U.S. presidents and other senior policymakers often come into office knowing little about the 17 federal agencies and offices that make up the U.S. intelligence community, but in short order, they come to rely heavily on its unique technologies, tradecraft, and expert analysis. The intelligence community’s mission is to provide national leaders with the best and most timely information available on global affairs and national security issues—information that, in turn, can help those leaders achieve their foreign policy objectives.
The president is the country’s top intelligence consumer and the only person who can authorize a covert action, and the services he receives from the intelligence community can be invaluable—providing early warning of brewing trouble, identifying and disrupting threats before they materialize, gaining insight into foreign leaders, and discreetly affecting developments abroad. For the relationship between intelligence producers and consumers to work effectively, however, each needs to understand and trust the other.
INFORMATION, NOT POLICY
The most common misperception about the intelligence community is that it makes policy. It doesn’t. As Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence from 1953 to 1961, once said, “Intelligence is the servant, not the master, of foreign policy.” A new administration considers and articulates what it stands for and what it hopes to achieve; it develops policies and informational priorities, and then it deploys the resources of the intelligence community based on those priorities.
The intelligence community, in other words, cannot operate in a vacuum. It must be told what to look for and what is most important. The White House must be disciplined in its tasking; if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Moreover, it needs to remain engaged and update its thinking. Over time, some issues will rise in importance and some will fall. Without regular dialogue and guidance, the intelligence community will do what it can to respond appropriately to global changes and improvise ways to balance competing requests. But the tradeoffs will often go unnoticed by senior policymakers until a
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