The recent successful U.S. strikes against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani have highlighted the crucial, multifaceted role of the intelligence community in U.S. national security.
Having collected the intelligence that fixed the locations of these two high-value targets, U.S. agencies are now on the hook to track potential retaliatory attacks as well as assess the impact of these decapitation strikes on the organizations al-Baghdadi and Soleimani once led.
At the center of this mission is CIA Director Gina Haspel and her team, which runs the spies behind enemy lines and produces the analysis on which President Trump and his team rely.
Intelligence is first and foremost about detecting signs and warnings, preempting threats before they are visited on our shores. There are three stages: collection of raw intelligence, analysis and executive decisions. The CIA makes analytical judgments with levels of low, medium or high confidence. There is no such thing as 100% certainty.
Mr. Trump may have had a high level of confidence in the potential for success against al-Baghdadi, but just as in the case of President Obama’s decision to approve the raid against Osama bin Laden, the only complete certainty in the mission was the danger faced by the elite U.S. Special Forces troops who carried them out. In targeting Soleimani, Mr. Trump made a calculated risk that Iran would not respond with a significant retaliatory attack. In each case, responsibility rested with the president as the ultimate executive decision-maker.
Intelligence officers vote, but their exercise of civic duty is divorced entirely from their work. My colleagues and I served in harm’s way in combat zones under the direction of many presidents, some of whom we voted for and others for whom we did not. We understood the commander in chief had to consider other factors besides the raw intelligence, including budgets and, of course, political realities.
For the intelligence community, whose mission is to collect and guard the truth, analytical precision and an apolitical approach are sacred. Policymakers rely on intelligence analysts to shine the spotlight on the greatest threats to our national security, assess the options for dealing with those threats and track how well policy measures achieve the mission.
The biblical chapter John 8:32 is fixed in stone at the CIA’s Langley headquarters: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Professional intelligence officers avoid predisposed biases, which can distort the interpretation of events. Intelligence analysis is the reverse, an inductive process whereby conclusions are drawn based on facts and source information.
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan was the outlier when it came to the agency’s cloak-and-dagger work. He assiduously avoided the term “espionage” and in November 2015 told NPR, “We don’t steal secrets. We uncover, we discover, we reveal, we obtain, we solicit — all of that.”
But the CIA actually does steal secrets, exquisitely so under Director Haspel, who, like the best leaders under whom I served, creates a climate of inclusion and demands the toughest collection requirements, challenges assumptions and immerses herself in the substantive issue at hand.
Focused on the mission to recruit spies, steal secrets and produce the best analysis possible, Ms. Haspel is entirely comfortable leaving the public debate about national security to others in the administration, while being a trusted consigliere to the president and his national security team.
Sometimes there is no hiding an overt success like the recent al-Baghdadi and Soleimani missions. But you won’t hear Ms. Haspel or her team commenting on them. The secret of the CIA’s success — as one of my mentors used to say — is the secret of the CIA’s success.
⦁ Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.