- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Intelligence has once again been front and center in the news this past week, and that’s hardly ever good news for the intelligence community.

The current kerfuffle was caused by the president’s unguarded remarks to Steve Kroft in a “60 Minutes” interview. Mr. Kroft wanted to know why the administration was surprised by the rise of the Islamic State group. The president then seemed to reach for a lifeline: “Well, I think our head of our intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what was happening in Syria.”

It hasn’t been a good stretch for precise presidential language, what with President Obama labeling these same militants a “JV team” a few months ago, then acknowledging that “we don’t have a strategy yet” and then wavering between destroying IS or making it “a manageable problem” once he finally did.

Reaction to “the intel community made me do it” meme was pretty swift. To preempt the near-certain watercooler rebellions, Mr. Clapper sent a letter to the folks who work for him, praising them for their success in monitoring, assessing and calling attention to the expansion of the Islamic State group over the past two years.

The political long knives came out, too. Pundits were quick to point to the February testimony of Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, that the militants probably would take more territory in Iraq and Syria this year to demonstrate their strength. Brett McGurk, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran and a holdover from the Bush administration for his powerful expertise on the region, echoed that the Islamic State was growing and the Iraqi security forces were a poor match for it.

To be fair, Mr. Clapper, in a bit of institutional soul-searching, acknowledged to a journalist that, “In this case, we underestimated [the Islamic State] and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army.”

With the controversy swirling, I got a series of phone calls asking me to divine, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” I declined. How would I know anyway?

But the whole episode serves to reveal some key questions between policymakers (the world as we would like it to be, inherently optimistic, vision-based guys) and intelligence (the world as it is, inherently pessimistic, fact-based guys). The goal is for the latter (intel) to get into the head of the former (policy) even though every sentence they utter is likely making the policymakers’ day worse than it otherwise would be. This is a permanent tension, and the very fact of this controversy suggests that in this case it wasn’t handled very well.

One potential shortfall is what I have called the phenomenon of the “unpleasant fact” — the kind of fact that assaults preconceptions, undercuts current policy or imposes serious future policy costs on the decision maker. Walking into the Oval Office in April, 2007 with evidence that the Syrians had a near complete nuclear reactor in their eastern desert would fit the description. So, too, would be a judgment that all hell was about to break loose in Iraq, a country that the vice president described as sovereign, stable, self-reliant and “one of the great achievements of the administration.”

The “unpleasant fact” always requires more evidence, more time and more courage from the intelligence folks to make it stick. One wonders how hard this unpleasant fact was pushed and how hard the push was back from midsummer 2013 to midsummer 2014.

Conversely, the dynamic in the Oval Office might have been entirely different. In the great battle of Antietam, still the bloodiest day in American history, Union forces were led by Gen. George McClellan, an incredibly cautious man. Gen. McClellan always believed that he was outnumbered by Gen. Robert E. Lee. In truth, in this fight he outnumbered Southern forces 2-to-1 and had the Army of Northern Virginia pinned with its back to the Potomac and only one usable ford behind them. President Lincoln thought Gen. McClellan could have ended the war.

But Gen. McClellan was indeed wary and his intelligence chief, Alan Pinkerton (he of detective fame) fed his caution with reports of imaginary legions that Gen. Lee had brought with him across the river. Neither man was dishonest, but their tendencies so strongly reinforced each other’s that it is still unclear who was really misleading whom. In any event, Gen. McClellan fought scared, committed only a part of his army and then only piecemeal, and allowed Gen. Lee to fight another day.

One wonders which dynamic may have been at work the past year in the Oval Office or even if there was evidence of both of them.

In either case, the best curative is constant dialogue, sometimes bordering on confrontation. When the intelligence is making a policymaker too happy, he ought to challenge it, and even if he doesn’t, the intelligence briefer needs to launch a red team against his own conclusions to see if he can hold his ground. And the intelligence officer with the unhappy message needs to insist, really insist, the way the State Department’s Carl Ford (unsuccessfully, sadly) did when we were arguing over Saddam Hussein’s aluminum tubes and nuclear weapons program in 2002.

Presidents get to decide how their intelligence is served up to them, and it’s the job of intelligence to adjust. President Obama prefers to absorb by reading and does not insist on daily interaction with his briefers. Fair enough. But let’s recognize that that approach makes the kind of curative I discussed above more difficult than it otherwise would be. Let’s at least agree on that.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at mhayden@washingtontimes.com.

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