The phenomenon of the unpleasant fact
Politicization — the shading of analysis to fit prevailing policy or politics — is the harshest criticism one can make of an intelligence organization. It strikes beyond questions of competence to the fundamental ethic of the enterprise, which is, or should be, truth telling. That’s why we had a permanent ombudsman to address politicization at the CIA.
Now some are charging U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, with politicizing its analysis of the war in Iraq and Syria.
I need to make clear that I know nothing of the particulars of that situation beyond what has been reported (or alleged) in publicly available press accounts. But those accounts raise serious questions, so I wanted to share a few thoughts on how folks might want to think about this.
First of all, dissenting analysts passionate about their positions are not unusual in the American intelligence community. Their presence — or even the rejection of their favored positions — is not prima face evidence of politicization. In fact, their presence is rather the norm — and that’s a good thing. I always had a few dissenters, no matter where I worked. Sometimes I agreed. Sometimes I didn’t.
We have seen the same kind of iconoclastic views at high policy levels. White House adviser Richard Clarke was famously insistent about the looming threat from al Qaeda in 2000-2001. Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith was equally insistent in 2002-2003 about an operational relationship between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. Mr. Clarke was right, Mr. Feith was not.
Vice President Dick Cheney was more convinced of nuclear programs in Iraq and Syria than were many in the intelligence community. He was dead wrong about Iraq (as were many, myself included). He was dead right about Syria, though.
All this is to say that disagreements are not usually about intellect or moral worth. They’re more a reflection of just how tough some of these questions really are.
Beyond the assessment, there is an equally challenging dynamic in relaying intelligence judgments to policymakers when those judgments cut across preferred policy or political positions, something common enough that I gave it a name while I was in government: “the phenomenon of the unpleasant fact.”
I saw it in the George W. Bush administration as the analysis of what was going on in post-invasion Iraq moved from dead-enders, to insurgency, to civil war, to something even worse. Each change in analytic judgment prompted heartfelt, often emotional, sessions with policymakers, as we were no doubt making their days worse than they would otherwise be. But the tough dialogue eventually led to a change in policy and the decision to surge five more U.S. brigades into the fight.
Today’s challenge appears similar, except that the accusation now is that seniors in Central Command’s intelligence shop are overruling analysts and putting a happy face on the command’s progress against the Islamic State. And that, the argument goes, is designed to spare the Obama administration bad press and bad politics, not to mention the brutal necessity of reassessing a failed Middle East policy.
My experience has been that military assessments on “how goes the war” are consistently more optimistic than those made by the CIA and other agencies. That was certainly the case in Iraq, and it appears the Agency reprised the dynamic when it briefed newly arrived Director David H. Petraeus (fresh from command in Afghanistan) on its appreciation of the Afghan battlefield.
Most of the time when this happens, no one is attempting to mislead. It’s just an unhappy but predictable byproduct of the military giving itself a grade.
Take this example. During most of the war in Bosnia, NATO conducted something called Deny Flight, an alliance effort to keep the Bosnian Serb air force grounded. Lots of NATO resources went into this, but intelligence sometimes indicated that Serb aircraft had scooted from their bases for quick reconnaissance or ground attack missions. Of course, NATO operators were incredibly skeptical of such reporting when it popped up. They were being told they had failed. It got so bad that one officer told me that he had finally figured out what Deny Flight really meant: “The Serbs fly, and we deny it.”
That’s an argument for why you want more than just the local command assessing the situation. But you still want the local command’s view, too.
There have been charges that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has had an unusual amount of contact with Centcom’s intelligence chief, suggesting to some that President Obama’s senior intelligence adviser was pressuring the command to pretty up the analytic books. Knowing Jim Clapper, I seriously doubt that. And a claim that these “unusual” contacts are evidence of such a conspiracy betrays an ignorance of how intelligence works.
While at the CIA, I would routinely call my Baghdad or Kabul station chief before sprinting downtown for a meeting with the president or the National Security Council. I wasn’t leaning on them. Quite the opposite. I wanted the latest and I wanted it without bureaucratic filters. I suspect that Jim Clapper operates the same way.
So there may be less here than meets the eye … or perhaps not. Press accounts suggest that dissent was not confined to a few analysts but was widespread. If true, that’s really troubling. Even when a chief of intelligence might not agree with his analysts’ body of work, he has a responsibility to pass it on.
At more than one NSC meeting I prefaced my remarks with phrases like, “Mr. President, my guys are a little more dark in their assessment on this than I am …” and I then proceeded to brief their views before I added my own. You owe that to a policymaker, and to your own people.
If the current investigation finds that darker views were indeed suppressed and unreported, the hammer should fall. And not just in Tampa. If charges are substantiated, everyone in the intelligence community will need to examine their conscience to see what they did to create a climate where someone could think that such behavior was acceptable.
And senior policymakers could stand some of the same soul-searching themselves.
Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.