and I am sure many Brittons would like to try the well tempered rendition of democracy which we developed after we overthrew the traces and embarked on this neat adventure.

    There is a lot more about politics here remaining to be said, instead of these broad views which I express in this compressed dialog. Recently I have been reading election law litigation and using that to understand the measure of progress which some modern humans believe us to have attained.

    Lastly, it deserves to be spoken simply and briefly in close, that perhaps little is understood about the hyperenergetic seachange in society which has occurred these past forty years. It has been a fun challenge. Imagine: now we are calling our leadership to select a committee of evaluators of fabricated propaganda and report back to us Real Soon Now. That is proving to be a delightful if somewhat stark process.

    Certainly, I feel the flypaper war as now exercised in Iraq has deep roots in intelligence agencies views of how to control the faceless thinkers whose ignominy is the basis of their personality of terror. I could footnote out a few treatises, which perhaps professor Condoleezza Rice has read, about that very dry and barren philosophy which constructed the iron curtain. but perhaps they seem impotent works only because of my limited skill level in slavic languages, and simply no one has attempted that kind of analysis of the statehead as a person in the English speaking democracies leading the world in spiritual and economic realms; though, who knows how leaderlike our detente is. History will write that assessment.

    It is appreciated to be charming but now the neocons will need to face music of their own composition; funny how some of the folks actually have great charm. You know, his students love his warm and open approach to conducting class, ready to entertain questions at length; all is well with that characterization; I will respectfully omit naming which torture memo author’s biography proffers that depiction.

    I enjoyed Amb. Wilson’s polite and diplomatic stated regard for the text analysis of Phase I in a fairly recent essay on this site. Diplomacy, too, has its code and deep human need and even hunger, perhaps best said directly but customarily enunciated in the parlance of its vaulted jargon. Let’s see, how to deconstruct the ceremonial quarterly investors conference call; Sarbanes Oxley is a boost toward clarifying that particular dog-pony.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The OSP boys assuming Saddam was deceptive when he said â€We have not these thingsâ€. They assumed he was candid when he said â€Advise our field commanders to deploy chemical weaponsâ€.

    ISTM this is simply a cae of bias, not esoteric reading, and the appeal to Straussianism is made only for the sake of license … as we might expect of a second-rate student or a fourth-rate academic.

    I will spend a little time with Lang’s collection of papers and commentaries, though.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Fine work EW, you hit the nail on the head in your second-to-last paragraph. The OSP wasn’t fooled at all — they were the ones who did the fooling. Is it not incredible that this isn’t more common knowledge?

    GWBush was utterly snowed by an OSP combo of selective stovepiping and outright deception. Bush simply didn’t have the mental categories to grasp the basics of what was happening. He didn’t have a clue as to the motivations of those around him.

    Which is all very weird, in that Bush Senior and James Baker and Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell certainly did. But didn’t Junior ever talk to anyone?? The inexplicable mystery of it all lies in the way CHENEY morphed, out of thin air, into an uber-neocon.

    WHAT happened to Cheney? Was it — Scooter Libby?

    BTW, regarding Strauss, it’s my view that his â€esoteric†business is overdone. It’s hardly news that when you’re writing about politics you have to be damned careful what you say and how you say it. Twas always thus and twill always be. Anywhere and everywhere and forevermore.

    Therein, Strauss merely pointed out the obvious. But as far as postmodernism goes, Strauss himself spent a career crusading against it. He was the ultimate anti-Hegel, the chief anti-relativist of the 20th Century.

    The fundamentals hinge on the fact/value distinction. Where the postmoderns generally end up en masse in the will-to-power camp, or in the wonderful world of nihilism, Strauss says there IS such a thing as truth, and that human reason can find it. Hence, intention as valid.

    Weber and Habermas are all about reason and facts, but proceed to deny that facts can ultimately point towards values. Thus their nihilism. Strauss wasn’t about power, he was about philosophy. He wanted to save philosophy from its deconstruction.

    And it was his most fervent hope that â€truth†could answer â€the Jewish question.†Though Strauss really didn’t givadam about America, he though the truths laid out in the Declaration of Independence were THE answer to his frontburner issue.

    Many of the so-called Straussians, however, have actually inverted Strauss — placing power once again before philosophy, thus wafting back unto postmodernism. This kind of Straussian misappropriation can be far more dangerous than mere postmodernism, in that it’s not tempered by nihilism.

    A fine example of this is Shulsky’s shenanigan OSP. Which was far more Mossad than anything else.

  8. Anonymous says:


    My point is that they didn’t care one way or another that Chalabi was deceiving (although I’m fairly certain they knew about–and assisted–Chalabi with his lies). The only thing that mattered was what he said, not whether it was true or not.


    I have actually worked with the Kojeve book more than the Strauss books. Only I had forgotten they were written by the same person!

    By fictional interventions, I mean two things. First, during the periods Habermas celebrates, the newspaper columns were primarily irrational, discursively playful things and the term fiction was being discursively and legally contested. But particularly in France, those essays were categorically similar in the newspaper as a whole range of â€genres†that were political but were certainly not traditional argumentative essays (travelogues, sporst columns, gossip columns–incidentally, the category grew directly out of opposition to Napoleon, in precisely this multigeneric form). In the 1830s, this same category was interspersed with serial novels, some of which were quite political. So leading up to 1848, just about every newspaper in Paris was publishing its own version of a Napoleon narrative (Napoleon was the only legal way to oppose the Orleans because of the way the cenosrship laws were written), in either factual or fictional form, which seemed to be a working through of what you would replace Orleans with. The most famous of these narratives (and arguably, the one that best anticipated what form this new Napoleon would take) is Dumas’ Count of Monte-Cristo.


    ISTM this is simply a cae of bias, not esoteric reading, and the appeal to Straussianism is made only for the sake of license … as we might expect of a second-rate student or a fourth-rate academic.

    Yup, well said. I think even many Straussians would agree.


    I agree with this comment absolutely:

    Many of the so-called Straussians, however, have actually inverted Strauss — placing power once again before philosophy, thus wafting back unto postmodernism. This kind of Straussian misappropriation can be far more dangerous than mere postmodernism, in that it’s not tempered by nihilism.

    But I think a number of Straussians would argue the esoteric reading of Strauss, from his work on Plato, does that for you.

  9. Anonymous says:

    this post is very educational for me.

    pat lang’s post made me curious but the typewritten, obscurly written document was hell to read.

    am i correct in assuming that univ of chicago and strauss and wolfowitz are a lineage? i would welcome a little more light here on what i take to be a very successful effort at ideological proselytizing over several decades which has had some real world consequences.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always figured OSP served a dual role. In one, it either manufactures â€intelligence†from whole cloth, or tries to steer other intelligence agencies to the â€conclusions†which its â€intelligence†wasn’t able to lead to by itself. In the other, it preyed upon the presumptions that the rest of us — the non-postmoderinists, I suppose — have about political discourse: that it’s a truth-seeking exercise. While we may have reason to doubt the word of â€the enemy,†the product of the OSP is â€our own.†So if the existence of WMD is doubted because we haven’t any intelligence demonstrating it, well — voilà — now we do! And from there on, it’s a â€he said, she said†story, even though â€he†has no intelligence pedigree.

  11. Anonymous says:


    This kind of Straussian misappropriation can be far more dangerous than mere postmodernism, in that it’s not tempered by nihilism.

    Interesting way to put it, and quite right, except that I’d agree with EW that the esoteric reading of Strauss can indeed do the same thing. The rationalization – and that’s what it is – is that, unlike the nominal postmodernists, Strauss was ’careful’ (intentional) about it, as S&S point out. So Leo is only ’a little pregnant’. In a practical sense, is anyone really ’nihilist’? Using PoMo against itself (very crudely), I’d suggest that nihilism is a theoretical pose (eg, subverting power structures is not really nihilistic), and, strictly-speaking, impossible to sustain in the real world. Even for the special, choosen, exalted few, whoever they think they are.


    Thanks for your answer. I see a big difference between ’irrational’ and ’fictional’, and obviously need to do some more reading to understand the debate involving Habermas, et. al. Thanks for the spur!

  12. Anonymous says:


    The reason I treat non-rational (I shouldn’t have used â€irrational,†I should have used â€non-rationalâ€) and fiction the same in discussions of Habermas is because of the way he defines a speech act. He pretends it is possible to achieve a discussion in which speech is completely transparent–in which you can separate a statement from the rhetorical strategy, linguistic play, and emotion attached to it. I think you can’t even do that in theory. And, as I have said, Habermas had to pull off some pretty sketchy historical writing to pretend that it was ever possible.

    We often persuade using non-rational means. We often persuade using linguistic play (one form of which is a fictional pose). These kinds of argument have always been part of political speech (which is slightly different from the Straussian focus primarily on deception). Which means it is never enough, as Habermas would have us do, to engage in a rational discussion. We also have to engage on these other levels as well. Which the Neocons are quite good at doing.

  13. Anonymous says:


    Wolfie tends to distance himself from Strauss. From Rise of the Vulcans:

    Some of the themes Wolfowitz sounded when he talked about foreign policy carried clear overtones of Straussian thinking: his emphasis on stopping tyranny and condemning evil; the notion that dictatorships operate in fundamentally different ways from democracies; the belief that the liberal democracies and their intelligence agencies can be fooler by a dictator’s elaborate deceptions. Wolfowitz applied these ideas first to the Soviet Union in the cold war and then, years later, to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

    However, as his own career progressed, Wolfowitz came to distance himself from any identification with Strauss. â€I don’t particularly like the label [Straussian], because I don’t like labels all that much,†he said in an interview. In fact, from his earliest days in graduate school, Wolfowitz began gravitating toward a new field, nuclear energy, and a new mentor, another University of Chicago professor named Albert Wohlstetter.

    FWIW, I think this may be just a desire to avoid being defined by others.

    But while we’re thinking of lineages, remember that Libby got started in politics as a grad student of Wolfie’s at Yale.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Most of this still went over my aging head. But on the issue of incompetents versus liars (is it lying if you believe it?) I submit there is a third category–reckless disregard of the truth–not caring enough to exercise skepticism and ascertain whether what you are purveying is true or not. I think that some of the warmongers probably did believe their own propaganda, sort of rationalizing it with the â€if he isn’t guilty of this, he is at least guilty of something†line that criminal justice burearcrats use. But others surely knew they were manipulating the public, and Bush as well. Bush was not sophisticated enough to understand what was going on. At least now he does appear to understand he was snookered along with the American people, and that all of us have to pay the price. But all he knows is cover up and cover up more. He is stuck.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Another interesting analysis, emptywheel, whatever my various philosophical quibbles and my deeper problems with the attempt to link â€postmodernism†to all of this. I completely agree that

    â€Given this background, it seems S&S are arguing for an active, intelligence-producing role rather than intelligence gathering and analysis, no matter the method.â€

    and, more specifically, that

    â€My point is that they didn’t care one way or another that Chalabi was deceiving (although I’m fairly certain they knew about–and assisted–Chalabi with his lies). The only thing that mattered was what he said, not whether it was true or not.â€

    In a comment in another thread, I cited what I consider a very perceptive commentary by Michael Pollak on the role torture plays for this Admin (and which helps explain why torture, exemptions, etc. are so important to it). I also argued that I see Pollak’s analysis as more broadly applicable to the strategic role of intelligence to the Admin and its propaganda, its mobilisation of action, etc. I think that comment is directly related to the issues you’re discussing here, so forgive me if I post the link:


  16. Anonymous says:


    Yes, I see. I don’t mean to be an annoying stickler, but you know how this stuff is. I might even use the word ’extra-rational’ instead of ’non-rational’, because some of the ways we persuade or even know things may even turn out to be a kind of hyper-rationalism we don’t completely ’understand’ (scientifically) yet. In that case, postmodernism is really just the very decadent form of modernism (that’s what I suspect, anyway), and we haven’t developed real postmodernism yet.

  17. Anonymous says:

    This may be a good place to observe that on the eve of war, when inspections failed to detect the expected artifacts of WMD-related program activities, the â€lack of evidence is evidence†thesis became increasingly explicit.

    Inspection â€failure†was read as proof of Saddam’s skill in a â€shell game†of hidden WMDs. This, by extension, confirmed his malevolent intentions, which in turn confirmed the threat he posed to his neighbors and the US.

    A slightly more humorous episode occurred in the Senate Whitewater hearings, where an exasperated Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-NC) was pressed to lay his accusations and evidence face up on the table. â€We don’t know … that just goes to show how good the cover-up is†(or words to that effect).

  18. Anonymous says:

    â€But on the issue of incompetents versus liars (is it lying if you believe it?) I submit there is a third category–reckless disregard of the truth–not caring enough to exercise skepticism and ascertain whether what you are purveying is true or not. I think that some of the warmongers probably did believe their own propaganda, sort of rationalizing it with the â€if he isn’t guilty of this, he is at least guilty of something†line that criminal justice burearcrats use. But others surely knew they were manipulating the public†…

    Mimikatz, I think that’s almost exactly right. I’d just add â€some of†before â€their own propagandaâ€.

    Unfortunately, our typical understanding of the relationship (or distinction) between sincerity and insincerity, particularly in the study of politics, are, in my opinion, rather simplistic. We tend to treat the relation as a razor-sharp dichotomy, but it’s almost never that. Many serial liars, ideologues and manipulators both believe in much of what they’re doing (and even saying) and at the same time are well aware that they are manipulating others, stretching and distorting the facts, etc.

  19. Anonymous says:


    Yes, I’d agree with your not-stickler-at-all word choice. I like â€extra-rational.†As I said, the â€irrational†was quite sloppy on my part.

    Mimikatz and KM

    You two are taking this in an interesting direction. What Cheney believes is clearly different from what Bush believes. And besides, Bush is such an interesting case of someone who’s thought processes seem to lead him to believe the myths he tells himself. Chalabi–and his close handlers–almost certainly have a very cynical take; Chalabi now admits he lied, but says he was a hero in error. Interesting take.


    Thanks for linking to that comment–I don’t think I had seen it before. One thing that supports your argument–that torture produces people who will say things that support the lies–is the way we’ve dealt with the nonconventional weapons scientists from Iraq. It appears that we â€encouraged†a few of them to support the Big Lies. And then, if and when they’ve gotten free (they haven’t always), they’ve backed off some. I’m examining now the number of scientist/weapons find claims that didn’t make it into the Duelfer report. I find it interesting that the Adminsitration was never asked to explain where those claims disappeared to. (This goes well-beyond the Judy tripe.)

  20. Anonymous says:

    Someone named Pithlord over at Legal Fiction settled this debate, AFAIC:

    The key distinction was made by Augustine. A lie is not a statement that is known to be false. A lie is a statement that is intended to induce a false belief.

    They all knew they were conning. They may have believed in the ultimate cause and rationalized the con in their own minds that way, but they were still conning – IOW, lying.

  21. Anonymous says:

    This is very interesting – We’ll post our own review of the Not Nous essay.

    This has been a topic that had been ignored too much, for too long.

    â€Intelligence is being fixed around the policyâ€

    Also, Dave Brooks has written pastuerized pre-emptive versions of defending this as the new way to ’do’ Intel.