Intelligence Gathering, Secrecy, Politics, and Democratic Transparency
Politicized intelligence came to the forefront again this week as the Daily Beast reported that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence heard from analysts complaining about political pressure on their ISIS analysis and did nothing about it.
Until now, the focus of the probe into politically skewed intel analyses pertaining to ISIS has been on CENTCOM – the subject of a Defense Department Inspector General investigation. The probe has already revealed that analysts got rebuked for submitting pessimistic reports, e-mailed to “cut it out,” in order to support the Obama administration’s rosy projections about the fight against the terrorist army.
According to the Daily Beast, “This second set of accusations, which have not been previously reported, were made to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). They show that the officials charged with overseeing all U.S. intelligence activities were aware, through their own channels, of potential problems with the integrity of information on ISIS, some of which made its way to President Obama.”
“The analysts have said that they believe their reports were altered for political reasons, namely to adhere to Obama administration officials’ public statements that the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS is making progress and has put a dent in the group’s financing and operations.”
This may lead to yet another uncomfortable confrontation between Congress and DNI James Clapper, whose reputation for honesty has been questions on Capitol Hill. Clapper had been asked directly about this issue in September at a Senate hearing, and claimed to have no awareness on the issue:
“It is an almost sacred writ… in the intelligence profession never to politicize intelligence. I don’t engage in it. I never have and I don’t condone it when it’s identified,” Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Clapper sought to downplay what he called “media hyperbole” about the substance of the analysts’ complaints. “I think it’s best that we all await the outcome of the DOD I.G. investigation to determine whether and to what extent there was any politicization of intelligence at CENTCOM,” Clapper said.
In fact, Clapper knew enough about the probe into politicized intel before his testimony, according to the Daily Beast report. And, this isn’t the first time that Clapper has misled the Senate, and it’s beginning to look like a pattern. He insisted that the NSA wasn’t looking at domestic communications just a few months before Edward Snowden left the US with NSA data and exposed those programs (and many other things as well). Clapper later claimed to have “forgotten” about those programs when asked.
Now it seems that while he decried the “media hyperbole” around the assumption of politicized intelligence, he knew well that it had been skewed, and refused to tell Congress about it.
Analysts from CENTCOM believe the report manipulation is purely for political reasons. The Obama administration has made confident proclamations of its success against ISIS, and high-level intelligence officials have seemingly felt pressure for their final reports to reflect those statements to avoid embarrassment. Government regulations prohibit the modification of intelligence reports to support political agendas. But given two separate sets of allegations, officials who receive CENTCOM reports, according to The Daily Beast, are taking extra time to parse through the reports to see if they can separate genuine from massaged information.
The claims of manipulation arose out of a series of surveys conducted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI”. Military analysts reported superiors skewed data on the success of the anti-ISIS coalition and also added that officials went out of their way to delete emails which showed manipulation.
Necessary Intelligence Move or Self Delusion?
Sir Winston Churchill once said that the importance of the D-Day secret was so great that it had to be protected by a bodyguard of lies. And, the fact is that governments – even the US government have used lies and half-truths for centuries to protect valuable intelligence.
Few argue that every detail of secret intelligence operations must be publically revealed. The problem however is when a decision is made to skew the intelligence for other purposes, usually political.
When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, the issue is no longer based on the best information, but has entered the political realm. A “quest” for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.
Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence of pushing intelligence analysts to make the politically right decision. When in 1964 analysts at the National Security Agency were called upon to interpret ambiguous, fragmentary signals intelligence and to assess whether the North Vietnamese navy had attacked U.S. destroyers on a dark night in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, the analysts knew that the administration of Lyndon Johnson wanted the answer to that question to be yes, to justify the opening shots in what turned out to be an eight-year war in Vietnam. The analysts said an attack had occurred. They were wrong.
The same thing happened with the so-called “order of battle” affair in Vietnam, when the Johnson administration pressured intelligence officials to go along with optimistic military estimates about the size of the enemy. Then as now, the controversy surrounded the knotty question of trying to count insurgents in an ongoing war. And much like current events, civilian intelligence officials accused the military of fudging the numbers to support the hope that a strategy of attrition would slowly destroy the enemy’s ability to resist.
But, this intelligence reporting wasn’t meant to mislead the White House. Instead, it was designed to sway public and congressional opinion. Using this information, the Johnson administration launched an intensive public relations campaign to demonstrate that its strategy of attrition was succeeding the same year that congressional and public opinion swung against the war. When it learned that CIA estimates called that strategy into question, administration officials leaned on the intelligence community to go along with military estimates – much as we see today.
But, this fiddling with intelligence reports wasn’t limited to Vietnam or the 20th Century. Eleven years ago, when intelligence analysts were called on to make judgments about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs, it was crystal clear that the administration of George W. Bush strongly wanted a particular answer to the question posed, to win public support for the extraordinary step of launching a major offensive war. Senior members of the administration, most notably the vice president, had even already publicly announced their own answer to the question.
There is also the issue that intelligence leadership may use these reports to further their own views. In 2011, then-CIA director Gen. David Petraeus tried to modify the Afghanistan assessment process to give more weight to the opinions of troops in the fight. The argument was that soldiers had the benefit of more current information, which meant that they were able to see signs of progress that were invisible to CIA analysts in Langley. At the time, Gen. Petraeus was cautiously optimistic that the surge in Afghanistan had produced “fragile but reversible” gains against the Taliban. The CIA was apparently less sanguine, and some analysts suspected that his proposal was an unsubtle way of forcing them to support his view.
A similar fight among bureaucracies might be going on today. Perhaps officials are letting their policy preferences affect their conclusions, even to the point of violating standard procedures for writing and editing intelligence reports. Such misdirection could come from either side of the issue. CENTCOM and ONI might be manipulating draft reports to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of progress in the war, as critics suspect. But it is also possible that DIA and ONI analysts are exaggerating their pessimism to feed the narrative that ISIS is winning and that the United States must do much more.
There is more to it. Paul R. Pillar, former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, wrote about politicization of intelligence in Foreign Affairs. He wrote, “For intelligence analysts, attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success. This suggests that some intelligence analysts may be so keen on getting Brownie points that they will write what the higher-ups want to read at the expense of objectivity.”
Given that America can only determine if Iran has actually built a nuclear device based on intelligence reports, there is considerable concern if these reports will ignore information that such a device has been built. Given the administration’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran, conflicting intelligence wouldn’t be welcome and upper level intelligence officers might even quash such information.
Policy and Politicized Intelligence
History shows us that politicized intelligence is not new and is unlikely to go away. Given that fact, it’s best to look at the need for such biased analysis and what good can come out of it – if any.
History shows that leaders are more likely to manipulate estimates when they make strong policy commitments in the face of substantial domestic opposition. In these circumstances, as was the case in the Vietnam era, they have incentives to enlist intelligence to help win domestic political battles.
However, three questions should be asked first: 1. Can the manipulated intelligence have a positive impact on American foreign policy? 2. Is it too late for politicized intelligence to impact the debate or will the apparent nature of the analysis show that the administration is getting desperate? And, 3. How will it impact relations between voters, Congress, and various intelligence groups?
Unfortunately, few politicized intelligence reports have a clear policy objective. The Vietnam and ISIS reports were clearly intended for domestic political consumption and crafted to reduce domestic political opposition. Only Bush’s WMD reports had a clear policy objective – getting public and international support of the invasion of Iraq.
Timing of such reports is also critical. By the time Johnson’s massaged intelligence came out, the American public was opposed to the war. And, in the current case, Obama’s statements about ISIS’s mediocre combat ability, seemed to be overly optimistic. The result is that even more damage is done to the administration’s credibility.
Finally, how will such massaged intelligence reports impact relations with Congress and the American public. The findings of the Church Committee in the 1970s poisoned the CIA’s reputation for decades and had a negative impact on its operations during the Cold War, when it needed it the most. And, there is no doubt that the next time DNI chief Clapper testifies before Congress, he will have to answer for his department’s actions.
Politicization has serious consequences. It skews current intelligence reports and inhibits later reassessment. Episodes of politicization also poison relations between policymakers and intelligence agencies for years after the fact, as happened after a major intelligence-policy breakdown during the Vietnam War. It also damages the reputation of the president and his administration.
Secrecy and politicization of intelligence do have a place in the spymaster’s toolkit. However, they must be used with skill and a clear understanding of the desired ends and the political fallout. And, as history shows, just avoiding some politically uncomfortable facts for a few months isn’t worth the ensuing troubles.
The United States Needs to Focus on Its Own Hemisphere
By Ted Galen Carpenter
February 16, 2016
The United States remains the leading power in the Western Hemisphere by a wide margin. Much of the speculation, so prevalent a few years ago, about the rise of new major powers in the world as diplomatic, economic and even strategic competitors to Washington has justifiably faded. That is especially true of the so-called BRICS nations—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—that were supposedly poised to become decisive economic and diplomatic actors. Speculation about Brazil’s new status and role especially proved to be both premature and excessive. That country, along with the other BRICS, encountered a variety of domestic limitations and obstacles along the way. And as a major commodities exporter, Brazil’s problems have only deepened with the global plunge in commodity prices. Nevertheless, the current position of such hemispheric neighbors as Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico is a far cry from their positions as third- or fourth-rate powers a couple of generations ago.
The Strategic Impact of Iran’s Rising Petroleum Exports After Sanctions
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 15, 2016
The decades since the first major oil embargo in 1973 have shown all too clearly that no one can predict oil and gas prices and petroleum export revenues. This is particularly true when oil supply is so high, key exporters like Iraq and Libya are at war, production is partly driven by the tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors, new sources of production are coming on line, and the world seems be headed for a China-driven collapse in the growth of petroleum demand. There are important new estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, that indicate that Iran is not going to see the kind of windfall from the lifting of sanctions as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement and the lifting of sanctions that some expected at the time the agreement was signed.
Middle East Notes and Comment: Egypt Five Years On
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 11, 2016
Five years ago today, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned, heralding a new era for Egypt and the region and seemingly foreshadowing the end of Arab autocracies. Looking around the region, the new era looks even worse than the old one. Arab autocrats are back in force, and civil wars rage in many places where they have fallen. It is hard to feel much nostalgia for the theatrical sycophancy that surrounded Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein’s systematic brutality still seems like a nightmare. Yet, it is hard to imagine when Syria will ever resemble a normal state again, when the bloody rivalries in Libya will subside, or when those conflicts (and others) will cease to bleed into neighboring states.
The new Cold War in the Mediterranean
By Frederick W. Kagan and John W. Miller
American Enterprise Institute
February 17, 2016
Russia is already winning a new Cold War in the Mediterranean by re-establishing a permanent air and naval base on the Syrian coast under the guise of helping Bashar Assad fight terrorism. That bold move is a geostrategic disaster for the U.S. and its allies, and President Obama has shown only very modest concern about it while trying to treat Russia as a partner in Syria. The ships and aircraft Russia has moved there already threaten one NATO ally, Turkey. But they will menace many other NATO members in years to come, as part of Vladimir Putin’s larger effort to undermine and ultimately break the alliance, and claim a permanent Russian role in the Mediterranean Sea. The Russian redoubts will soon force the U.S. to deploy more ships and planes of its own simply to maintain our ability to operate in what has been a NATO lake for more than a quarter-century. And if we fail to do that, even worse scenarios could emerge.
Arab Voices on the Challenges of the New Middle East
By Perry Cammack and Marwan Muasher
The array of challenges facing the Middle East—terrorism and extremism; civil war and foreign intervention; sectarianism, corruption, and authoritarianism—is both daunting and dismaying. With so many problems, it is difficult to know where to begin to address them and what roles outside actors, including the United States, should play. This conundrum is the starting point for the first survey of Arab experts conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. Questions were asked in both English and Arabic, and the survey represents the detailed views of 105 experts from almost every Arab country. These men and women are some of the region’s most accomplished political thinkers. They include civil society leaders and activists, industry leaders, scholars, former cabinet ministers…
Syria’s Future Lies in its Neighbors’ Hands
By Dmitri Trenin
February 9, 2016
The Syrian army’s success at Aleppo was something Russia had been waiting for since the start of its military intervention last September. Russian air strikes were to soften up the diverse groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad — Isis and others — and create conditions for Damascus to start a counter-offensive. Until recently, however, there has been a disconnect between Russian activity in the air and the near-inability of Mr Assad’s forces to exploit it on the ground. Now this gap has been bridged. We should not expect a quick victory for Damascus, though Aleppo opposition groups may invite others into Syria: the Saudis and particularly the Turks. If this happens, the war will be transformed again. With the US, Russia and regional powers directly involved, Syria can become the first battleground in the global competition for power and influence that has restarted after a 25-year hiatus.
World War III In Syria?
By James S. Robbins
American Foreign Policy Council
February 16, 2016
Peace in our time in Syria? Not even close. Last Thursday, international negotiators meeting in Germany announced that they had reached what was described as “an agreement toward halting hostilities.” Not a ceasefire, not an armistice, but a deal to make another deal to possibly stop the fighting. “I’m pleased to say that as a result today in Munich,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time, “we believe we have made progress on both the humanitarian front and the cessation of hostilities front… to be able to change the daily lives of the Syrian people.” Note to Kerry: Try not to say “Munich” when announcing a peace deal, especially one doomed to fail. The fact that this non-deal was considered a major sign of progress reflects the low expectations of the effort. That fighting has continued unabated comes as no surprise. Russian-backed forces are doing a lot more to “change the daily lives of the Syrian people” than the Munich peace talkers. This underlines the fundamental disconnect that dooms the talks: One side is looking for an agreement, the other side wants to win. To paraphrase former presidential advisor John P. Roche, the Russians view negotiations as a weapons system.
Countering Russian and Assad Regime Responses to Safe Zones
By Anna Borshchevskaya
February 17, 2016
On February 13, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said in Munich that Russia has no intention of ending its bombing campaign against the Syrian rebels. “They are all bandits and terrorists,” he told Time in an exclusive interview. Earlier, on February 11, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Oleg Syromolotov, informed the Interfax news agency that the Kremlin will consider any attempts by the U.S.-led coalition to establish safe zones on the Turkish-Syrian border without United Nations authorization and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s permission “an act of direct military intervention.” This statement came as no surprise. For well over a decade, the Russian government has advanced a narrative that the West orchestrates regime change under the guise of humanitarian aims. In Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin will interpret any attempts to create safe or similar zones as a pretext for regime change targeting what he calls the legitimate government of Assad, who this week declared his forces would “eventually” retake all of Syrian territory.