It comes as no surprise to my wife and me that there are fundamental weaknesses in American intelligence.
A little over 25 years ago we were residents in the West African nation of Ghana. At the time we were living under a military government known as the Supreme Military Council II (Reconstituted). The complicated name was to distinguish it from an earlier SMC that was in power at the time we arrived in Ghana in May of 1978.
The first SMC was led by General Ignatius Acheampong. He was removed from office in a palace coup six weeks after we arrived in the country. We first heard about the change on the BBC World Service from London, England. Another military leader replaced him, Major-General Fred Akuffo.
At the time the country was in rapid economic decline. You could say the economy was in free fall. With inflation estimated at about 600 percent a year (estimated because there was no government department trying to keep track of it) and worsening shortages of food, detergents, toiletries and other essentials, there were constant rumors of coups and countercoups. Such is life in the Third World.
Although we were faced with our own very real challenges just trying to survive it all, we did try to keep up with what was happening elsewhere. In January of that fateful year, 1979, the shah of Iran was overthrown. Looking back now 25 years, we can see how fateful a year it was, for subsequent events have plainly shown that the overthrow of the shah was the first victory for Islamic fundamentalism and a defeat for the U.S.-led West.
For months the U.S. State Department had been receiving intelligence reports from Iran that said the pro-American shah was stable and that the demonstrations occurring daily in different parts of the country were put on by a few rabble-rousers.
Intel turned out to be wrong. Very wrong. And we are living with the consequences to this day.
Instability in West Africa
Why was it not a surprise to my wife and me? Because the same intelligence reports were going back to Washington D.C. from Accra, Ghana. According to intelligence, the government of Ghana was popular and stable.
The reports were also decidedly wrong. On June 4, 1979, Ghana's government was overthrown in a bloody coup that was uncharacteristic of the country. A new, anti-American, leftist military regime came to power with the aid of the radical Arab nationalist (now supposedly reformed) Colonel Gadhafi of Libya. Gadhafi himself had overthrown a pro-American monarchy in Libya 10 years earlier—after which he closed down British and American military bases in the country and kicked out most of their nationals.
Why did intel get it wrong in both Tehran and Accra? And, undoubtedly, in Tripoli back in '69? And later in other West African countries as one nation after another copied events in Ghana?
I believe the answer to that can be found in the affluent suburb of the Airport Residential Area in Accra. This is where most diplomats and expatriates (foreign nationals working in the country) live. Today houses there rent for about $3,000 per month. This is in a country that has an official per capita income of about $30 per month. Yes, per month.
How can some afford to rent at $3,000 per month and others live on $30 per month?
Well, Ghana's no different from other Third World nations. There's a small ruling elite that takes almost all the national wealth, leaving the vast majority (well over 90 percent) with little or nothing to live on.
Small elite group rules
This was illustrated very well by a segment on CBS's 60 Minutes program on July 18, 2004.
The news item came from Equatorial Guinea, another West African nation, but one which, on paper at least, is wealthy. Equatorial Guinea has oil—enough oil for every man, woman and child to receive something in the region of $6,000 per year, per person, if its revenues were evenly distributed.
Instead, over 90 percent of the people live on less than one dollar a day.
It didn't take the 60 Minutes' team long to discover why.
The president of the country lives in fabulous palaces in his native country, has two multimillion-dollar mansions in Washington, D.C., and has a son living in Paris' Ritz Hotel in a style that would make Dodi Fayed seem like a pauper. Dodi, you will remember, was Princess Diana's companion the night she (and he) was killed. He was receiving a monthly allowance of $100,000 from his father, without doing any work.
If 60 Minutes is correct, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea lives a similar lifestyle to Dodi—driving around all day in a very expensive Lamborghini, spending millions on frivolous items bought at the best stores in Paris.
Why do the people put up with this president? One answer to that is that he is a lot nicer than his uncle, the previous president whom he overthrew more than two decades ago. The previous president, the first leader of the country after independence from Spain, was Macias Nguema, who killed an estimated one third of all the people in his country.
What was particularly interesting in this report, however, was the connection between the president of Equatorial Guinea and U.S. oil companies. Because his country sits on massive reserves of oil and because the United States needs the oil even more now with all the uncertainties in the Middle East, the current president of this West African nation is a frequent visitor to Washington.
I wouldn't be surprised if intelligence reports are coming back to Washington saying that his regime is stable and popular and that American interests are secure there.
But how would intelligence agents know any different?
Diplomats live in a different world
From my experience in Ghana, I believe that most people connected with the various embassies (whether involved in intelligence or not) spend most of their time socializing with each other. They have a very high standard of living with beautiful spacious homes. Their children attend expensive private schools. There is very little contact with the average citizen—unless they sit down and talk with their servants, which few are inclined to do.
A few weeks before the 1979 coup that overthrew the government of Ghana, we were visiting our American neighbor. He worked for USAID, the developmental arm of the U.S. government overseas. We were discussing the situation in Ghana. All four of us agreed that something dreadful was about to happen. We knew this because we were in tune with the ordinary people in the country, people who were truly suffering under an oppressive and incompetent government, a government that had led people down the path to financial ruin.
It came as no surprise to us when the country erupted into violence a few weeks later. Nor will I be surprised when I hear on the news that the president of Equatorial Guinea has been overthrown and the assets of U.S. oil companies seized. A fabulously wealthy president presiding over a nation of paupers isn't going to enjoy power very long. As CBS showed, tongue in cheek, his popularity has already declined, from 99.7 percent in an "election" held a few years ago, to a mere 97.5 percent in a recent "election!"
The 60 Minutes report showed the beautiful homes of U.S. oil workers in Equatorial Guinea—all built on prime land sold to them by the president, all protected by high walls. Neither oil workers nor intelligence agents, it seems, have much contact with the locals.
My experience tells me you can get more accurate information listening to American missionaries and aid workers, rather than the diplomats and intelligence agents who, it seems, live on the wrong side of town. WNP