Spying and Policymaking Don’t Mix

Spying and Policymaking Don 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.

via Memeorandum

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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. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s a vain hope to want intelligence-gathering to be de-politicized. It’s a human activity; it’s inherently political.

  2. Tlaloc says:

    Someone remind me why Kissinger hasn’t been turned over to the Hague for war crime…

  3. Cernig says:

    My inclination is that the former is the lesser of evils

    Funny that, my inclination is the exact opposite.

    Kissinger is the man who was Nixon’s NSA and who had to step down after being Bush’s appointee to head the 9/11 commission due to “conflicts of interest”. He’s a friend of Conrad Black and sat on Hollinger’s board while that board looked the other way. There are serious allegations of war crimes (as detailed by Chris Hitchens in his book) such that Kissinger can’t even leave the country without fear of prosecution.

    This man wants to end oversight of the intelligence community and says they should just shut up and be a tool of the Unitary Executive.

    Something that N-Pods “Commentary” is just fine with today.

    And that doesn’t worry you?

    Regards, C

  4. Cernig says:

    BTW, he’s wrong about the danger too. The IAEA have flat stated that they have all 3,000 centrifuges and their product under seal, surveillance and snap inspections (six this year). They say it is impossible for those centrifuges and product to be used to make bomb-grade material without their foreknowledge. There’s an effective early-warning tripwire in place.

    Regards, C

  5. legion says:

    Right on, C.

    If the NIE and other bits of intel like it are what our nation’s senior leaders use to make decisions on foreign policy, going to war, etc., why _shouldn’t_ the public (that, don’t forget, those leaders represent and are beholden to) be capable of drawing conclusions, forming opinions, and demanding their leaders reflect those opinions in their actions from similar information?

    The simple answer, and the one most likely considering Kissinger’s (and N-Pod’s) past is the intense desire to place those in power above second-guessing, oversight, or consequences for their actions. Neocons want Big Daddy to come and take care of them – it’s been their social policy all along.

  6. Alex says:

    Off topic comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  7. bob in fla says:

    I’m with Cernig on this one. In the run up to the Iraq War, the administration cherry picked the intelligence it used as the justification for entering the war. Various intelligence officials went on the record countering these half- & non-truths, but no one paid attention & Bush/Cheney got what they wanted. We will be paying the steep price for that for years to come.

    In the case of the current NIE summary, Bush & Cheney were very obviously again lying about the intelligence as a means of attacking Iran. Evidently a critical mass of the intelligence establishment found enough spine to force publication of the report. It was the only remaining method they had to protect their own credibility against administration falsehoods.

    I would think the duty of any public servant is to serve the US as a country before offering allegiance to the Executive of the country. Since when have you started believing otherwise, James?

  8. James Joyner says:

    I would think the duty of any public servant is to serve the US as a country before offering allegiance to the Executive of the country. Since when have you started believing otherwise, James?

    That’s not the argument. The question is whether having the intel bureaucracy serving as public advocates for positions undermines their effectiveness as impartial advisors.

  9. Cernig says:

    The question is whether having the intel bureaucracy serving as public advocates for positions undermines their effectiveness as impartial advisors.

    But the neocons were just fine with it when the last NIE politicized the intel to catapult the case against Iran. Or when Bolton’s crony Frederick Fleitz flat lied in a report to Congress to do likewise (see the post of mine you linked yesterday).

    They’re just pouting because the latest one stymied their war plans. Cheney spent a year trying to bury it. Their arguments are spurious strawmen. The danger is that people buy the snakeoil the neocons and “Executive First”-ers have to sell, because then we’ll never hear about the likes of Fleitz’ lying again.

    The real question is whether the Bush administration’s extraordinary politicisation of all branches of the federal government (remember Rove and his political classes in how each dept. could help Republicans get elected?) hinders every branch’s ability to be effective advisors. And the answer is “yes”.

    Regards, C