Louisville native Amy Zegart now a top intelligence expert, national security power blogger at ForeignPolicy.com
In the world of blogging, there are far too many pundits, rabblerousers and self-appointed arbiters of taste and trends.
What we lack collectively are true subject-matter experts – people with writing talent, authentic erudition and unimpeachable credibility.
Meet Amy Zegart, who definitely falls into the knowledge/talent/credibility category.
Conversation with Zegart can veer all over the place, from mistakes made by the U.S. intelligence community, to the guy in front of you at the airport who hasn’t figured out how to keep his pants up when he puts his belt through security, to what a great guy, and a great quarterback, is Andrew Luck.
Zegart? Zegart? Sound familiar?
Well, you might be thinking of Shelly Zegart, proprietor of the quilts.com web site, Passionate About Quilts.
Or you might be thinking about Dr. Kenneth Zegart, a local OB/GYN.
Amy Zegart is the progeny of that Louisville union and, in fact, gives her parents and her hometown a great deal of credit for her success.
Which is what, exactly?
Well, in short order, it’s:
• Harvard University
• a Fulbright scholarship
• three degrees
• four books (and a fifth on the way) including the well-received “Spying Blind” for Princeton University Press
• studies in China
• the National Security Council staff for the Clinton administration
• foreign policy advisor to the Bush-Cheney 2000 election campaign (remember that one?)
• tenured positions at the UCLA School of Public Administration and at the Stanford’s Hoover Institution
• and now a blogger for the web site ForeignPolicy.com.
There, she combines vast experience, depth of knowledge and some passionate observations with a neat flair for expressing herself.
In the old days, the ‘free world’ and ‘Soviet bloc’ were two different universes. Not anymore. Now everything is connected. Sweden’s Ikea has stores in Russia. My CIA alarm clock was made in China. Unrest in Cairo can cause legging shortages in California. And communications happen everywhere. Wifi can be found in Bedouin tents, on the top of Mount Everest, and on buses in rural Rwanda. Kenyan fisherman may lack electricity, but they can check weather conditions and fish market prices on their cell phones.
Two years ago, before the Arab Spring erupted, a Stanford colleague of mine met with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian strongman said, presciently, that he was not worried about a U.S. invasion. He was worried about Facebook. He should have worried more: in the internet age, small local movements often don’t stay small and local for long. In business as well as politics, power has gone asymmetric.
Zegart attributes her clarity of thought and voracious curiosity to her Louisville childhood, to both the support of her parents and teachers and to the environment of the town.
Interested in Chinese studies from the time, she says, when as an 8-year-old she saw visiting Communist leader Deng Xiaoping on TV with a cowboy hat on his head, she received nothing but encouragement and help from her parents – except once.
“When I announced to them that I intended to go to Tiananmen Square in 1990 to observe the first anniversary of the protest, they said, simply, ‘It’s too dangerous, you can’t go.’ To which I said, ‘I’m 22 and on my own, you can’t tell me not to go.’
“Five minutes later, the phone rang,” Zegart recalls. “It was my 70-year-old grandmother, saying, ‘If you go to China, you’ll kill me with worry!’ They went nuclear on me, they called out the big guns.”
Mostly, though, it was a nurturing, encouraging environment. When she first expressed her interests, her father – rather than dismissing such an arcane ambition – recommended that she begin learning the Chinese language. But it was 1979. Where would one study Chinese in the U.S.?
“Enter my mother, who can usually find anyone for just about anything,” says Zegart. “She somehow found a Taiwanese immigrant who was here getting her masters in Spanish at the University of Louisville. I would go to her house once a week to study with her.”
And as for Louisville itself, “I had great teachers at the St. Francis school who stimulated and inspired me, who made an independent project for a schoolgirl who wanted to study about China.”
It’s no coincidence, she feels, that she went to school with Molly Bingham, a photojournalist who covered the planet’s most dangerous corners, eventually getting herself imprisoned in Iraq.
Zegart was never detained, though she did have a stressful moment trying to get her computer out of China after the Tiananmen uprising.
“Something must be in the water,” says Zegart, “if kids like us were encouraged to take those kinds of risks with our lives. Growing up in a place that’s interesting and open and beautiful inspires people to go out there and try new things.”
The girlhood interest in China led to a curiosity about the bigger world, which has led to a specialty in studying and critiquing the U.S. intelligence community.
So when the web site, ForeignPolicy.com, launched a National Security page in September, “It gave me a great outlet to talk about all the things I’ve been thinking about for a very long time,” she told me. “What I’ve found is that even our top national security policymakers don’t know as much about the intelligence world as you think they do.”
Her goal, she says, is to make a secret and arcane world much more accessible. “Most of my writing had been academic, geared to university classes, poli-sci professors and government people. I saw this as an opportunity to take my ideas and push them out to a New York Times public.”
While she acknowledged that we’ve had some pretty classic intelligence screw-ups in the last 15 years or so, she places a lot of that blame on a U.S. Congress that is neither well-informed nor particularly curious.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has held only one public hearing in the past year. And someone recently pointed out to her that the last time a non-government official testified before the committee was in 2007. Five and a half years ago! And the witness was … Amy Zegart.
“I was testifying, even then, about Congress’ broken intelligence oversight,” she says. No wonder they haven’t invited her or anyone else back.
“You know things are broken when Congress is holding a hearing about itself,” she says. “The intelligence is there, the agencies are pushing information out, but Congress isn’t doing its job.”
She mentions there’s been a recent 6,000-page Senate report on interrogation methods. “They should be declassifying part of it but they haven’t done it,” she says. “Instead, Congress is pushing hard to quash administration leaks and limit reporters’ access to the intelligence community.
“The executive branch can’t function well if the legislative branch isn’t overseeing it well.”
The problems, she says, include a poorly informed Congress and fragmented news media that lead to a poorly informed public that, sadly, gets much of its information from TV and the movies, what Zegart calls “spytainment,” which passes these days for adult education.
In spytainment, especially in our post 9/11 world, security agencies are seen as either pretty glamorous or heartless, ruthless and coldly efficient. But while the intelligence agencies of the movies’ Gestapo, KGB, CIA, M16 and Al Qaeda are everywhere and know, see and overhear everything, the truth, says Zegart, is “they often lack the basic skills to do their job.”
“Everyone is wondering why we couldn’t have prevented Benghazi,” she notes. “In fact, we’re still trying to figure out what we missed in the Cuban missile crisis.”
The shrinking press tries to inform the public but, Zegart notes, the robust daily metropolitan newspapers of the World War II, Korea and Vietnam eras have given way to advocacy TV and Internet news, which might be misinformed itself.
“We don’t need to know all the methods for gathering intelligence, primarily because the more they’re known the less effective they are and the more they can jeopardize lives,” she says. “I don’t believe in all openness all the time, or absolute transparency, like Julian Assange does. Certain secrets have to stay secret. But we need to know if interrogators are torturing detainees, in violation of U.S. and international laws, or if the government is wiretapping Americans without a warrant – basic rules of the road.”
Instead, spytainment spoon feeds us, through movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” that, hell, all those questionable interrogation methods actually helped find and kill bin Laden, so dab those tears, liberals, and enjoy your safety and your freedoms.
“The American public needs to know that the intelligence community is following the laws and upholding the ideals of this country,” she insists.
And Congress should be the ones doing that. “Congress should be our guardians about what’s right,” she says, “but they’ve abdicated that position, so ‘the press,’ fragmented as it is, assumes the guardianship.” And so Zegart has joined the press.
In her latest, “Transportation SNAFU Department,” she takes on the TSA, with experience, knowledge and weary humor:
Nobody walks shoeless in an Israeli airport, and Israelis know a thing or two about terrorism. One leading Israeli aviation security expert told me that he found the U.S. shoe removal requirements ‘silly, ineffective, annoying and even humiliating.’ These rules stick because removing them is bad politics, making people feel less safe even if they aren’t.
The Government Accountability Office has questioned whether full body scanners would have caught the 2009 underwear bomber. Many experts believe these machines would almost certainly be unable to detect ‘cavity bombs’ hidden where the X-rays don’t penetrate and the sun does not shine. X-ray scanners elevate passenger cancer risks, which is why they are already banned in Europe. They are expensive, about $200,000 each just for the hardware. And did I mention X-ray scanners take so long, they are now being removed from major airports like LaGuardia to speed up security? Ninety-one of these clunkers currently sit in a Texas warehouse.
Have your act together. Get shoes off, belts undone, liquids and computers out, change and papers removed from pockets before you hit the front of the line. And if you’re one of those guys that are always in front of me, think about wearing pants that stay up without a giant metal-studded belt. I think I speak for many when I say that view is one Christmas present we’d rather not have.