At his swearing-in ceremony, Leon Panetta remarked that, above all, the Director of Central Intelligence should "give the President of the United States the unvarnished truth, not what he thinks the President may want to hear”. He pledged to "provide the very best intelligence, independent judgments not influenced by the politics of the situation, but truly real, objective information that can be presented to the President and the policymakers of this country so that they can protect the American people..."
Can the Intelligence process be entirely insulated from “political” influences?
That depends on a complex definition of terms.
The title for this think piece was intentionally misleading. For liberal Democrats, “hatching” Intelligence probably brings to mind what allegedly occurred in the run-up to the Iraq War. Generally speaking, there’s no doubt that information obtained by espionage may be wholly concocted – a “Paper Mill” invention, as famously lampooned by Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana.
Aging political hacks such as myself, however, remember when the colloquialism “hatched” referred to civil service employees of the Federal Government who are prohibited from engaging in certain partisan political activities by the Hatch Act of 1939 – originally passed to prevent President Roosevelt from transforming Washington bureaucrats into Democratic Party.cheer-leaders.
The Hatch Act is still on the books – and now includes a little-known amendment which extends these restrictions to departments of the Intelligence Community, notably including the National Security Agency, Central Imagery Office, Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI and CIA.
Employees of these Agencies can, of course, register to vote with any party of their choice. They can also express opinions about candidates and issues, make political contributions, join political clubs, and attend political fund-raisers and rallies.
Constitutional guarantees notwithstanding, these employees cannot, however, run for office in partisan elections, make campaign speeches, collect contributions or sell tickets to political fund-raisers, distribute campaign leaflets, organize political rallies, or wear political buttons at work.
Now, of course, the issue here is not, for absurd example, whether the CIA Chief of Station in Nairobi may sport a McCain-Palin sticker on his or her car (though that might be somewhat indiscreet, if not downright perilous).
Mr. Panetta was not speaking of Intelligence swayed by partisan politics per se, but by the “politics of the situation”.
Meaning the policies of the Presidential Administration in power.
Such policies can influence the objective process of Intelligence analysis in several ways. The President can subtly make his hopes and expectations clear to the Director who can, in turn, not so subtly communicate those sentiments to his staff. It might be no more than a word or two changed, softened or hardened, in an Estimate. Or a dozen different forms of top-down pressure for subjectivity.
Besides, Langley is no Ivory Tower. CIA analysts work behind security barriers and closed doors, but they also live in the real world of Washington. They often have contact with colleagues or higher-ups at the Pentagon, the State Department, the National Security Council who loyally support Administration policies. Sooner or later, analysts will Get the Word, as President Kennedy once put it, through bureaucratic osmosis.
A Director may nobly vow to uphold, at all costs, the Gospel Truth which Allen Dulles had emblazoned at CIA Headquarters. But there are times when the Truth is seen only – another biblical phrase – through a glass darkly.
We know about how Policy influenced Intelligence during the last Administration. Could something similar happen under the new regime?
Imagine, for another random example, that satellite reconnaissance identifies some mysterious pipes coming from an underground installation in Iran. Sewers? Or evidence of something more sinister, in the nuclear vein? There is disagreement at CIA, no clear answer; it’s a judgment call by analysts who are aware that an Administration deep in the throes of economic Depression would find unpalatable Intelligence of foreign threats that might raise congressional demands for military action.
Truth is not at issue in this case, because Truth is not manifest. A choice as to be made, and what CIA analyst – or Director - will make that choice with no thought of Shakespeare’s warning about shooting the messenger who is the bearer of bad news?
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