- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte’s new intelligence strategy is directly responsible for last week’s failure to advance plans for Middle East democratization at the Forum for the Future.

In the spirit of transparency, Mr. Negroponte made the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States public last month. The 32-page document is available for the world to see via the Internet. Among its explicit goals is the use of the intelligence community to “bolster the growth of democracy.” Toward this end, Mr. Negroponte has directed his top staff to develop a comprehensive approach, including a “collection plan,” to aid “incipient” democracies.

Stripped of bureaucratese, the strategy means the U.S. intelligence community will use the full array of tools at its disposal not only in support of existing democracies, but to foster the replacement of autocratic regimes with democratic governments.

This is a laudable objective. But it should not be a public objective, especially coming from our new intelligence kingpin. It conjures some of the more controversial episodes in the history of U.S. intelligence, including the use of the CIA to funnel millions of dollars in campaign support to influence the outcome of democratic elections in postwar Europe.

The Oct. 26 release of the National Intelligence Strategy was particularly inept timing. The document was released barely a fortnight before the Forum of the Future meeting, where foreign ministers from dozens of countries, including 22 Arab states, were convening in Bahrain to discuss ways to promote democracy. Mr. Negroponte’s strategy had the unintended effect of undermining the conference by provoking fears, rightly or wrongly, that the CIA plans to bolster domestic political opposition groups in order to bring about regime change. Under these circumstances, no one can be surprised that Egypt would not agree to a draft declaration allowing foreign funds to flow directly to political opposition groups through non-government organizations.

The damage from Mr. Negroponte’s blunder will not be confined to the Forum for the Future conference. Anyone who was worked in the trenches promoting democratic change knows how difficult it can be to build and sustain trust. In many emerging democracies, the role of non-government organizations and foreign political advisers is tenuous enough without the added burden of being suspected of collaborating with intelligence services.

I began working in countries in political transition in the 1980s, when Latin American countries shifted from military juntas to democracy. In the 1990s, I worked with political opposition parties in environments as diverse as South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Romania. My experience is that when host-nation intelligence agencies and entrenched governments become suspicious of foreign advisers and groups working to promote political change, especially those that are funded from abroad, there is an adverse impact on free elections.

The new National Intelligence Strategy serves to justify this paranoia. Governments fearful of political change will respond with measures that impede democracy, ranging from new legal restrictions on foreign financing of political organizations to the expulsion of non-governmental organizations or the denial of visas to foreign experts. The work of political professionals trying to foster democratic change will only be made more difficult, and in some places, impossible.

Now that the document has been made public, it is unfortunately too late for Mr. Negroponte to undo the damage. Sadly, an excess of zeal for democracy has set back on-the-ground efforts to promote political change. No amount of denials that intelligence agencies are funding the political opposition is likely to be persuasive to skeptical governments. The credibility of non-government organizations has been undermined with local media, and more significantly, with local populations.

Congress may be able to lessen the damage. Restricting the intelligence community’s use of appropriated funds in democratic elections could help, particularly if the restrictions are well-publicized. Prohibiting the use of non-government organizations for espionage might also restore their credibility.

The burden of establishing legitimacy, however, falls hardest on groups working to promote democracy and the domestic political organizations they strive to help. A few paragraphs of rhetoric in an unusually public intelligence strategy have made the work of rank-and-file democracy activists significantly more difficult, and more dangerous.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He has worked to promote democracy with the International Republican Institute, State Department and National Endowment for Democracy.

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