A Smarter Intelligence Policy

Despite its past failings, the intelligence community must be encouraged to craft critical assessments without fear of political interference, writes CFR Intelligence Fellow Frank Procida.

December 30, 2008

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Despite vivid reminders in the news of the threat still posed by extremists, most reporting on the President-elect’s thinking regarding the role of the Intelligence Community (IC) and his Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has focused on the acceptability of potential nominees to the left wing of the Democratic Party. Save for one specific proposal on the Obama campaign’s website--a promise to give the DNI a fixed term similar to that of the chairman of the Federal Reserve--the topic also did not enter the campaign dialogue in a meaningful way. Regardless of whether such a shift is politically feasible, it’s most important that the President-elect recognize that he alone, by virtue of his position as the final reader and primary consumer of the IC’s analysis, already has the ability to institute the process necessary to get the most out of his intelligence bureaucracy.

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In fact, altering the intelligence architecture further is probably a political nonstarter, at least until the next intelligence failure comes along to raise the public’s ire. The informed and popular consensus appears to be that the legislation passed in 2004 that incorporated much of the 9/11 commission’s recommendations adequately addressed whatever problems existed by creating a more unified community.

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But even if the President-elect shares in this complacency regarding the efficacy of the legislation, he would do well by simply setting aside time for regular intelligence briefings, maintaining a degree of skepticism regarding the community’s ability to warn and to forecast, and encouraging assessments that challenge his administration’s policies. Doing so would ensure he hears an objective voice on the most critical issues facing the country, which would do more good than any fundamental restructuring in guarding against another intelligence-related breakdown.

The President-elect’s instincts, or at least those of his advisers, appear solid on this front--his website noted the importance of "getting politics out of intelligence" and naming a DNI who is not just a political ally, suggesting he would welcome inconvenient reports from his intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, adhering to such a policy is more difficult than it appears, especially in times of war. The natural tendency for any leader is to downplay assessments--inevitably based on uncertain and murky evidence--that appear to challenge the wisdom of a planned or ongoing policy. Evidence to date suggests President-elect Obama is intellectually curious, willing to consider alternatives, and anything but a closed thinker, but these traits will be tested as the consequences of his decision-making increase exponentially.

More importantly, it will not be enough for President-elect Obama to accept and give fair hearing to challenging reports. For the process to function optimally, he will need to actively encourage the IC to provide critical assessments and ensure that briefings that go poorly do not tarnish his relationship with the community. Without a green light, concerns about making a positive impression and maintaining access to the oval office could lead the next DNI to take a more cautious approach in presenting informed opinions on controversial subjects. This is not to criticize the integrity of the next Director, but rather an acknowledgment of the stress placed on any official whose influence and effectiveness depends entirely on a personal relationship with his or her superior.

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The President-elect can be excused for questioning the importance of giving a prominent role to a community and an analytic corps whose spectacular failures still resonate. Columbia Professor Robert Jervis, a frequent commentator on intelligence, has noted somewhat sympathetically that intelligence failure has been a universal phenomenon, spanning space and time. Some things, most demonstrably the intentions and future behavior of human beings, may be unknowable.

The proper response to these limitations, however, is not to dismiss the value of the analytic process but to confront it with healthy skepticism. The IC is made up of a wide range of experts with access to information unavailable elsewhere, and shunning them would engender complete reliance on advisers who, while certainly knowledgeable, will lack objectivity on account of their positions in the administration and their vested interests in specific courses of action. More beneficial would be augmenting the intelligence product with occasional meetings with outside authors and experts.

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Intelligence alone rarely can provide the answer to a policy dilemma. But a well-oiled intelligence community can be expected to help policymakers make better informed decisions on vital issues of national security. Washington spends upwards of $50 billion on intelligence; if nothing else it would be an awful waste if the ultimate decider is not willing to take full advantage of this expenditure.

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