Spying and Policymaking Don’t Mix
Henry Kissinger argues that the much-publicized NIE report on Iran’s nuclear weapons program reaches an over-bold conclusion that does a disservice to the debate.
The “Key Judgments” released by the intelligence community last week begin with a dramatic assertion: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This sentence was widely interpreted as a challenge to the Bush administration policy of mobilizing international pressure against alleged Iranian nuclear programs. It was, in fact, qualified by a footnote whose complex phraseology obfuscated that the suspension really applied to only one aspect of the Iranian nuclear weapons program (and not even the most significant one): the construction of warheads. That qualification was not restated in the rest of the document, which continued to refer to the “halt of the weapons program” repeatedly and without qualification.
He spends several paragraphs explaining why this is crucial. Unlike some of the neo-con critics of the NIE, he has “long argued that America owes it to itself to explore fully the possibility of normalizing relations with Iran.” He doesn’t support a march to war but, at the same time, “We do not need to tranquilize ourselves to the danger in order to pursue a more peaceful world.”
Kissinger sees the latest controversy part of a dangerous trend.
[The intelligence community] must recognize that the more it ventures into policy conjecture, the less authoritative its judgments become. There was some merit in the way President Richard Nixon conducted National Security Council discussions at the beginning of his first term. He invited the CIA director to brief on the capabilities and intentions of the countries under discussion but required him to leave the room during policy deliberations. Because so many decisions require an intelligence input, this procedure proved unworkable.
I have often defended the dedicated members of the intelligence community. This is why I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch. When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates. Thus the deputy director for intelligence estimates explained the release of the NIE as follows: Publication was chosen because the estimate conflicted with public statements by top U.S. officials about Iran, and “we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.” That may explain releasing the facts but not the sources and methods that have been flooding the media. The paradoxical result of the trend toward public advocacy is to draw intelligence personnel more deeply than ever into the public maelstrom.
The executive branch and the intelligence community have gone through a rough period. The White House has been accused of politicizing intelligence; the intelligence community has been charged with promoting institutional policy biases. The Key Judgments document accelerates that controversy, dismaying friends and confusing adversaries.
Intelligence personnel need to return to their traditional anonymity. Policymakers and Congress should once again assume responsibility for their judgments without involving intelligence in their public justifications. To define the proper balance between the user and producer of intelligence is a task that cannot be accomplished at the end of an administration. It is, however, one of the most urgent challenges a newly elected president will face.
He’s right, at least in theory. Certainly, the politicization of intelligence has the negative consequences he describes.
Unfortunately, policymakers will naturally cite mysterious “intelligence” as justification for their foreign policy positions since it puts them in a position of being able to simultaneously claim superior knowledge while being unable to talk about the specifics. Similarly, “bad intelligence” is an easy excuse for decisions that went awry.
The question, then, is the proper role of the intelligence agencies in that environment. Should they simply remain silent while their imprimatur is bandied about in the debate? Or should they weigh in with their version of events? My inclination is that the former is the lesser of evils but it comes with costs, too.