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.


Related Stories:

See also OTB’s Imperial Hubris archives for more discussion of Scheuer, his books, and his punditry.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Iraq War, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. just me says:

    Great post, and I think you are right.

    Over the long haul, all the new pundits aren’t going to help the CIA in its relationship to the administration.

    Also, if anything, the weakest link in all the pre war intelligience was not the administration, but the CIA itself, and some of this sounds a lot like “turf” protection as well.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I have the same opinion of Ralph Peter, who use to work in the same office with me before he retired.

  3. James Joyner says:

    DCL: Yep on Peters. He’s a brilliant guy and I was reading him in PARAMETERS long before he’d hit the national scene (aside from a novel). The couple of people I’ve talked to who knew him personally from his days as a field grade, though, apparently thought him an arrogant blowhard.

  4. Anderson says:

    JJ, does it not occur to you that the “politicization” you speak of is a reaction to the politicization of the intelligence process by the White House?

    Cart … horse ….

  5. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: We’ve had numerous blue ribbon studies done on 9/11 and the Iraq War, none of which reached that conclusion. George Tenet, a Clinton holdover, was a leading cheerleader for the Iraq War.

    Regardless, elected officials are, by their nature, poltical. We expect that Republicans will act a certain way and Democrats will act a different way (although we’re often disappointed in that regard). State and the Intelligence Community are supposed to be pure technical experts, not advocates.

  6. NoZe says:

    It seems to me that there are a couple of issues in question here:

    1. Should former government officials, be they CIA, State, military, agricultural extension agents, etc., engage in activities in which they offer commentary on their fields of expertise?

    I don’t see why not, and I think its sort of unrealistic to expect that they wouldn’t! After working for much of one’s career in diplomacy, defense, tax policy, etc., I can see why someone wouldn’t want to abandon all of that expertise and experience to do something entirely different…say, start a taxidermy shop or become a farmer! Its entirely reasonable, I think, for a former government official to want to write, consult, teach, do media commentary, etc., on their fields of expertise.

    2. Does such work reflect poorly on their former agencies/departments/bureaus, etc.?

    I don’t think so. Maybe its just me, but I don’t think that Pillar speaks for the CIA anymore than I assume that Oliver North speaks for the NSA, Wesley Clark speaks for the U.S. Army, or Pete Rose speaks for the Cincinnati Reds. When reading or listening to such commentators, I think most viewers and readers recognize that they no longer speak for their former employers.

    3. Is it bad that there may be ideological leanings/cultures/political agendas in government bureaucracies.

    Probably, but I don’t know that anything can be done about it. Organizations are made up of individuals who are going to have opinions, preferences, agendas, etc. Moreover, public officials with years of experience in particular fields are naturally going to assume that they know what they’re doing and of what they speak! I don’t know of any way that any agency/department/bureau can be totally “objective” (if indeed there is such a thing!) without being completely ineffective!

  7. John Burgess says:

    I don’t know if my status as a former FSO puts me in the ranks of the good, bad, or ugly. But what the hell…

    I can assure your readers that the politicization of the bureaucracy didn’t start with Bush. It’s been a “feature” of the beast since I first became an FSO under Carter. And, actually, earlier than that, at least back to Johnson, when my father joined the Foreign Service. In fact, I’m stretched to find a period when it was note politicized… Jefferson? Madison? Nope, pretty damn volitle then, too!

    There is the matter of acting honorably, though. That means that if you’ve a strong enough beef about a policy, you don’t take the Dane Geld anymore; you submit your resignation. You don’t use your position to sabotage that unliked policy.

    That seems to be a rule that’s been forgotten.

    After you’ve resigned–or retired–you can pop off on anything your heart desires, within the parameters of your security agreements. People will judge your arguments, hopefully, on their own merits. Though with our addiction to celebrity and fame, that doesn’t always work out. By telling the media the stories it wants to hear, one sets up a heterodyning relationship, where one keeps feeding back into the signal.

    That’s where Scheur and Pillar end up. They may well believe what they say, but that doesn’t make their beliefs actually correct. Since it supports the media’s assumptions, though, it gets out into the public domain quickly, loudly, and often.

  8. James Joyner says:


    I largely agree with you on point 1, as noted in the last paragraph.

    As to point 2, I’m not sure that you (or I) am typical in that regard. My suspicion is that casual observers think generals and former CIA guys are still part of the gang. More importantly, though, Christensen’s argument goes to how the administration in office is likely to react. This criticism is much more apt, I think, to those like Pillar and Scheuer who are/were simultaneously going public with criticisms of the administration while still employed by the Agency in a senior capacity.

    I don’t disagree as to point 3. Sometimes a bad thing is a fact about which little can be done rather than a problem to be solved.

  9. James Joyner says:


    I would agree. The interesting thing about Scheuer, especially, is that the media harps on the things he says that they agree with and ignores his harsh criticisms of the Clinton administration and most of his policy prescriptions, which are, to coin a phrase, reminiscent of Genghis Khan.

  10. NoZe says:

    John and James,

    As an FSO, I agree…it is inappropriate for government employees to publicly criticize the administration while working for the government.

    …and, yes, North worked for the NSC, not the NSA…