Review: Still Broken

AJ Rossmiller of AmericaBlog has a great new book out today, Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, from Baghdad to the Pentagon. There have been a few posts giving it strong praise so far: Matt Yglesias, Jill at Feministe, and I expect there to be many more as people pick it from book stores. AJ himself has a great statement of why books matter at AmericaBlog.

Still Broken is an account of Rossmiller’s desire to serve America following the September 11th attacks. He ends up working at the Defense Intelligence Agency, as a civilian analyst doing critical work for one of the key agencies in our intelligence community, particularly given the ongoing war in Iraq. Rossmiller volunteered to serve in Iraq, spending six months doing strategic and tactical analysis in Baghdad and earning high praise for his work. He returned to the Pentagon following his deployment and continued to analysis intelligence from Iraq, primarily on politics in Iraq. After almost two years in the DIA, Rossmiller left because of problems internal to the intelligence community, from structural incompetence to the pressures of policy having influence on factual analysis.

Still Broken is a frightening book. Throughout his tenure at the DIA, but most particularly in his time at the Pentagon, Rossmiller feels the pressure of people higher up the chain in command to confirm his analysis to the policy desires of the administration. In the book he frequently relates stories of he and his analyst colleagues watching in horror as higher-ups with no expertise in Iraq change their findings without basis. Their work is second-guessed as “too pessimistic.” Yet time and again, the superiors are proved wrong, while the analysts are proven right.

What makes Still Broken so scary isn’t that analysts butt heads with their superiors, but rather that their superiors never look retrospectively at their own judgments and edits of intelligence. Not only is work shifted towards the administration assessment that things are getting better, that the positive isn’t being reported, and the intelligence should optimistically reflect that, but the editorial pressure on the analysts never changes.

In her review of the book, Jill at Feministe describes a Rossmiller’s narrative style particularly well.

AJ is skilled at never assigning motives to people, and never drawing hard and fast conclusions as to why things are going the way they are. He writes like an analyst: He observes what’s happening, and then follows it up by giving several reasonable explanations as to why those things could be happening. The dozens of anecdotes he tells certainly lead a halfway astute reader to understand exactly why certain events are occurring and why particular decisions are being made, but AJ has enough respect for his audience to simply present the facts as he sees them, rather than force a particular conclusion.

I think this is a very fitting description of how Rossmiller writes a narrative that reflects his experience while demonstrating his competence at presenting information factually, without obvious ideological bent. That is, in many regards his book shows his skill as an analyst. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t know what intelligence findings on Iraq from the DIA normally read like, but this book is fast paced and exciting.

Separate from the insight Rossmiller provides to the DIA’s dysfunctional structure for handling intelligence and the challenges facing us in Iraq, Still Broken is a story of patriotism. Rossmiller serves his country with distinction, doing good work that he deserves to be proud of for the rest of his life. We’re lucky to have him as a story-teller documenting the problems facing our intelligence community. But beyond that, we’re lucky to have his experience, expertise, and sharp analytical prowess working in the progressive political community, fighting for a better America.

I hope that this isn’t the most in-depth review of Still Broken that you read, but for whatever it’s worth, I highly recommend you pick up a copy and give it a read.

Check out the StillBroken.com for more updates on the book.

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