My Christmas holiday frequently includes a series of reunions with other former CIA people, often grouped by the overseas stations that we served in. This year the Istanbul gathering preceded Spain and the Rome Station ca. 1980 soon followed. Some of the retirees are still working for the government as contractors so I try to keep a low profile at such functions, rarely asking questions about what anyone might be doing and seldom venturing into any detailed critiques of current government policy. But sometimes my wife and I find the occasional gung ho expressions of solidarity with torturers and drone operators to be just a bit too much and we are forced to react.
My former colleagues are politically a mixed bag, mostly Republicans but with a considerable number of Democrats, some of whom are fairly progressive regarding domestic politics and social programs. Working overseas for some bosses who would kill their own mothers to get promoted has made most of them quite cynical about how CIA operates and how policy is shaped, but they nevertheless regard their time in harness as a dirty job that someone had to do and they take pride in that fact. They are also fairly monolithic in their views of "traitors" like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, not because they support NSA spying (they do not) but because in their reckoning both would-be whistleblowers far exceeded any reasonable limits in their exposures of classified information.
This all sometimes translates into fairly hardline views regarding what is going on in the world. This Christmas I was informed that drones are the only good mechanism for offing those terrorists hiding in the mountains of Pakistan and I heard no less than three times that "We are the good guys," which must be the latest last line of defense when all other arguments have failed. When I commented that it is hard to be a good guy when you are killing American citizens without any trial and wiping out wedding parties the response was vague, as if I were suggesting something that has not really been established or for which there is some other back story that might explain the activity. When I asked the Sarah Palinesque wife of a former case officer how a guy in a beard and turban hiding in a cave along the Pakistan frontier could conceivably threaten the United States the response was something like a shrug.
What bothers me particularly is that the former intelligence officers are, generally speaking, not only well-educated but also experienced in living overseas and dealing with foreign languages and cultures. Many of them are practicing Catholics, some of whom take their religion very seriously indeed. So they are not Michelle Bachmann type ignorant bigots, which means that they should know better. I asked one, "Why do we have a constitution if the president can kill whomever he wants?" There was no response as if the question itself were irrelevant.
Not to be dismissed is the value that most former intelligence officers place on their time in government service. It identifies and validates them as human beings so they want to believe that they did the right thing and that their cause was just. But in projecting the past into the present many of them have an apparent difficulty in separating what was from what is in ethical terms. The Soviet Union and international communism were likely never the threat they were depicted to be but at least their designation as the "enemy" had a certain plausibility which justified intelligence activity directed against them. But George W. Bush used a terrorist attack to declare war on the entire world while Barack H. Obama has gone even further, institutionalizing an assassination doctrine and dramatically increasing the level of drone warfare. These are war crimes and they are being committed right out in the open. How many post-Vietnam intelligence officers would have signed up to do the jobs that are being offered at CIA today? I don’t know, though some of my former colleague made clear that they could never consider working for the "new regime."
Professor Michael Brenner provides a partial explanation for how otherwise sensible and moral people can be delusional about America’s role in the world. He describes it as "Ur Imperialism," a process whereby the public comes to believe certain things both about itself and the actions of its government and is resistant to alternative explanations. Brenner does not use the phrase "American Exceptionalism," but that is perhaps another bumper sticker expression that suggests the same mindset.
Brenner describes the core value of imperialism as being "permissive of actions directed at taking charge of others without their approval." He identifies a number of features of the imperialist mindset, to include "a strong sense of superiority," "a predisposition for intervention" that is largely unrelated to the cause of the intervention, comfort "with taking charge of other people," "an absence of empathy," and an inability to accept resistance or rebellion by someone being dominated as anything but "ingratitude." He also notes an inability to put oneself in anyone else’s shoes and cites the example of Iraq, where the involvement of coreligionist and neighbor Iran was denounced as destabilizing while the US dominance was considered somehow both acceptable and appropriate.
I see much of the Brenner analysis in the behavior of my former national security colleagues. They clearly believe that the United States has a legitimate casus belli against terrorists and the nations that harbor them and do not generally think that searching for the root causes of the violent acts serves any real purpose, so they accept that any intervention based on the national sense of grievance is morally justified even if the actual details don’t quite translate into a threat against the United States. Though they would eschew an expression like "American Exceptionalism" they do believe in the superiority of the American way to include our partially free markets and relative political freedom, particularly as they have personally benefited both financially and in terms of status by pretending that those principles actually prevail in reality.
Former intelligence officers who have handled agents (which most of my associates have done) are very comfortable with "taking charge" in that they have had to make what sometimes amount to life and death decisions for the agents they ran. Many CIA case officers take a paternalistic view of their agents but also have a decided lack of empathy towards their charges, not particularly surprising as they often have to make hard decisions that put the sources in danger. Finally, membership in the intelligence officer club is viewed as a high distinction, meaning that anyone who rebels against the system, either a fellow officer or agent, is somehow suspect and regarded as certainly "ungrateful" by those who choose to remain loyal to the group ethos.
I offer all of the above as a different perspective to explain why issues that appear to be cut and dried to the anti-interventionist and antiwar crowd might appear in quite a different light to those whose entire adult lives were spent trying to manipulate events because "we are the good guys." I admit that I was once on that page myself, but no longer, having seen America’s good name trashed and my country transformed into what we might jokingly once upon a time have referred to as "the evil empire." That description may or may not have fit the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but it certainly fits us today.