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08 September 2007

The role of intelligence producers in national policy debates

A new chapter of intelligence – policy relations has been firmly cemented with the release of the latest UBL message (no matter to what degree it was staged and altered in AQ’s propaganda shops). The fact our of most hated enemy has taken to citing US authors and domestic political debate talking points in support of his (and his organization’s) cause has been a disturbing development dating back to at least 2004. However, when the enemy cites the work of a former intelligence analyst due to the level of unseemly publicity that individual has attracted, it is time to question the role of the “retired” community members that now speak so frequently in national media. (This is to say nothing of the entirely contemptible leaks by intelligence insiders that have so damaged the country’s capabilities across its most sensitive programs in favour of transient political advantage.)

Some speak from positions of substantive experience at pivotal moments in history, some attempt to leverage marginal roles from decades ago into a platform supported by their association with the entity rather than the value of their ideas. The number of these individuals, and the impact on public debate, is an unprecedented thing in the history of the US intelligence community, even given the typically difficult tensions between intelligence producers and their policy level consumers. The business of intelligence deals often with inherently political subjects and judgments, and it is a constant struggle for those serving on the line to defend against politicization (of their own bias, or of the temptations of external pressure). Yet those who no longer face the constraints of the line seem often to become very political creatures themselves.

In one sense, this may be legitimate, were they seeking policy positions as office holders or even appointees. However, the endless circuit of talking heads and pundits that have emerged, feeding from the trough of ratings created by scandal, is another matter entirely. There may even be legitimate roles for a former intelligence professional in the media – the help contextualize and inform regarding complex events and situations, for instance – the lack of which has been a defining feature of the failures of the media’s coverage of many recent cases. But there is a distinct difference between discussion and advocacy, which is as clear of a bright line as any found in between analytical judgments and policy proponency.

There is in journalism the old adage that a reporter of the news should not himself become the story. Perhaps there is also a corollary that should be penned as similar admonition to those that serve (or have served) in the intelligence field. Our honours come not from praise in the public forum, but from the quiet acknowledgment of our peers over a lifetime of silent service that yields good outcomes which only history shall chart - long after we have gone to our graves.

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