The media is aflutter this week with the “revelation” from a classified Department of Defense assessment that Vladimir Putin has autism. The troublesome man in the Kremlin is a problem not because he’s a nasty Chekist, besotted with Russian nationalism and KGB conspiracy thinking, he’s just ‘spergy — think an unfunny Rain Man with several thousand nuclear missiles. Per a 2008 DoD study:
Putin’s “neurological development was significantly interrupted in infancy,” wrote Brenda Connors, an expert in movement pattern analysis at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Studies of his movement, Connors wrote, reveal “that the Russian President carries a neurological abnormality.”
This has been met by snickers among the media, while the Kremlin sees nothing funny here at all. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, angrily denounced the “conclusion” that Russia’s president has Asperger’s as “stupidity not worthy of comment.” This is a rarity for me, but allow me to state that the Kremlin has this exactly right.
POLITICO has obtained two relevant studies by Brenda Connors through the Freedom of Information Act and let’s just say it’s not impressed. As it asks readers:
Do you like watching Internet videos and then drawing broad, sweeping, pseudoscientific conclusions about the people involved? If so, congratulations, you might be qualified to join the Pentagon’s secret team investigating the nonverbal cues of powerful world leaders.
What’s going on here is a tad complex but it’s worth a bit of unpacking since it demonstrates how DoD wastes vast sums of taxpayer money on complete bullshit. I happen to know a bit about this case, since I was at the Naval War College from 2005 to 2014, and got to see some of Ms. Connors’ special genius at work, and let me state that what’s still behind the classification wall is more risible than even this.
Allow me to also state that I don’t actually know if Putin has autism — and neither does Connors. Her credentials for making such an assessment are literally nonexistent. She has a BA and MA in political science and a background in — wait for it — interpretive dance. She was a protocol officer at the State Department and somehow wangled her way into lucrative research (i.e. non-teaching) faculty positions at the Naval War College; all this was a subject of some mystery to NWC faculty, but given that institution’s tendency to give out jobs to unqualified “special friends,” the Connors case isn’t really that much of an outlier. Connors has been at NWC for over a decade…doing whatever it is she does.
She bills herself as an expert in “movement analysis,” which means she watches a lot of video and YouTube clips and generates classified assessments of the subject’s mental state. How she comes to these conclusions is mysterious, to be charitable. Her Putin “assessment” was the topic of head-scratching by NWC faculty who, unlike Connors, knew something about Russia, the Kremlin, and the KGB. Her sole claim to understanding Putin is “movement analysis,” which is a discipline nobody else on the faculty had heard of.
Neither was the need for such classified assessments clear, since for decades CIA has done exactly that, writing up detailed medical and psychological studies of world leaders, so that U.S. decision-makers might gain insights of value. I’ve read quite a few of those assessments and, since they are done with the input of bona fide MDs and PhDs, unlike Connors, they can be genuinely insightful.
You see, Connors somehow got the eye of the Pentagon’s spooky Office of Net Assessment, which dispenses bags of cash in a non-transparent fashion to all sorts of oddballs. How much ONA has given to Connors for what she terms her “Body Leads” project is unclear but POLITICO learned that since 2009, experts working with Connors have received at least $365,000. Rumor has it the true figure is much higher, but I’ll leave that to intrepid reporters to uncover.
None of this is exactly surprising to anybody acquainted with ONA, which has been run since 1973 by Andy Marshall, known as “Yoda” to his legions of intellectual fans. Appointed by President Nixon in an effort to get around CIA assessments that Kissinger especially didn’t like, Marshall did that and ONA succeeded in that mission at least, and subsequently Marshall has enjoyed a level of geriatric tenure rarely seen outside North Korea.
This has something to do with the strong following Marshall has built up, which in his waning days — Yoda has promised to leave the Pentagon this year, finally — some are daring to note possesses cult-like qualities. I’ve found most ONA analysis middling (it’s not all as bizarre as “Putin has autism”) and it’s evident that Marshall’s real skill is in building his office and generating massive loyalty to it — and himself.
It’s not hard to see how Marshall has done this, since ONA under him manifests all the worst defects of academia and intelligence work, run together. You have the intellectual vanity. You have the powerful mentorship that can verge on the cultish. Plus you dispense cash to promising acolytes and keep the loyal ones on the gravy train for decades, ensuring their adherence to the Yoda-Is-God party line. You hide behind classification to make sure nobody’s ever entirely sure who’s on the ONA payroll and who isn’t, plus you avoid anything like normal peer review. Finally, hardly any of your assessments, being classified, are seen by outside scholars, much less the public, so nobody really knows what you’re doing.
Therefore there’s no mystery how the laughable Connors debacle happened. There’s also a specific ONA-NWC angle here that merits attention. The Connors case is not isolated, and not the worst one either. I am aware of NWC faculty working for ONA, then selling the DoD-owned product on the open market at considerable profit. This is called “triple-dipping” and is flagrantly illegal, not to mention unethical. I’d like to tell you NWC cleaned this up and fired wrong-doers, but they did nothing of the sort. These sort of shenanigans being tolerated at NWC may have something to do with the fact that, for years, it’s been the only accredited graduate-level college in the United States that I know of where the dean of research, who is supposed to prevent this sort of thing, possesses no terminal degree in research.
Last year the Department of the Navy’s Inspector General produced an unflattering assessment of the Naval War College that scathingly noted that the college faculty is underqualified and overpaid: which is true. One can only wonder what a Pentagon IG assessment of Andy Marshall’s shop would look like. Perhaps someone will be spurred to do one, given these revelations about the Connors boondoggle. They should look into ONA-NWC connections while they’re at it. I’ve only scratched the surface here.
UPDATE (1120 EST, 6 Feb): Brenda Connors’ LinkedIn page is suitably vague but does manage to misspell both “behavioral” and “strategic.” In case she deletes this, which would be sensible of her, it’s visible below.