TO: The President and the Director of National Intelligence
FROM: John McLaughlin
DATE: March 1, 2009
SUBJECT: Basic Truths for Policymakers and Intelligence Officers
With a new Administration now poised to engage the U.S. intelligence community, it is an appropriate moment to remind ourselves of some basic truths about the intelligence craft, some of which we have learned the hard way. Sherman Kent (1903–86), one of the CIA’s most respected officers in its early days, can help us do that. Just two years after the Agency was created, he wrote,
There is no phase of the intelligence business that is more important than the proper relationship between intelligence itself and the people who use its product. Oddly enough, this relationship, which one would expect to establish itself automatically, does not do this. It is established as a result of a great deal of persistent conscious effort, and it is likely to disappear when the effort is relaxed.
Kent’s observation is as true today as it was in 1949. Indeed, rather too many recent examples prove his point. When the relationship is not working well, it usually involves shortcomings, misperceptions or neglect on the part of both intelligence officers and their policymaking counterparts. To mitigate these problems, both sides should understand two things: first, that the intelligence craft and policymaking necessarily inhabit different cultures; and second, that in some circumstances there are inherent limits to how much the former can help the latter. What this means, as Kent himself suggested, is that there is no final organizational fix that can set the relationship to right for all time. It is a relationship rather like a marriage in some ways—one that needs constant tending, that invariably suffers from being too much taken for granted.
The Clash of Cultures
There are many elements at play in the relationship between intelligence professionals and policymakers. Key among them are the very different expectations that policymakers bring to the table regarding intelligence capabilities, analysts’ degrees of insight into the policy process, the receptivity of both sides to different points of view, and the intangible factors of personality and presence that influence everything that happens in Washington.
Policymakers and intelligence officers approach the world differently. The key difference, of course, is that policymakers make policy and intelligence officers do not. Intelligence is meant to inform policy, not to prescribe it. It would be naive to argue that intelligence does not influence policy; on the contrary, an intelligence assessment is often the key driver in a policy debate. On North Korea, for example, the intelligence conclusion in late 2002 that Pyongyang was assembling material for a covert uranium enrichment program pushed Washington toward a confrontation with the North that remains unresolved today. But at the point when policy is being decided, intelligence officers are supposed to step aside. This is an expectation that is decidedly not the case in many countries, but it has been a standing ethic of American intelligence since its founding.
Put a bit differently, in our system the intelligence officer’s job is fundamentally to help determine as objectively as possible what things mean, not what to do about them. The aim is to encourage objectivity within the profession and thus avoid excessive investment in a particular policy course. This is a particularly important function of intelligence craft because even the most realistic and hardheaded policy officials are by circumstance optimists; their energy must be channeled intensively into making policy choices succeed. Intelligence officers may or may not be pessimists, but they are trained to be skeptics; the core of their job is to look for troublesome trends—to be, as it were, bearers of potential bad news. When intelligence agencies fail in this regard, they are often characterized as failing altogether.
As with most important challenges in life, negotiating the divide between the natural and even necessary optimism of policymakers and the natural and necessary skepticism of intelligence professionals requires a sense of balance. Intelligence officers must guard against their skepticism rising to the point of “crying wolf”, or of giving policymakers what one senior official once described to me as “warning fatigue.” Policymakers, for their part, need to realize that warnings from the intelligence community are intended to head off trouble. They are not a sign of defeatism or negativity or an indication of surreptitious opposition to a policy—all charges that I have from time to time heard leveled against the intelligence community by senior policy officials.
Everyone should want intelligence to “speak truth to power.” Effective intelligence officers do that all the time. But because intelligence almost always deals with incomplete information, truth is sometimes legitimately arguable. Both sides must therefore bring an open mind to their unavoidable dialogue. Intelligence officers should never shrink from being the proverbial “skunk at the picnic”, but they should not raise their hackles just because policymakers question their assessments. Policymakers should never hesitate to ask questions, but they should not turn away just because the answers do not cheer them.
Although intelligence officers are not supposed to make policy, it is nonetheless important for them to seek—and for policymakers to provide—a sense of where policy is heading and why. Otherwise, intelligence officers are doing their jobs in a vacuum, and the product can appear detached or too abstract to a policy official who is struggling against heavy odds to prevail in some challenging arena. This sort of dialogue is essential to ensure that intelligence stays relevant to decision-making in foreign policy.
How Intelligence Helps
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft probably captured most accurately the essence of the intelligence contribution in saying that the role of intelligence is to “reduce the range of uncertainty when difficult decisions have to be made.”1
That is certainly the minimum that policymakers should expect of intelligence. Just how precise intelligence is depends on factors ranging from the quality of its sources to the difficulty of the targets. One important reality is that, like every other part of government, intelligence cannot cover everything and so must establish priorities. To a degree, these are determined by what intelligence officers themselves sense about future trends. But the process is powerfully aided by the aforementioned dialogue with policymakers. It is hard to overstate the importance of this process; when policy priorities are clear, intelligence collection and analysis is more likely to focus intently on the issues decision-makers need to understand. Such focus improves the chances that intelligence will deliver accurate and detailed material of real use to policymakers.
Intelligence can often be precise and confident—about the capabilities and intentions of another state or individual, for example, about the capabilities of a weapons system, or about the magnitude and timing of a terrorist threat. But inevitably, policymakers will sometimes receive qualified intelligence that bears a large component of inference. Intelligence officers have learned from recent experience—largely the look back at pre-war intelligence on Iraq—how important it is to state explicitly the uncertainties, gaps and underlying assumptions of any analysis, and especially of any net assessment.
Even when intelligence lacks the data to predict specific events or explain foreign capabilities and intentions with precision, it still has much to bring to the table. There are three things in particular that policymakers should expect from intelligence professionals in virtually all circumstances.
First, intelligence can help decision-makers think through complex problems. In most cases, it can marshal data to demonstrate how particular policies—economic sanctions, for example—have affected a country in the past and what other factors (the role of neighbors, internal dissent or opposition policies) might influence that country’s future behavior. Analysts can also delineate for policymakers the underlying forces—public opinion, the state of the economy or the military, tribal differences or friction with other countries—that would constrain or buoy foreign leaders in a fluid situation regardless of what they may say or intend.
Second, policymakers should expect intelligence to keep them several steps ahead of potentially important changes in their areas of responsibility. Intelligence cannot always succeed in this, but when it does succeed it is usually because officers have been tracking incremental changes that could achieve critical mass and produce surprise—the most significant common enemy of policymakers and intelligence officers alike. This is one arena where continuous discussion between policymakers and intelligence is particularly important, because it helps establish warning priorities in a world where it is impossible to follow every change on every issue.
Third, intelligence officers can point out opportunities to policymakers. For example, a policymaker might be grappling with ways to end a costly military conflict, achieve an arms-control breakthrough or end a humanitarian emergency in the face of obstinacy by one or more affected parties. If an intelligence analyst’s expertise leads him or her to discern what it would take to move one side or the other to compromise—a particular concession, an intervention by a third party or a rephrasing of some document—it is perfectly legitimate for the analyst to advance this view. Analysts are likely to cast such a view in terms of how a country or individual would react to a range of actions by the United States—an approach that falls well short of prescribing policy, but that expands the options for decision-makers.
In short, the prospects for an effective relationship between the new Obama Administration and the intelligence community will be dramatically enhanced if policymakers and intelligence officers can adhere to a few key rules of interaction. They must engage in frequent dialogue about policy priorities and intelligence capabilities. Intelligence officers must deliver their product in a timely manner, never hesitating to “tell it like it is”, with clarity about how evidence and logic are connected, assurance that alternative explanations have been considered, and notation of any gaps and uncertainties that qualify the conclusions. And policymakers must provide enough insight into their dilemmas and decision processes to give analysts the “situational awareness” they need to produce relevant work.
These are the key elements of the “persistent conscious effort” that Sherman Kent had in mind when he urged policymakers and intelligence specialists to think carefully about their relationship near the beginning of another Administration almost sixty years ago. Policymakers of that era made their share of mistakes, as do policymakers in all four-year periods, but in the end they did not do so badly at a time when the United States faced great challenge and uncertainty. The new Administration should be so fortunate.
Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 26, 2007.