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05 December 2006

The politicization of intelligence history

There are fewer accusations which carry more weight within the community than claims that the analysis and reporting of intelligence have been influenced by political considerations. The process and pressures by which political influence has been exerted in the great analytical debates of the past are well documented and well understood. These pressures have impacted assessments of adversary capabilities, such as during the debates over Soviet military capacity and the Bomber Gap and later Missile Gap. The dynamic has also affected the judgment of adversary intentions, such as during the earliest days of the post-World War II confrontation with the Soviets when the national estimates in both the US and the UK were constantly under competing pressures to reflect political positions favored by the powerful or the dissenting. (One excellent treatment examining the later can be found in Know Your Enemy: How the How the Joint Intelligence Committee Saw the World, written by no less of an authority than the UK JIC’s former chairman Sir Percy Craddock.)

To say that politicization of intelligence is a cardinal sin is to understate the standards by which the community judges itself. The accepted norms of the profession drive analytical tradecraft and entire organizational structures, and have been subject to continual and justified debate since nearly the inception of what we now consider the literature of intelligence.

However, recent events have transpired which raise the spectre of an entirely different sort of collective sin: the politicization of intelligence history.

These are unprecedented times for those who practice and those who study the profession of intelligence. In an earlier era, one would never have expected the release of after action reports regarding major intelligence issues into the public domain while those issues and their kin remain current concerns. It was expected that a lifetime at least would pass before the lens of history could be turned to the deeds, thoughts, and words of those responsible for the most sensitive and secretive of decisions within the halls of the community.

This new transparency, in the form of committee reports, vetted dossiers, and even the release of raw, unevaluated documents has been simply stunning; even moreso the public acknowledgement of programs previously classified at the highest levels by a range of senior officials, including several statements of nearly world-changing import by the President himself. But this transparency is a matter of executive and policy-maker prerogative, the deliberate decision to muster support for current policy actions through the release of supporting information which was considered key to current judgments regarding the selected national course of action.

There has long been precedent for this prerogative, though never before has it been employed in such volume or kind. One has but to examine the use of overhead imagery during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the disclosure of COMINT intercepts in the aftermath of the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Flight 007. These techniques would be reprised during the United Nations Security Council debates in early 2003, as the United States attempted to garner support for international action against Saddam Hussein’s regime with the support of selected imagery and intercepts.

Selected examples of the latest deliberate disclosure events, however, are emerging very different in nature than any previous use of publicly released intelligence information. These include releases of previously classified documents and key information by the 9/11 Commission examining the events leading up to the attacks of five years ago, and most recently the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s examination of pre- and post-war intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and terrorism related activities. To this one might add the recent release of the unclassified report regarding Iranian nuclear capabilities and intentions, which although derived from open sources can be considered as part of this overall phenomena as its authors emphasized that it’s structure and conclusions were “informed” by classified materials.

These processes began as inherently political exercises, and it is therefore unsurprising to see the end results subject to the classic Beltway political football as each competing side seeks to assert advantage. What once was a specialists game carried out in the narrow confines of academic journals and think tank sessions has now been opened out across the global interweb, enabled by the rapid lightweight digital publishing tools and constant connectivity that formed the blogsphere. In this Parallel World the sound of the melee now dwarfs by orders of magnitude what were once usually measured debates. And while the emergent effects of this openness are incredibly interesting from the immediate standpoint of understanding specific issues, especially as new forms of outside subject matter expertise are brought to bear on previously closely held problems, they pose a serious dilemma for the overall pursuit of what has been termed intelligence studies.

The weight of this secondary literature, some of which now includes unique and otherwise virtually unobtainable analysis of primary source documents originally written in hard target languages, will pose staggering challenges to the prospective historian seeking to understand major events in our collective experience as an intelligence community, and the student seeking to learn the trade and traditions of the profession. Moreover, the inherently political process has imbued much of these writings with such serious cognitive biases that it will require the exercise of strong analytical tradecraft simply to avoid immediate mindset formation which may irrevocably influence the reader to expect such politicization in the future. It has the potential to be a self-perpetuating cycle, to the great detriment of the intelligence studies field if not broken.

In the end, preserving an accurate and objective intelligence history matters. Future analysts will be shaped, possibly irretrievably, through their early exposure to that history. The explosive growth of the new literature discussing key matters of the art and science of intelligence has certainly been a major boon to the field, but it carries with it the potential for serious higher order effects that have not yet been anticipated or explored.

Fortunately, prescriptive remedies are available to counteract potentially negative higher order effects. Core analytical tradecraft can be applied just as readily to historical examples as current issues of concern, and the constant reinforcement of the tradecraft through study and research can only strengthen and professionalize key intelligence competencies. The pool of examples by which methodologists may demonstrate the application and efficacy of specific technique must be expanded, and must encompass scenarios in which the modern taint of politicization has not reared its ugly head.

Most of all, each practitioner in the field of intelligence studies, whether operator or academic, must personally decide to eschew politicization and seek objective understanding and insight from an apolitical standpoint, come what may.

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