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Politicized Intelligence Definition Essay

Editor’s Note: The incoming administration's scorn for intelligence professionals is a matter of grave concern to many of us at Lawfare. I, for one, worry that the administration will conduct its foreign policy without understanding the dynamics of foreign governments, their attempts to mislead us, and emerging threats like cyber subversion. Joshua Rovner, a scholar of intelligence at American University, makes me even more concerned. He takes the long view, going beyond the potential for short-term policy catastrophe to explain the long tradition of policymaker suspicion of intelligence and the many potential negative consequences for the intelligence community.


In August, the Washington Post reported that intelligence officials are concerned about their new boss, given CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s political background and staunch support of Trump during the campaign. As a Republican representative from Kansas, Pompeo stood out in Congress for his relentless pressure to find a scandal in the Benghazi tragedy and to connect it with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not satisfied with the House Benghazi Committee’s final report, he attached an addendum declaring that Clinton “misled the public” about the affair and “failed to lead.” Meanwhile he threw his support behind Trump, “a commander in chief who fearlessly puts America out in front.”

Pompeo is not the first politician to lead the CIA, but his relentless brand of politics and close ties to Trump have led to fears that he cannot remain impartial about the Russia probe. In particular, critics worry that he will inhibit the work of the Agency’s Mission Center for Counterintelligence, which may possess damaging information about Russia’s role in last year’s election. The Center is the Agency’s hub for tracking foreign intelligence efforts in the United States, and according to the Post, a conduit to the FBI. Pompeo reportedly ordered the Center to report to him directly, which makes sense given his commitment to track down leakers and the sensitivity of the issue. But some within the Agency worry that he could use his position to discourage it from pursuing the investigation at all.

[Pompeo's] relentless brand of politics and close ties to Trump have led to fears that he cannot remain impartial about the Russia probe.

Concerns about Pompeo are not new. In February, the Post reported that he was asked to call reporters in an effort to dispute stories about connections between Trump associates and Russian intelligence operatives. While Pompeo never acknowledged doing so, his public comments about broader Russian influence operations are mild compared to releases from U.S. agencies. Before the election, a joint statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security concluded that Russia had hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee in an effort to sway the outcome, and that “only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” This January, a second assessment explained why the election was a serious escalation in Russia’s long-term effort to influence U.S. politics.

Pompeo agreed with these findings in his confirmation hearings, but more recently he has argued that Russia’s so-called “active measures” are nothing new. He turned heads at the Aspen Security Forum when asked whether Russia had interfered in the election. “Yeah, of course,” he said. “And the one before that, and the one before that, they have been at this a hell of a long time.” Some fear that this formulation is too dismissive. While Soviet active measures in the Cold War were mostly dismal failures, this episode appears to have been much more successful, and Russia’s technical sophistication in cyber-espionage means that old analogies are not really relevant to understanding the present threat.

To be fair, Pompeo’s comments have gone far beyond what Trump has been willing to acknowledge about Russian activities. At various times, the president has pinned the blame for the DNC hacks on Russia, China, and the DNC itself. His only consistent theme is that the problem of attribution is too hard to make a firm judgment. Pompeo has been much more critical of Russia, but his caveats, especially the repeated suggestion that last year’s events were nothing new, have some worried that he will lean in Trump’s direction as the investigation intensifies. In other areas he has willingly assumed the role of a policy advocate, rather than an impartial intelligence official. This is in keeping with his embrace of Trump during the election season.

All presidents have incentives to politicize intelligence. Intelligence agencies are particularly effective public-relations vehicles because they control secret information, and individuals tend to believe in secrets. In this case, Trump has obvious reason to use intelligence leaders to muddy the waters about what happened during the campaign, and to create distance between the actions of the Russian government and his own staff. One reason why the Russia investigation is so explosive is that the intelligence community takes it so seriously. The president would surely love to see it downplay the results.

There are many ways to get intelligence to toe the policy line. Direct politicization occurs when they lean on intelligence leaders directly, cajoling them to shape intelligence conclusions in ways that are politically convenient. Indirect politicization, by contrast, occurs when policymakers send subtle signals about what they expect to see and hear. In this case, concerned intelligence officers seem to accuse Trump of what I call “manipulation by appointment.” Rather than twisting the elbows of intelligence chiefs, the idea is to put reliable friends in high places. Critics accused President Reagan of this tactic, for instance, when he appointed his campaign manager William Casey to lead the intelligence community. While pressuring senior officials can lead to political scandal, manipulation by appointment helps avoid that risk.

We can expect to see a few things if Pompeo turns out to be susceptible to White House pressure.

It is unclear that Trump chose Pompeo because he wanted a pliant leader at the CIA. We will not have the whole story for a long time, and episodes of politicization are extremely difficult to categorize. We can expect to see a few things if Pompeo turns out to be susceptible to White House pressure. Most importantly, he will temper his previous assertions about Russian responsibility for the election hack, even if the underlying intelligence remains the same. We will also see efforts to skirt organizational best practices in the CIA. Finally, we will probably see more CIA officials providing specific corroboration about how Pompeo interfered with their work. On the other hand, if Pompeo maintains his integrity, then the investigation will go by the book, and criticisms of the director will be rare and vague.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to be very concerned. Politicization is most likely when the political stakes are very high, and when leaders make public statements on controversial issues that are out of step with intelligence judgments. We are seeing this play out now. Trump’s cavalier attitude about Russian meddling stands in sharp contrast with the intelligence community, and his political future would be in serious doubt if the Russia investigation concludes that there was meaningful collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. In this hothouse environment, he has every reason to hope that special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusions point in the other direction.

Mueller’s work depends on support from intelligence and law enforcement. Intercepted communications provided by the National Security Agency and investigative leads from the FBI will surely be central to the case, one way or the other. This is why Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey was so troubling to observers, some of whom accused the president of obstructing the investigation by removing an official who was insufficiently loyal. Trump may believe that the new director, Christopher Wray, may be easier to manage. Similarly, he may be confident that his long-time political ally Pompeo will help him ride out the Russia probe.

If this is true, the implications are profound and disturbing. Politicization has many negative effects on the quality of intelligence: It can skew findings, inhibit later reassessments, and poison intelligence-policy relations over the long-term.

In this case there is another possible danger. It is obvious that Trump has critics inside the CIA, judging by what anonymous sources have told the press. But there are surely others within the Agency who view him favorably, not least because of his aggressive approach to counterterrorism. Trump seems to favor more aggressive collection, regardless of questions of ethics and effectiveness. He came out in favor of waterboarding, for example, arguing that it is necessary to “fight fire with fire.” Pompeo shares his inclinations. Last year he offered a strong defense of intelligence personnel against accusations that they had gone too far. “These men and women are not torturers,” he said, “they are patriots.” Pompeo’s comments suggest he will err on the side of being more aggressive, a mindset that probably resonates with some officers in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. The CIA is not a monolith.

The result might be a fracture between the Agency’s collectors and analysts. If many of the former are excited about working under Pompeo, and many of the latter believe he is a mouthpiece for the administration, then the prospects for effective collaboration are slim. The relationship between collection and analysis has always been complicated, and the Agency has invested a great deal of effort in bringing the two disciplines closer together. Most recently, it has reorganized around regional and topical mission centers in part to enhance collaboration. While this initiative is not without critics, there are good reasons to make such interactions routine. Among other things, collectors may overestimate the usefulness of their sources if they lack ready access to analysts who make sense of new information. Conversely, analysts’ work may be incomplete or outdated if they don’t have access to ongoing collection efforts. The same is true regarding covert operations: Plans that sound good in theory but are not backstopped by solid analysis may prove disastrous. Effective intelligence collection relies on a healthy working relationship with analysts. If a split develops as a result of Pompeo and the Russia probe, that working relationship may suffer.

For this reason, among others, we should be very concerned about politicization. Pompeo has a politician’s instincts and close ties to the president. This does not mean he will be politicized, of course, but it has raised suspicions within the CIA. “People have to watch him,” said one official to the Post. “It’s almost as if he can’t resist the impulse to be political.” To overcome these suspicions, and to protect the institutional integrity of the Agency, he should try.

Editor’s Note: Part of the job of intelligence officials is to give bad news to policymakers. But should officials at times soften their assessments or otherwise pick their battles in order to maintain the access to policymakers that is vital for intelligence to be relevant? Joshua Rovner of Southern Methodist University explores the Iran nuclear deal in this context, warning of the temptation of what he calls the “soft politicization” of intelligence and the risks for both intelligence and policymakers of doing so.


Secret intelligence is playing a public role in the ongoing debate over the Iran nuclear deal. If the deal is finalized in June, Iran will sacrifice much of its existing uranium enrichment capabilities in return for lifting some economic sanctions and will have to accept an intrusive inspections regime to verify its compliance for more than a decade. The presence of inspectors will create new opportunities for intelligence collection: Not only will intelligence agencies benefit from inspection reports dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but they will be free to explore other areas of Iran’s scientific and associated industrial infrastructure.

Obama administration officials have expressed confidence that the intelligence community will be able to watch Iran closely, and the intelligence community has returned the compliment. In a recent public appearance, CIA Director John Brennan expressed satisfaction that Iran had made so many concessions and applauded U.S. diplomats for securing a deal that was “as solid as you can get.” There is no reason to doubt Brennan’s sincerity. Indeed, while relations between U.S. policymakers and intelligence leaders are sometimes fractious, the two sides are on the same page when it comes to Iran. Declassified U.S. estimates are broadly consistent with administration statements on Iran’s nuclear progress. Since 2007, the intelligence community has assessed that Iran does not have an active nuclear weapons program, but that it is committed to maintaining its enrichment capability. While some hawks have criticized these estimates, there is nothing to suggest that they were disputed by President Bush or President Obama. And if intelligence on Iran is as good policymakers believe, then there is no reason the intelligence community would worry about its own ability to monitor Iranian compliance.

But this synergy between intelligence and policy may not last forever. What will happen, for instance, if the intelligence community discovers that Iran is cheating? Having staked itself to the nuclear deal, the administration may be reluctant or unable to accept this kind of bad news. Worse yet, the intelligence community will be under pressure to report on Iranian activities in public, given that policymakers used intelligence as a major selling point in the U.S. ability to verify compliance. Instead of keeping intelligence under wraps, policymakers will be tempted to politicize it by pressuring officials to report findings that are aligned with their own views.

At this point intelligence officials will face a difficult choice. On the one hand, they can push back and resist pressure to change the tone or substance of their estimates. At the same time, they might worry about spending all their political capital in one shot, leaving them isolated and pushed out of the policy process. As in any advisory relationship, intelligence-policy relations are iterative. However much intelligence officials would like to speak truth to power today, they fear the price will be losing influence in the future. Iran is not the only game in town, of course, and intelligence officials presumably want a seat at the table in discussions of issues ranging from counterterrorism to great power politics. For this reason they may engage in “soft politicization” by toning down their conclusions or making it appear as if there are a range of equally plausible interpretations from the same underlying evidence. If this occurs, policymakers will be able to claim that they made decisions on the basis of the best available information.

Intelligence officials have often yielded to the temptation to soft-peddle estimates that cut against policy views. It is not hard to understand why. Confronting policymakers with bad news seems like a recipe for losing access and influence, especially when intelligence findings challenge the logic of policy decisions. “Outright pandering clearly crosses the line,” Columbia University’s Richard Betts writes. “But what about a decision simply not to poke a policymaker in the eye, to avoid confrontation, to get a better hearing for a negative view by softening its presentation when a no-compromise argument would be certain to provoke anger and rejection?” Moreover, some issues are more important than others, so it makes little sense to alienate policymakers on relatively minor issues. If it is true that intelligence chiefs have a finite stockpile of political capital, they should spend it wisely.

Engaging in this kind of soft politicization might seem like common sense. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that it actually works.

Consider the case of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms, who on more than one occasion bent to policy pressure in order to keep intelligence from becoming irrelevant to the policy process. In 1969, for instance, the Nixon administration leaned on Helms to exaggerate the capabilities of a new Soviet missile while it was trying to secure Senate approval of a new missile-defense system. Even though many analysts were skeptical of Soviet capabilities, Helms intervened to ensure that published estimates were consistent with the administration’s public position. He also appeared before Congress alongside the Secretary of Defense as a show of support. As he explained later, “I was not prepared to stake the Agency’s entire position on this one issue… I was convinced we would have lost the argument with the Nixon administration, and that in the process the Agency would have been permanently damaged.” Unfortunately for Helms, his action did little to improve his position or the standing of the intelligence community, which was increasingly excluded from high-level discussions. Helms was unceremoniously fired in 1972, and the Board of National Estimates, which had once been the focal point for intelligence community analysis, was dissolved in 1973.

The case of DCI George Tenet is a more recent cautionary tale. Following the perceived intelligence failure that led to the September 11 attacks, Tenet worked hard to restore the Bush administration’s confidence in the intelligence community. At the outset this meant moving aggressively against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but Tenet also came under pressure to help the administration make the public case against Iraq in 2002-2003. Although he was well aware of analysts’ doubts about the Iraqi threat, he chose to declassify intelligence that was consistent with the president’s claim that Iraq was a “grave and gathering danger.” These efforts to mollify the administration proved to be futile. In the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion, when it became clear that Iraq possessed no real weapons of mass destruction, relations between the White House and the intelligence community broke down completely. Policymakers claimed that shoddy intelligence analyses were responsible for their false claims about Iraqi capabilities. Intelligence officials accused the administration of bullying them into exaggerating the threat. And Tenet himself accused administration officials of feeding stories to credulous reporters to shift the blame to the intelligence community. He resigned one year later.

What should we draw from these cases? For intelligence officials, the main lesson is to stop trying to curry favor by softening estimates. In the last decade the U.S. intelligence community has weathered repeated controversies, not because it has played politics but because it has performed well. If it detects Iranian cheating in the aftermath of the nuclear deal, it should say so bluntly, even if this means upsetting policymakers who invested so much in the effort. The long-term consequences of soft politicization far outweigh the short-term discomfort of being honest.

For policymakers, the lesson is to take intelligence out of the spotlight. Using intelligence to sell the Iran deal will reinforce the expectation that future assessments will also be public. This will create a temptation to pressure intelligence agencies to make sure their findings are consistent with administration statements, and intelligence officials might tailor their findings so they are inoffensive. The result will be mushy conclusions useful to no one. Intelligence on Iran is very solid today, and intelligence-policy relations are healthy. The best thing the administration can do to preserve this happy status quo is to remove secret intelligence from public view.


Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University.

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