Jeffrey G. Karam, PhD'16, Examines American Intelligence Operations in the Middle East
February 23, 2017
We spoke to Jeffrey G. Karam, PhD'16, an alumnus of the Politics department and Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, to discuss a recent article that he published in the premier journal of intelligence, Intelligence and National Security. Dr. Karam studied International Relations and American Foreign Relations at Brandeis, and his dissertation, "US Intelligence in the Middle East: Lessons of Failure and Success in 1958," traced how American intelligence officers, diplomats, and policymakers interpreted the different revolutions, uprisings, and wars in the early phase of state development and decolonization in the Middle East. He is a Visiting Research Scholar at Brandeis this year and was most recently a Visiting Lecturer in International Relations and Middle East Politics at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Dr. Karam has conducted research in multilingual archival sources and libraries in the United States, Great Britain, Lebanon, and Jordan, and is currently turning his dissertation into a book manuscript.
You recently published "Missing revolution: the American intelligence failure in Iraq, 1958" in Intelligence and National Security. What do you explore in this article?
The article is based and excerpted from one of the chapters of my book manuscript, which I am currently revising from my dissertation. In the article, I explore how American intelligence officials, diplomats, and consular officers interpreted political and socioeconomic developments in Iraq before the military coup and later revolution that swept the monarchy on 14 July 1958. Specifically, I focus on how American officials collected and analyzed information about important junctures in the months before the revolution and I explain why almost all American intelligence assessments were out of sync with reality. I also use a number of memoirs, interviews with American Foreign Service officers, and multilingual primary and secondary sources in Arabic and French to provide a more comprehensive account of both the American intelligence failure and the Iraqi revolution. I can talk more about this, but I want those interested to read my article and keep an eye out for my book in the near future!
What mistakes did the intelligence community in the United States make in 1958?
Before answering this question, it is important to keep in mind two things. First, any retrospective analysis will most likely succeed in blaming this group of actors or others in any situation, mainly because we have an advantage at criticizing the past and making connections that were not relevant or maybe available at the time these 'mistakes' happened. Second, a focus on past 'mistakes' is largely a linear process that involves systematic measures to understand why intelligence communities and embassies often collect poor information or draft inaccurate analyses. In reality, the intelligence process (how information is collected, analyzed, and disseminated to policymakers) is a very messy process that involves multiple actors and forms of pressure, and not a simple and straight flow of events from one stage to another.
In hindsight and after scouring through hundreds of declassified intelligence records, diplomatic cables, consular reports, and memoranda of conversations, there were two major mistakes. First, American officials were not willing to open channels with officials in the opposition and outside the closest circles to the monarchy and regime. While different opposition groups frequently took to the streets to voice their frustration with the monarchy and the regime's repressive and brutal practices, American officials in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities refused to explore and understand how groups and political actors outside the regime's circles viewed different developments in Iraq. Second, American officials refused to update their perceptions and assessments of almost all political and socioeconomic developments in Iraq in spite of strong, credible, and alternative information. As my article demonstrates, some declassified records clearly suggest the US Embassy and Consulate in Iraq received reports of protests, demonstrations, and riots in different cities and detailed information about cells in the military and police that are planning to execute a coup. Yet, American officials refused to update their assessments and rather hardened their views of a strong and repressive regime that could withstand any form of dissent and opposition. We now know that this was completely false and biased.
You argue that lessons should be learned from the United States' intelligence failure before the 1958 revolution in Iraq. What are those lessons, and how could they have served the intelligence community in the 21st century?
There are many lessons, but I will focus on the two that I discussed in the article. The first is that 'history matters' when making sense of contemporary developments. For example in the case of Iraq, there were at least three major military coups in the years preceding the July 14th revolution. However, we have no clear evidence or data that suggest that American officials sought to investigate whether the circumstances that set the stage for previous coups were in any shape or form similar to ones that constituted the pre-revolutionary atmosphere that swept Iraq months before the coup on July 14, 1958. The second lesson relates to countering preconceived assumptions of what we think 'others' do or want. This is certainly easier said than done, because as human beings we are wired to have cognitive biases and preformed impressions and thoughts about almost anything. However, the important takeaway is that once we receive new information about individuals or events, we can either opt to admit that our perceptions were false and need to be updated or we can simply distort new information to confirm our mindsets.
The case of Iraq in 1958 clearly points to the distortion of new incoming information of a strong and broad network of opposition groups and underground cells that were coordinating their efforts to remove the monarchy; and yet, American officials belittled the opposition and its ability to build strong cells in the military. The bottom line is that learning and studying the past is extremely important for understanding and making better sense of contemporary developments, and that baseless and biased assumptions are natural, but need to be refined and updated in light of new and alternative information. Honestly, I am not too optimistic that intelligence communities in the 21st century are always interested in studying the past and countering personal mindsets and images of ‘others.’ But maybe the many cases of intelligence and policy failures are encouraging intelligence officials and diplomats to make better comparisons to past cases and learn of the perils of distorting new information to confirm one's perceptions. We will see what the records will tell us once they are declassified in the next few decades.
What were the challenges associated with conducting research for articles about intelligence?
There are many challenges, but I will focus on three important ones. First, scholars writing on topics of intelligence are always dealing with incomplete information. When I was conducting research in CIA records at the US National Archives II in College Park, MD, I would come across a 45-page document that would have about 43 redacted pages. Or even a 12-page intelligence report by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State department would redact several lines in lengthy analyses of particular developments and events. By dealing with incomplete information, you need to consult at least three alternative sources on the same particular development that is being analyzed to be able to make an informed judgement on what intelligence officials and diplomats were actually assessing.
Second, conducting research on intelligence is conditioned by what governments and officials decide to declassify and share with the public. In addition to what i mentioned earlier about redaction, it can take years for governments to declassify important reports and cables. Even if you make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request or a Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) for any record, the government can choose to deny your request or it can take years to receive this information. Given that sources and methods of information are off limits to researchers, I needed to rely on memoirs, media reports, eyewitness accounts, and multilingual archival sources to make up for discrepancies, redactions, and missing information. I was fortunate to receive generous support from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis to be able to conduct lengthy research trips in different libraries and archives. In fact, while it is important to consider all the alternative sources that I mentioned, these are time-consuming and very costly endeavors that sometimes yield incomplete and less than useful information. Moreover, focusing on memoirs and other types of sources likewise require extreme caution. You are dealing with how a particular individual or set of individuals recall particular events, and similar to my earlier comment on the linearity of retrospective analyses, these accounts can sometimes exaggerate particular events or simply omit crucial parts of a much needed piece of evidence.
Third, and building on my train of thoughts regarding why research about intelligence topics is conditioned by governments relates to what implicitly motivates and guides officials to select and share certain records and not others. For example, the volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) are a very useful resource to scholars of International Relations, Security Studies, and Diplomatic History. I have consulted FRUS volumes for my research, and I am certain that I will continue to rely on these valuable sources in future research and writing endeavors. However, these volumes are also meant to provide researchers with a linear and chronological account of records across different agencies that center on a particular theme. For example, one important section of a FRUS volume that I used was edited to focus on the consequences of introducing U.S. forces in Lebanon in 1958. While this is important for scholars researching and writing on discussions of American intervention before the dispatch of U.S. forces, it would not be as useful for researchers interested in the connections between the Lebanese Civil War of 1958 and the underlying reasons for U.S. intervention. It is important to remain fully aware that the editors of the FRUS volumes and other records need to go through many hurdles to get the approval of all agencies and organizations for materials that are declassified and shared with the public. Nonetheless, the lack of access to raw information, mainly the messy part of how intelligence officials and diplomats interact and draft reports, encouraged me to seek alternative sources to provide a much more comprehensive account that to an extent counters the unintended and sometimes clearly intended biases of officials tasked with reviewing and preparing how and what records can be declassified.
You argue that there needs to be further scholarship in this area. What topics need to be investigated more thoroughly?
Generally speaking, I believe that the intelligence angle in diplomatic history, security studies, and international relations deserves more exploration. But in more specificity, I think future scholarship in the field of intelligence studies could focus on three areas. First, a much thorough focus on cases where intelligence communities and embassies get it right, meaning the factors that can mostly explain intelligence successes rather than failures. Second, a much more comprehensive account of the relationship between intelligence and policy that gives voice to the role of political actors and movements in different states rather than a narrow focus on one particular state. For example, a focus on why the Suez Crisis of 1956 largely surprised American officials would immensely benefit from looking at Egyptian British, French, and Israeli records in the months before the aggression against Egypt in November rather than simply looking at American records. Finally, I think that the role of intelligence in cybersecurity and cyberwarfare deserves further exploration. The focus on how traditional methods of intelligence collection and analysis are useful for states in a cyber world.