How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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.
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 crisis exposes deficiencies in intelligence collection.
It is the essence of the intelligence community’s creed to speak truth to power.
The intelligence community needs to have close and regular access to all senior national security policymakers, including the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the secretary of homeland security, and the national security adviser. If the producers of intelligence don’t know the status of ongoing operations and negotiations, then their product will not be responsive to the consumers’ needs and will be dismissed as irrelevant. And the window of policy relevance is open only briefly. The reward for warning about something too early is to be ignored, and the reward for warning too late is to risk becoming the latest example of intelligence failure.
In order to work well together during a crisis, when the stakes are highest, intelligence producers and consumers need to have established a good working relationship long before the crisis hits. Personal connections and regular briefings can help establish trust and mutual understanding. Noncrisis periods are opportunities to work on the relationship and prepare for the future, because when a crisis does hit, there is no time for on-the-job training and coming up to speed on how to best utilize intelligence assets.
The intelligence community’s relationship with senior policymakers must be close and trusted, or else neither party will be able to do its job well. At the same time, intelligence professionals have to be careful not to get drawn into policy debates or partisan politics. Should a president or a cabinet member ask intelligence officers for an opinion on policy, the officers should refuse to give it, because that is not their remit; they do not make policy. The training and culture of intelligence officers underscore this ethos.
The American system of government requires a new president to place his full trust in an intelligence community that loyally served his predecessor right up until the inauguration. This is a lot to ask, especially if senior administration figures have little experience with the intelligence community. The potential for distrust is high, but intelligence officers are loyal, trustworthy, and committed to serving the presidency. They serve without regard to political affiliation and are trained to present their findings without personal or political agendas.
Reading a report from a CIA officer in the field, a former White House official once asked, “Is he a Republican or a Democrat?” Not only did the briefer not know, but as would most of his colleagues, he found the very premise of the question abhorrent. The new administration should take care not to make assumptions about the political leanings of the intelligence community or infer that it knows how intelligence officers voted. Unlike in other U.S. government departments, where there are many political appointees, in the intelligence community, most members are careerists who have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The whole point of the National Security Act of 1947, which codified modern governmental arrangements, was to foster a professional national security community inoculated against partisan politics. This is why public concerns were raised when a political adviser was added to the National Security Council’s Principals Committee.
When intelligence officers brief senior policymakers, they are there to do a job, not to be loved or to score political points. A former director of central intelligence likened it to being the skunk at the garden party: frequently, the job is to tell policymakers what they do not want to hear. Senior administration officials are invested in the policies of their administration, but intelligence officers are not. It is the essence of the intelligence community’s creed to speak truth to power, and those who do so responsibly are considered heroes of the profession.
At the start of a new administration, policymakers should have realistic expectations of what intelligence can and cannot do. Many assume that the intelligence community tries to predict the future. It does not. Intelligence officers present the intelligence that has been collected, assess it, and evaluate possible actions and outcomes. They anticipate possible contingencies and warn about possible dangers, but they do not try to predict results. The relationship between intelligence officers and policymakers resembles that of scouts and coaches. A scout is responsible for studying the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of the other team. The scout’s job is to provide data and insights on the opposition. Armed with that information, the coach can then decide how to deploy the team and what plays to execute. The scout’s goal is to help the coach win, but nobody expects the scout to correctly predict the final score before the game is played.
The importance of the intelligence community’s relationship with the president himself cannot be overstated.
Policymakers new to government must understand that intelligence operates in a world of uncertainties and changing realities. As Clausewitz noted, “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain. . . . In short, most intelligence is false.” All too often, this remains true today. But false or incorrect is not fake, nor is it necessarily failure. Intelligence officers are forced to deal with partial bits of information, some sources who faithfully report inaccurate information that they mistakenly believe is correct, and other sources who are deliberately trying to mislead and deceive. Intelligence is cumulative, moreover, and earlier reports may prove less accurate than later ones. As more intelligence is collected, analysts can dismiss some reports that they had once credited. This natural and correct dynamic should not be seen as waffling or simply changing the story. It is actually how increasingly sophisticated answers to intelligence puzzles emerge.
When the intelligence community gets it wrong, it must own its mistakes. These professionals owe the country, the president, and themselves an understanding of what went wrong, why, and what measures have been taken to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. That is exactly what I believed the CIA needed in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were found, completely contrary to our judgments. I put together a special team to find out where we had gone wrong, and then, borrowing a practice from the U.S. Navy, I ordered a “safety stand-down” for all the analysts at the CIA to ensure that the lessons learned were conveyed to everybody, not just those who had worked on Iraq. In a culture of secrets, some may try to gloss over problems in hopes that the mistakes are never discovered. It is incumbent on the leadership of the intelligence community to hold their officers accountable and demand that mistakes be acknowledged, analyzed, and rectified.
Policymakers should be able to aggressively question analytic judgments and raw reporting without being accused of politicizing intelligence. Politicization can occur only when intelligence professionals alter their findings to meet policymakers’ desires. Aggressive questioning should be welcomed, in fact, because it forces analysts to defend their reasoning and leads to deeper understanding of the raw reporting that underlies their judgments. Policymakers need to understand not only what the intelligence community knows but also what it doesn’t know. Having learned from the mistakes made about Iraq, the intelligence community now carefully conveys the level of confidence it places on the judgments it makes. Policymakers should also ask what could cause these judgments to change, what are the truly critical factors on which each judgment rests—“linchpin analysis,” in intelligence speak.
Policymakers sometimes go too far and try to intimidate analysts into changing or shading their judgments to fit a political objective. When that doesn’t work, some have gone so far as to set up their own intelligence shops, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz did in establishing the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon in the run-up to the Iraq war to find politically desired linkages between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. But policymakers cannot politicize intelligence professionals who refuse to go along.
To gain an edge over their targets, intelligence officers have to take risks. They must face unimaginable dangers and overcome incredible obstacles just to collect small but critical fragments of an unknown story. The essential national service they provide should not be dismissed, minimized, or overlooked by the president or senior policymakers. Law enforcement officers, first responders, and members of the military and intelligence services are the only Americans who voluntarily agree to run mortal risks for their fellow citizens. The CIA’s memorial wall honors 117 officers who died in the line of duty; many of them still remain undercover. As George Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, has said, their families and colleagues must have “the courage to bear great grief in silence.” Their service and that of currently serving officers should be respected.
Policymakers cannot politicize intelligence professionals who refuse to go along.
When using intelligence, policymakers need to be risk takers of a different kind. They might base a decision on intelligence that turns out to be wrong. A presidentially approved covert operation may be blown, leading to death, embarrassment, or retaliation. A foreign leader may learn that U.S. intelligence has been monitoring his or her phone calls. Skiers, when renting equipment, sign a waiver that begins with the phrase, “Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport.” National security policymakers should mentally sign a similar waiver—and in practice ask themselves, “How much risk are we willing to take?”
Faced with the complexities of international crises, presidents are often drawn to the option of covert action. As Henry Kissinger once described it, “We need an intelligence community that, in certain complicated situations, can defend the American national interest in the gray areas where military operations are not suitable and diplomacy cannot operate.” Covert action can range from propaganda to coup plotting to paramilitary operations. Used judiciously, it can be an effective foreign policy tool, but it cannot substitute for not having a policy in the first place.
Covert actions pose three risks for policymakers: exposure, failure, and the blowback of unintended consequences. Traditionally, covert action was the mandate solely of the CIA, with operations requiring a finding personally signed by the president and timely notification of Congress. In recent years, under the guise of force protection or battlefield preparation, the U.S. military has conducted intelligence activities abroad that would have required a covert-action finding if conducted by the CIA. New policymakers with appropriate clearances will need to fully understand the extent of this activity and the potential risks engendered by it.
Both policymakers and the intelligence community are accountable to the American people, yet ensuring such accountability can be difficult. The public understands that the intelligence community must keep secrets, but that very secrecy can fuel concerns about government overreach. These days, it is not always clear where a foreign threat ends and a domestic threat begins, and government agencies need to share intelligence in order to prevent disasters. However, given the power and reach of U.S. capabilities for intercepting communications, such sharing raises legitimate concerns about civil liberties and privacy.
A healthy conversation and debate on these issues are both necessary and wise. The intelligence community does not ignore such concerns, but often, it wants to address the tension between collection and protection in classified venues such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the National Security Council, or the congressional intelligence oversight committees. But those concerned with civil liberties want them addressed in the public domain. However the balance is achieved, the American people must be confident that the internal controls are appropriate and that external oversight has sufficient visibility to be effective.
To meet current and future challenges, the U.S. intelligence community must constantly innovate and improve. A new administration can bring a fresh perspective on how best to organize and modernize the community, and positive change should be embraced and welcomed by intelligence professionals. The new national security team, however, needs to balance a desire for change against the potential disruption drastic change may cause in the intelligence mission. Although disruption can be a positive force in technology and business, in the intelligence community, it could carry serious risks.
Future relations between intelligence producers and consumers in Washington remain uncertain. The gravity of the presidency and the weight of the decisions the president alone must make almost inevitably change the person who sits behind the desk. As the complexities of the international challenges facing the United States become clear, the value of intelligence in dealing with those challenges may lead senior administration officials to rely more heavily on the intelligence community. Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA; Gina Haspel, the deputy director; and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, are well positioned to lead the community into the future. But the importance of the intelligence community’s relationship with the president himself cannot be overstated. If human sources don’t believe that their intelligence will make a difference, they may not take the extra chance to meet with a case officer. If friendly foreign intelligence services believe that their most sensitive information might be leaked to the public as part of political score-settling, they will hold back and be disinclined to share. Leaders of the intelligence community must be able to walk into the president’s office at any time and be received openly and professionally.
The members of the U.S. intelligence community serve their country proudly and help it remain strong. Their professionalism is a bulwark of American democracy, and they should be respected for the work they do. Unless quickly rectified, policymakers’ misconceptions about intelligence professionals and their motivations could endanger U.S. national security. The relationship needs to be recalibrated, with policymakers gaining a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the work of intelligence professionals—a mission in which “alternative facts” have no place.