Bolton: Officials Have Right to Own View of Intelligence

Embattled UN Ambassador nominee John Bolton told a Senate panel yesterday that policymakers have a right to state their own views on intelligence matters, even if they are in conflict with the judgment of the intelligence community.

Senate Panel Is Set to Vote on Bolton Nomination Today (NYT)

With a vote scheduled Thursday on his contested nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton has told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a policy maker should maintain the right to “state his own reading of the intelligence” even when it differs from that of intelligence agencies. Mr. Bolton’s statement came in a written response to a written question from Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a leading Democratic critic of the nomination, and was disclosed by Democrats legislators opposed to the nomination. They said they would cite it as evidence that Mr. Bolton would adopt a loose standard for accuracy in making statements based on intelligence.

In interviews on Wednesday, several former senior intelligence officials said the widely accepted view was that policy makers had a right to state their own views about intelligence matters, but that they also had an obligation to be accurate and to make explicit when they were stating personal opinions.

For weeks, the committee has been exploring whether Mr. Bolton, as an under secretary of state, improperly sought to press intelligence agencies to endorse his views, and sought to bypass the agencies’ objections by describing his own views as those of the government. Mr. Kerry asked Mr. Bolton whether as ambassador to the United Nations, he would “unfailingly use the established procedure” for clearing speeches, testimony and other public remarks with intelligence agencies. In his response, Mr. Bolton told the committee that he would adhere to rules that require formal clearance of any statement purporting to describe intelligence agencies’ views. But he also said, “A policy official may state his own reading of the intelligence (assuming the information is cleared for release as a policy matter) as long as he does not purport to speak for the intelligence community.”

Well, yes. Intelligence agencies merely provide their best guess on what’s happening and, where appropriate, issue recommendations. It’s not their job to make policy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    “Well, yes. Intelligence agencies merely provide their best guess on what’s happening and, where appropriate, issue recommendations. It’s not their job to make policy.”

    True. But when senior officials go ahead and make policies that directly conflict with the ‘best guesses’ of their own experts, they have to be called to account. If you’re going to go entirely on your own ‘gut reaction’, you don’t have anyone else to blame if your decision turns out wrong. Bolton (and a lot of other people, IMHO) needs to be fired, not promoted.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, they get the blame either way, I guess. If the CIA screws the pooch and gives bad advice and the president follows it, he’s a liar.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Uh…..well, who got the blame for Iraq WMD? The intelligence community did. Bush? He’s not accountable, it’s all that bad intel he got that made him go into Iraq.

  4. McGehee says:

    “Bad intel” that every worthwhile intelligence service on the planet agreed with…