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28 June 2007

Politicization and the leak culture

We have recently had reason to revisit the old historical materials on Service I of the First Chief Directorate of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, which was responsible for analysis of foreign political and military intelligence - such as it was within the confines of a culture focused nearly exclusively on collection operations, and in which decision-makers from Stalin onward nearly always chose to act as their own analysts.

In short, it was the epitome of a dysfunctional intelligence-policy relationship. In his second volume reviewing the incredible Mitrokin Archives – a secret collection of handwritten notes copied from the internal files of the FCD by a patient archivist, who spent 20 years accumulating the most sensitive files before fleeing the Soviet Union as one of the most amazing defectors ever to emerge from the Cold War – the noted intelligence historian Christopher Andrew put it best: “Though the politicization of intelligence sometimes degrades assessment even in democratic systems; it is actually built into the structure of all authoritarian regimes.”

We fear greatly that politicization is well on its way to becoming ingrained in the next generation of analysts entering the profession. Too many times recently we have seen instructors attempting to insist on degrees of political correctness that would make a commissar blush, and to outright excise materials that conflict with their favoured line of thinking from student work. There is an increasing emphasis on process, and the fig leaf numerics, to hide what otherwise might be transparent biases under the pretense of rigour. And unfortunately, the Millennial generation is exceptionally receptive to being shaped into this mold, having spent a lifetime growing up under increasingly indoctrination oriented education systems which fail to instill critical thinking skills yet insist on ever more dogmatic judgments.

We have said before that the wrong lessons have been drawn from the intelligence lead-in prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and we are increasingly concerned by the number of academics that would rely on partially declassified materials (and damnable leaks) in an attempt to teach their own concept of intelligence “reform” to an eager audience which has nothing else against which to compare.

This is normalizing a degree of conformity in judgment, and excusing away the unacceptable behaviors of those who would break their sacred oaths. This is an institutionalization of a new culture, hitherto alien to the intelligence community, in which individuals claiming to “speak truth to power” place their own assessments, typically made in lockstep with the unexamined assumptions of an inherently political philosophy, above the requirements of professional tradecraft or even the needs of the mission. And when these individual perceive that their viewpoints do not carry the day – no matter what evidence may be assembled in favour of an alternative hypothesis (or against their preferred theory) – they choose to voice their displeasure to the press.

We view this with the gravest of concern, and heed well the related points made by Former Spook regarding the impact of such dysfunctional cultures in the origins of cascading failures. The warning signs are always apparent, and in hindsight may be castigated easily. It takes a far different effort, however, to change them before disaster befalls the unwary.

We see constantly in recent analytic debates the pressures to find false certainties, and a profound lack of respect for the “unknown unknowns” – at a time when the means of collection are ever more challenged, and the range of targets growing ever wider. Substantive expertise has become scarce, and is often a millstone in the face of a radically changed environment which offers no precedent upon which to rely – although few anointed experts are yet willing admit this when it occurs, and to face Smoking Mirror).

We wonder if somewhere in this increasingly damaging culture there is a patient Vasili borne of these failures, squirreling away the latest assembly of damaging leaks - not out of righteous conviction in the face of an evil system (as was the case for Mitrokin), but out of base ego and the desire political profit.

Without strong leadership, not merely at the highest levels but down to the line functions themselves, it is only a matter of time before these leaks destroy the community. We have insisted before that defeating politicization requires an individual commitment on the part of every intelligence professional – whether analyst or operator, administrator or briefer. But we fear that the current intel studies academia is not doing nearly enough to instill such a commitment, but rather reinforcing the damnable drivers which have brought us to such a dangerous point in the history of the community.

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