Ex-CIA Officers as Pundits
Guillermo Christensen argues that the recent trend of retired and retiring CIA officers entering the public debate will diminish the long-term credibility of the Agency. The latest example is a piece by Paul Pillar in the current Foreign Affairs which Christensen rebuts.
More important than the content of these books and op-eds, though, is the message it sends to policymakers.
Paul Pillar was right in the thick of the process and substance that reached those conclusions. Had he actually written a warning to the administration against going to war before the war, his conclusions could not have rested on any of the CIA’s intelligence analysis, but instead on his own political views against the administration–something which he has made no bones about in discussions with think-tank audiences long before he left the agency. This, incidentally, is prohibited behavior according to the professional practices of the CIA, the equivalent of betraying attorney-client confidentiality.
Not merely content to have played a leading role in the Iraq intelligence failure, Mr. Pillar is now following in the footsteps of others like Michael Scheuer, in undermining whatever credibility and access the CIA still may have with policymakers. By violating his confidences, Mr. Pillar is ensuring that those who succeed him–those who are, I hope, trying to fix the many problems facing the CIA–will be even less likely to see any real impact from their work because the president and his advisers will be loath to trust them.
For decades, there has been a common understanding that CIA analysts play a role roughly analogous, for policymakers, to experts whose opinions are sought in confidence, such as lawyers or accountants. Presidents and their advisers have felt comfortable in relying on analysts, in theory at least, for unbiased information and conclusions–and for keeping their mouths shut about what they learn. Presidents, secretaries of state, and others have given the CIA access into the inner sanctum of policymaking in the belief that the CIA would not use the media or leaks to influence the outcome.
For a CIA officer to discard this neutral role and to inject himself in the political realm is plain wrong. It will end up making the CIA even less relevant than it is today–if that is possible.
While this is overstated a bit, Christensen is right in saying that the politicization of a bureaucracy will harms its ability to have its expertise taken seriously by the White House. This happened long ago to the State Department.
State’s Foreign Service Officers are some of the best and brightest minds America has to offer and their combination of education and practical experience is unmatched. Unfortunately, State has earned a reputation as left-leaning and willing to actively undermine administration policies it disagrees with. Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, presidents, Republican presidents in particular, have felt the need to take their foreign policy decision-making in house to the National Security Council. This has resulted in a great gain in trust but a great loss in depth of expertise, not infrequently with disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately, arrogance is an occupational hazard of elite bureaucrats like FSOs and CIA officers. For good reason, they think they know more than presidents and their political appointees about the matters under their jurisdiction (and not infrequently, everything else). I hasten to add that the same is often true of “experts” in general, including PhDs.
I am always leery of retired experts, including military flag officers, who start careers as television bloviators. Audiences naturally assume that they speak for their former agency and with all the expertise that comes with it. Further, they often have contacts with former subordinates who are quick to dish information about battles they are losing within the bureaucratic jungle.
Scheuer, Pillar, Peter Brookes, Reuel Marc Gerecht and others have every right to make a living after their service. Often, they provide valuable insights to the public discourse. They may well undermine the credibility of their agency, however.
Update: As I’ve noted in discussions in the comments section, there is a distinction to be made between officers who have retired and those still in active service. The problems that Christensen addresses is especially egregious when it comes from the latter. Indeed, I do not understand why it is allowed.
Update 2: Former FSO John Burgess offers his thoughts.
- Pillar: Bush ‘Misused’ Intelligence to Make Case for Iraq War, Brookings Institution.
- “Ex-CIA Official Faults Use of Data on Iraq,” by Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, Feb. 10, 2006.
- “Key Figure: Intelligence Downplayed in Iraq Policy,” featuring Paul Pillar, on NPR’s All Things Considered, February 10, 2006.
- “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq”, by Paul R. Pillar, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.
See also OTB’s Imperial Hubris archives for more discussion of Scheuer, his books, and his punditry.