Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, center, testifies on Capitol Hill, Feb. 5, 2008, before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on world threats.
"Real Intelligence Men Don't Cry"
Op-Ed, Washington Post
May 28, 2008
Author: Eric Rosenbach, Faculty Affiliate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (on leave)
Here's some advice for the next Director of National Intelligence: Don't whine to policymakers about the difficulty of your job. Don't make excuses for your failures. And definitely don't claim that the intelligence community can't do any better. In sum, don't heed Mark Lowenthal's advice in Sunday's Outlook section.
Lowenthal is a highly respected former senior intelligence official who knows the intelligence world to its core. In fact, he literally wrote the textbook on the intelligence community. That level of expertise makes all the more surprising his dubious conclusion that the intelligence community's greatest failure has been remaining "supine" and not explaining itself "adequately and comprehensibly" to the people who misunderstand or misrepresent it.
In articulating this "real intelligence failure," Lowenthal aptly highlights the destructive influence of partisan warfare. Too often, politicians on both sides of the aisle use the intelligence community as semi-opaque cover for their party's inability to advance their policy agenda. Unable to stop the implementation of "the surge," Democrats attacked the Director of National Intelligence for exaggerating the threat of al Qaeda in Iraq. Irate that Iran continues to develop a nuclear program, Republicans happily pin White House failures on the CIA. But while Lowenthal's diagnosis of the political environment is incisive, his prescription is toxic. Giving Doug Feith and John Bolton an intensive tutorial on the difficulties and limitations of intelligence gathering and analysis wouldn't stop them from scapegoating the CIA for their personal policy failures. Rather, it would provide fodder for their attacks. And it would further exacerbate the skepticism with which some policymakers view intelligence.
A better way to separate intelligence from politics would be to rebuild trust with Congress. Senators who learn about controversial intelligence programs from the front page of The Washington Post, as in the case of CIA interrogations and secret prisons, won't be willing to defend the intelligence community and may very likely lambast it. Key intelligence leaders should make more frequent trips to the Hill to keep the oversight committees "fully informed," per the requirements of the National Security Act of 1947. And if there's a time for the intelligence community to stand up, it's when the White House asks that Congress be kept in the dark. To their credit, both CIA Director Hayden and DNI McConnell have opened up on several key issues over the past two years, and as a result, the Senate Intelligence Committee has provided them increased support. Unfortunately, the CIA is now allowing the White House to withhold access to intelligence about the Israeli bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear facility. Don't be surprised if this leads to another round of intelligence bashing on Capitol Hill.
Lowenthal's assertion that intelligence hasn't improved in recent years, largely because there wasn't much room to improve -- is also puzzling. The intelligence community today is arguably more proactive and capable than at any time since the Cold War. The newest generation of spies no longer waits for defectors to walk into their arms. They actively pursue new sources of information on hard targets, like Iran and al Qaeda. The most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, for example, impressively contained information from almost 1,500 sources. Our intelligence operators now also eliminate top terrorist leaders on a regular basis. This powerful and effective capability stands in stark contrast to the days when Richard Clarke, then-White House counterterrorism czar, begged in vain for the CIA to do anything that would take terrorists off the streets.
Lowenthal's conclusion, that reports like the National Intelligence Estimates have little policy impact and therefore should be scrapped, underestimates the influential role such assessments play in debates on the Hill. He's wrong to say that the "slam dunk" NIE warning that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction didn't influence Congress in the run-up to war. Even senators who didn't read the entire document knew and considered its bottom line. And look at the latest NIE on the Iranian nuclear program. Nearly all foreign policy analysts believe that it dramatically lowered the probability of U.S. military action. The intelligence assessment process places the intelligence community in the middle of heated policy debates, which is exactly where the nation needs an objective and credible voice.
Intelligence officers and analysts know they have tough jobs. They know that scandals will make headlines and victories will stay classified. No amount of explaining will change that. But they're also dedicated to keeping the nation safe. And so they should strive for more than merely competing with CNN to keep, as Lowenthal suggests, "policymakers generally well-informed."
Eric Rosenbach is executive director of the Belfer Center for International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. He previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and as an army intelligence officer.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.
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