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11 August 2008

Intelligence and the 300 at 3 a.m.

Much has been made of the extended cadres of foreign policy advisors employed by the Obama campaign – purported to exceed some 300 subject matter experts and other assorted wonks, organized into a virtual think tank of sorts.

From a professional (and entirely apolitical) perspective of intelligence theory, the existence of the 300 is enough to give pause, especially since such innovations in political campaigns tend to be rapidly adopted in future election cycles. Shadow policy structures directly advising future candidates – perhaps even semi-permanently organized, as in the British model – may well become a recurring feature of the US party system. It is not our place to comment on the appropriateness of such a structure. However, these individuals are more or less entirely disconnected from the US intelligence system, and are relying on unknown information source of uncertain validity (presumably much if not all derived from the open source domain) to advise future leaders on matters in which there likely exists a substantial body of classified reporting. This classified view likely presents a far different picture than the open source would on a number of key issues. (One can look to the Mitrokin Archive’s revelations, for example, as but one hint of the re-evaluation that must necessarily occur in foreign policy relations when intelligence information is taken into account.)

This time around, it appears that the McCain campaign’s advisors are fewer in number, and being loosely organized likely play a lesser role in determining the candidate’s stance on any given issue. And the sitting Senator has long had access to classified intelligence (as does his opponent by virtue of the same office, albeit for a far shorter time period). This decision advantage is likely somewhat akin to that enjoyed by incumbent Presidents against outside challengers in previous elections. And while there are those who have been named as part of the 300 that were previously consumers of classified intelligence products, in most cases these individuals have been out of access for at least a decade. Again, from an apolitical intelligence theory perspective, this is quite sobering. To paraphrase CIA’s former Balkan Task Force - whose original comments came against the backdrop of the dispute between different factions arguing over the conflict in that troubled region - each campaign is entitled to its own policy, but not its own version of history.

The question of what intelligence support a campaign ought to receive, and how far that support should extend (beyond the traditional briefings provided to the candidate himself), are not easy to objectively address – particularly in a hyper-politicized election season. It is perhaps among the thorniest of aspects of intelligence – policy relations that have yet arisen in the new millennium. But it is nonetheless a critical consideration, and especially so in cases of crisis situations. For while intelligence theory recognizes that the community is not the only voice advising decisionmakers, most theoretical discussions assume that intelligence is part of the process – something that is not assured in the campaign stage. Among the questions which should be examined include how such intelligence support can be delivered, how to avoid politicization of that intelligence in the atmosphere of a hotly contested campaign, and how arrangements can be constructed to prevent leaks in a temporary and highly transient environment of moving facilities, rotating staff, and constant media attention.
The manner in which these questions are answered may well set the pattern for a subsequent administration’s use of intelligence, and shape key relationships between decisionmakers and the community. And more importantly, the international impact of any candidate’s actions during the early stages of a crisis event – such as the now infamous 3 a.m. call - is magnified by the instant global media environment moreso now than at any time in previous history.

Such 3 a.m. moments particularly highlight the need for (and the potential problems of) providing warning intelligence support. The first reaction of a surprised campaign has international impact, and may well be a significant factor in foreign responses during the early hours of a crisis depending on how those abroad view any particular candidate’s prospects for electoral success. (For a historical example of such an assessment by foreign decisionmakers, one need only recall the covert overtures made by the KGB’s Washington residentura to the Kennedy campaign at Kruschev’s request, which occurred against the crisis backdrop of negotiations over the fate of two RB-47 reconnaissance pilots downed in Soviet territory in July 1960). The Georgia / Russia incident provides a more contemporary example, and future analysis will by necessity have to consider the influence of both the official US reactions and the candidates’ responses on the Russian view of achievable conflict objectives in the first days of the fighting.

US Presidential candidates have not lacked for those former intelligence officials now willing to offer policy advice - and even their own visions of intelligence community reform. However, true professional intelligence support has been far less consistent. This merits greater attention.

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