The Risk from Distorting Intelligence

The Obama administration’s emotional reaction to the alleged chemical attack in Syria may be understandable given the human toll, but the high-level clamor for action put pressure on intelligence analysts assessing the evidence. It also could have distorted their judgments, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

An Associated Press story on the Obama administration’s preparation of the public for a military strike on Syria includes these statements: “The White House ideally wants intelligence that links the attack [with chemical weapons last week] directly to Assad or someone in his inner circle, to rule out the possibility that a rogue element of the military acting without Assad’s authorization.

“That quest for added intelligence has delayed the release of the report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence laying out evidence against Assad. … The CIA and the Pentagon have been working to gather more human intelligence tying Assad to the attack…”

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (back to camera) receive an Oval Office briefing from CIA Director George Tenet regarding Operation Iraq Freedom. Also present is Chief of Staff Andy Card (on right).

When one hears that policy-makers want not just intelligence on a particular subject but intelligence that supports a particular conclusion about that subject, antennae ought to go up. A “quest” for conclusion-bolstering material is fundamentally different from an open-minded use of intelligence to inform policy decisions yet to be made. It is instead a matter of making a public (and Congressional) case to support a decision already made.

These two different uses of intelligence constitute markedly different working environments for intelligence officers. The great majority of those officers strive to arrive at their best and most objective judgments given the incomplete information available to them. They also are human beings.

When they are called on to interpret sketchy and ambiguous data, and when they know that the people for whom they work seek support for a particular conclusion, it should not be surprising if that knowledge affects their interpretations, even if only at some sub-conscious level.

We have, unfortunately and tragically, been through this before. When in 1964 analysts at the National Security Agency were called upon to interpret ambiguous, fragmentary signals intelligence and to assess whether the North Vietnamese navy had attacked U.S. destroyers on a dark night in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, the analysts knew that the administration of Lyndon Johnson wanted the answer to that question to be yes, to justify the opening shots in what turned out to be an eight-year U.S. military expedition in Vietnam. The analysts said an attack had occurred. They were wrong.

Eleven years ago, when intelligence analysts were called on to make judgments about Iraqi unconventional weapons programs, it was crystal clear that the administration of George W. Bush strongly wanted a particular answer to the question posed, to win public support for the extraordinary step of launching a major offensive war.

Senior members of the administration, most notably the Vice President, had even already publicly announced their own answer to the question. The rest of that story is too well known to require retelling here. There is still resistance to the idea that the very intense policy preference influenced the judgments of intelligence officers, but thorough review of the circumstances — and major portions of books have been written on the subject — make it hard to avoid the conclusion that it did.

Any mention of the Iraq War requires the immediate caveat that there are very big differences between that piece of history and what the current administration is doing regarding Syria, and not just in that a major offensive war is not what the current office-holders apparently are seeking.

The selling of the Iraq War was an especially egregious instance of policy-makers themselves politicizing intelligence, to the extent of manufacturing almost out of whole cloth a fictitious “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda and creating a unit dedicated not only to pushing that theme but also to discrediting contrary judgments by the intelligence community. Nothing like that appears to be happening in the Obama administration.

Moreover, the language quoted from the Associated Press report may be the choice of the AP reporters and editors more than a direct reflection of administration thinking. Nonetheless, there is other evidence that a decision to take some sort of military action against Syria in the near future has in effect already been made.

The observations above should be kept in mind whenever any intelligence-based case about Syria is presented to the public. This does not mean the case is necessarily invalid. Even if policy-makers want a particular answer, that answer might still be correct. But the human dynamics of the intelligence-policy relationship in a situation of public case-making provide an important perspective in assessing the case.

Two other thoughts should be coupled with this perspective. The more important one is to remember that an intelligence question such as what some state has done with a certain class of weapons is quite different from the policy question of whether it is wise to do something such as intervening in a foreign war.

Unfortunately Americans have gotten into the bad habit of treating these two questions as equivalent. This is a lazy and politically convenient way to dumb down a policy debate. No matter how iron-clad a case there may be regarding what the Assad regime has done with chemical weapons, that begs the question of whether U.S. military action in Syria is advisable.  And in this case it is not.

The other, lesser, thought is to have some sympathy for the intelligence officers who are put into the difficult position of serving as involuntary substitutes for well-reasoned policy debate when this sort of dumbing-down occurs.

When forced into the policy-justification mode rather than policy-informing mode, those officers are being made to perform a function they were not trained to do and did not sign up to do. That is bad for the intelligence-policy relationship, just as it is bad for the objective of arriving at sound policy.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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5 comments on “The Risk from Distorting Intelligence

  1. Hillary on said:

    “Nothing like that appears to be happening in the Obama administration.”
    .
    Oh no.
    .
    Anyone looking to keep a career still knows which side their bread is buttered.

  2. Mel Goodman on said:

    Paul Pillar certainly knows something about distorting intelligence. In October 2002, he was the National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East and responsible for the unclassified White Paper on Iraqi WMD that went to the Congress on the eve of the vote to authorize force. The White Paper not only repeated the politicized judgments of the infamous National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD, but egregiously omitted one of the only relevant key judgments of the estimate that Saddam Hussein was highly unlikely to transfer WMD to terrorist groups. The White Paper also omitted the State Department’s objections to the estimate. Pillar’s White Paper was an exercise in policy advocacy to support a decision to go to war, which violated the CIA’s charter that prohibits propagandizing intelligence for the US public. There is no indication whatsoever that CIA’s intelligence on Syrian use of chemical weapons was politicized.

    • incontinent reader on said:

      Query: where did the CIA’s intelligence on Syrian use of chemical weapons come from and what evidence and assessments has the Agency overlooked, omitted or changed? Right now it all seems to be classified.

    • Lisa Johnson on said:

      Reports I’ve read indicate the intelligence came from Israeli sources.

  3. Peter Loeb on said:

    This reaction is not ” emotional”. It is calculated politics, nothing more
    nothing less.

    Barack Obama has surrounded himself with Zionist-supporting wealthy movers
    and shakers in the right-wing Jewish community. They have formed his political responses and made use of his pseudo-legal abilities as well as his oratorical skills. He has since his days in Chicago always been true to his wealthy Jewish right wing backers. He has surrounded himself with office holders (such as former Obama fundraiser and now US Secretary of Commerce, Pritzker,former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, AIPAC friend now Secretary of State John Kerry and so forth.

    Not everyone in “the Jewish community” (and numerically we are few) supports
    AIPAC,the Anti Defamation League and similar far right friends of Israel, an
    arpartheid,oppressive and blatantly discriminatory occupying power.

    Obama is following (Zionist) Israeli orders. He never misses a step.