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Don’t Blame the Spies

March 17, 2011

Foreign Policy, 16 March 2011: Last week’s hue and cry over comments by James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, only highlights the absurd expectations heaped on the intelligence community during the recent Arab uprisings. For those who missed it, a quick summary: Asked to comment before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Clapper noted that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is determinedly “hunkering down for the duration” and assessed that “the regime will prevail” over the long term because of its superior military resources.

Clapper’s remarks, to put it lightly, were not a welcome contribution at a time when Washington is hoping for Qaddafi’s departure. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) led the resulting criticism with a statement that called on the president to remove the intelligence director. Clapper’s assessment of the Libyan regime’s staying power, declared Graham, “undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.” Graham conceded that “some of his [Clapper’s] analysis could prove to be accurate,” but said that it should not have been uttered publicly.

This fracas exemplifies the no-win situation that top U.S. intelligence officials often find themselves in when addressing politically explosive topics. The country’s intelligence chief is knocked for responding to a senator’s question with a frank assessment. But time and again, after some crisis or costly failure, the intelligence community has been criticized for allegedly not providing that kind of unwelcome or uncomfortable message — and for not providing it loudly enough to gain the attention of even the most inattentive. Prior to the Iraq war, for example, the intelligence community offered assessments that foretold the sectarian strife and most of the other violent consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, but few people noticed, even after the assessments were made public years later.

Intelligence officials quickly find that their assessments must be presented loudly and forcefully to have any hope their message will register. That does not mean only providing their work in classified papers, of the sort the intelligence agencies routinely give policymakers. It does not mean making a statement in a closed briefing on Capitol Hill, where Graham — an Armed Services Committee member who did not even attend the public hearing last week — probably would never have heard it. It means trumpeting their message brashly and publicly, even at the expense of complicating the work of executive-branch policymakers for whom intelligence officers work.

The inconsistencies in public and political expectations constrain what the intelligence agencies can say not only about Libya, but all aspects of the political upheaval in the Middle East. The intelligence community has been criticized already for failing to predict this wave of revolutions. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the community’s performance was “lacking.” But imagine what would have transpired had the director of national intelligence appeared before Congress a year ago and stated that within a year, a popular uprising in Egypt would shove Hosni Mubarak out of office. Given the strong U.S. ties to the Mubarak regime, the public utterance of any such prediction would have caused no less a flap than Clapper’s remarks about Libya.

The director’s appearance last week was part of the intelligence community’s annual presentation to Congress of its assessment of threats to U.S. national security worldwide. These statements are crafted to offer a comprehensive view of the external threats facing the United States, but often show deference to political and policy constraints. When there are few such constraints, the public versions of these annual statements can give a good idea of what the intelligence community is thinking and writing about in the classified world. For example, the 2001 edition of the statement — the last before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before George W. Bush’s administration began selling the idea of launching an offensive war against Iraq — highlighted terrorism, and especially al Qaeda, as the primary threat to U.S. security while not even mentioning the threat posed by an Iraqi nuclear weapon or any Iraqi stockpiles of other unconventional weapons.

The statements are much less revealing, however, when officials do face political constraints. This year’s statement on Afghanistan, for example, is a cautious and factual rendition that does not squarely address the overall direction of the counterinsurgency effort, much less the campaign’s effects on combating terrorism — the presumed rationale for the war. To have done so would have entailed an assessment of the ongoing U.S. military campaign and an implicit criticism of current U.S. policy, both of which are regarded as outside the intelligence community’s lane.

Having little more than faint whiffs of the intelligence community’s work behind closed doors does not seem to stop the public, the press, Congress, and the commentariat from reaching conclusions about what it has been doing and saying. The public too often assumes that the intelligence community is some sort of Department of Avoiding Surprises and consequently blames it for every unexpected event.

None of this is to say that those who follow the Middle East closely should have been caught off guard by the grievances that have spurred current events. The political and economic ingredients had long been in place for this upheaval to occur. In the 1980s, during Mubarak’s early years as Egypt’s president, I served as an analyst and later a supervisor for the CIA’s analysis of Egypt. Most of the ingredients were present then, too, and though no upheaval happened to occur on my watch, it might have. If it had, given that our assessments were not made public, there no doubt would have subsequently been accusations that the intelligence community had been caught off guard.

In its later years, Mubarak’s regime became even more repressive and sclerotic. A senior CIA official told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that the intelligence community had warned of instability in Egypt, though it did not know what the “triggering mechanism” would be. How could anyone, for example, have expected that a Tunisian street-cart vendor’s self-immolation would set the region ablaze? It is utterly impossible for the White House, intelligence services, or anyone else to predict the timing of future unrest. The events in question are not the result of someone’s secret plan, discoverable through assiduous and skillful intelligence work. Popular protests of the sort that are currently sweeping the Arab world are instead the spontaneous, unplanned eruption of people’s emotions and aspirations.

As policymakers respond to developments in the Middle East, those of us who either criticize or endorse their decisions need to keep in mind what is knowable and what is not. There is much that intelligence services could do to make those decisions well-informed. When it comes to the U.S. response in Libya, for example, policymakers are no doubt seeking to know as much as they can about the composition of the Libyan opposition, which has only recently begun to take shape. Who is exerting the most influence, and what role are extremists playing? Collecting information about this has its own major challenges, but at least it is knowable. Intelligence services may be performing this task well or poorly — those of us outside government have almost no basis for assessing just how well or how poorly.

But much about the events unfolding in the Middle East is still unknowable, largely because it is unplanned. The generals running Egypt today probably do not know what decisions they will be making months from now, which will in large part determine whether the Egyptian revolution fizzles or turns out to be a major step forward for democracy. If they don’t know, then no one else, not even the CIA director, can know either.

Wise policy, on this as well as on any other subject, must be shaped to maximize the benefits for U.S. interests and minimize the costs and risks no matter what turn unknowable events take. Intelligence organizations cannot eliminate the unavoidable uncertainty. Rather, they should be expected to assist policymakers in making their difficult choices by gathering as much information as possible can about what is knowable and, based on that, illuminating likely costs and risks of different outcomes and different courses of action — no matter how unwelcome the message may be.

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