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30 April 2007

Revisionist politicization

We are most disturbed by some of the passages cited by advance reviewers of former DCI Tenent’s new book. The prospect of a senior official of that level authoring such a controversial piece so quickly after his tenure is a difficult enough thing to stomach, but it is frankly just another indicator of the unpleasant nature of senior level politics in this town these days – and an indicator of how far from the apolitical ideal the position itself has fallen.

Tenent is by no means the first former DCI to write an autobiography. Indeed, former DCI Gate’s older work has enjoyed re-issue after his appointment to SecDef. The existence of the book is not entirely the core of our objection, however much we might otherwise wish to see those who served in silence remain so upon their retirement, at least until the matters of controversy had been relegated to the status of history.

Our primary objection comes from the characterization of discussions of intelligence briefings and key judgments during Operation Iraqi Freedom pre-planning. There is much room for the interpretations of history, and the inevitable second guessing by the principals involved in those debates. This is also regrettably politics as usual in this town, for what is perceived a defeat (even in the narrow temporal sense of the media’s momentum) will always be an orphan.

The statements personally attacking specific DIA analysts, especially given the issues surrounding the factual accuracy of the criticism, is another matter entirely. While it is now a given in some circles that the creation of new functional and organizational structures for mission specific analytical efforts was somehow at the root of all problems with pre-war intelligence, this still remains in an unproven assertion whose core allegations of “cherry-picked” conclusions have never been validated – and which hopefully will be the subject of proper and rigorous academic study in coming years. No matter what the outcome of that study might be, it would be a far better treatment of a difficult historical discussion than the current media and political scrimmage that has so badly tainted the matter with controversy.

One can argue the motivations and effectiveness of specific units such as Undersecretary Feith’s shop (and many no doubt will for years to come), but the creation of dedicated mission centers, functional groups, or task forces is hardly a new phenomena driven by any specific agency management. In fact, one noted commentator (speaking under the Chatham House Rule in an unclassified public forum) recently focused attention on the issues surrounding the growing number of account-specific centers, not due to fears of politicization, but out of the very real concerns that the effective conduct of intelligence on a wide range of targets is now apparently best accomplished through exception (in the form of these small units) than through the normal but increasingly ineffective bureaucracies of the community - with damning implications for the larger entities.

Attacking individual analysts assigned to serve in any of these shops is beyond the pale. Analysts given the privilege and responsibility of briefing at the DCI’s level are not speaking from individual opinion but rather coordinated agency (if not community) assessments. One can question the accuracy of those assessments, or the analytic rigor of the process by which they were produced, but somehow alleging that the briefing lacked validity due to the (inaccurately alleged) reserve employment status of the individual analyst is the worst form of libel - and ill-befits a former senior. And at the end of the day, what a DCI chooses to convey to a sitting President is the responsibility of that DCI, who must judge his advisors and their statements from his own experience, analytical tradecraft, and substantive target knowledge. Once he has spoken, he must own his statements – for history will always attribute them first and foremost to him.

It is further appalling to note the attempted attribution of new statements, which failed to fully characterize the nature of the underlying information regarding Iraqi WMD programs upon which the assessments were based, to specific analysts but described in language which would be exceptionally unusual, to say the least. Any analyst’s tendency to caveat even to excess is well known within the community, especially given the widespread recognition of hard target challenges and the impact of adversary denial and deception efforts. Analysts are drilled in the precision of well-parsed language, and the calibration of judgment usually conveyed using some variant on words of estimative probability. One can argue whether specific caveats were well crafted, or given conclusions communicated effectively, but it is nearly unthinkable that statements claiming almost bravado levels of confidence would have propagated through multiple layers of analysis, coordination, and presentation. Nothing so offends the well-tuned ear of those in the analytical communities – and this would have certainly provoked reactions.

We are also frankly amazed that a former DCI should express outrage at being judged based on his own statements, or that such judgments might have career impact – even if they were simply others’ words repeated. Intelligence officers and analysts live and die based on the accuracy of their assessments, whether errors were based in their own mistakes or inherited from others in the community involved in the product’s lifecycle. They are even judged, rightly or wrongly, based on policymaker interpretation and use of that intelligence – as any warning analyst or watchstander knows all too well. This accountability, even if applied wrongly in specific cases – is a critical and needed weight upon every individual in the national security community to get it right above all other considerations. Because when intelligence is wrong, consequences follow far beyond individual careers.

The focus of estimative efforts has to be on the substance and the tradecraft, not on personal advancement or any other careerist interests – and that focus has to start and end with the very pinnacle of the organization, and the intelligence community as a whole.

h/t Captains Quarters, Haft of the Spear

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