Jerrold Post: One of the CIA’s truly great innovators

The logo of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is shown in the lobby of the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia  March 3, 2005. [U.S. President George W. Bush visited the headquarters for briefings Thursday.]

“Never again, never again, never again” repeated Menachem Begin as photographs of the Nazi concentration camps flashed by on the screen. It was the powerful opening scene of a short film about the personality of the Israeli prime minister prepared by the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The driving force behind the center and the use of psychology in leadership analysis studies was Dr. Jerrold Post, who passed away last week.

Jerry Post was one of the most important analysts ever to work in the American intelligence community. He was an innovator who had to struggle to get his place at the table. He could be relentless in pushing his analysis of foreign leaders whom he often had never met in person. His insights directly impacted the most senior consumer of intelligence, the president.

I had the privilege of working with Jerry for many years, from preparing President Jimmy Carter for the Camp David summit with Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978, to studying Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Kuwait crisis in 1990 to support George H. W. Bush. I always found his insights to be extremely helpful in predicting the behavior of the foreign leaders whom presidents of both parties needed to understand. And he was a pleasure to work with.

Jimmy Carter has praised Jerry’s work for Camp David in the years since. Post argued that Begin was understandably obsessed with the Holocaust and determined to establish an Israel strong enough to defend itself; it was a judgment both self-evident and provocative. The opening scene in the short movie was both very powerful and extremely insightful. It truly helped you see how Begin thought. In every conversation American officials had with him over decades, Begin always raised the Holocaust.

The Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a particularly difficult leader for Americans to understand. In 1978, most Americans had no idea what an ayatollah was or how the worldview of Shia Muslims in Iran shaped their opinions of America, and its ally the shah. I had fortunately studied Iranian political literature at Harvard two years earlier and understood the unique importance of Khomeini. His long speeches were dominated by references to events in early Islamic history. If you understood the events Khomeini was referring to in seventh-century Najaf, for example, you could understand him and predict his behavior. Jerry was a quick learner, and we collaborated often in helping Carter and Ronald Reagan try to see how Khomeini was charting a dramatically different path forward for Iran and its place in the world.

We might not like them, but we had to understand them.

One of Jerry’s most crucial insights was that foreign enemies like Khomeini or Hussein were not “madmen.” We might not like them, but we had to understand them. They were very different from Americans, but were very predictable and understandable in their own culture and life experiences. Saddam was obsessed with power, Khomeini with his search for justice as he understood it. Sadat was determined to be seen as a great leader more important than his mentor, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Not everyone at the CIA welcomed Jerry and his psychological studies. After all, he had never put Hussein on a couch and interviewed the despot. How do we know what is in his mind? But of course, that is precisely the challenge of being an intelligence officer. “We have satellite photography that can zero in on the dimples on a golf ball,” he once said, “but we can’t peer into the minds of our adversaries.” Analysis gives us the answer.

Educated at Yale and Harvard, Jerry Post taught at George Washington University for many years. He published extensively including a devastatingly accurate assessment of Donald Trump. His contribution to the work of intelligence analysis will last far beyond him.