You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Intelligence Revolutionary

Many of Barack Obama's foreign policy initiatives are designed in direct philosophical opposition to the policies--indeed, the worldview--of the Bush administration. On Iraq, Obama does not merely say that he wants to end mismanagement of the war (like John McCain), nor the war itself (like Hillary Clinton)--he says, "I don't want to just end the war. I want to end the mindset that got us in the war."

One of Obama's most important attempts to roll back the Bush administration's foreign policy is also among the least understood. It is his proposal for intelligence reform. Obama's rebuke to conservative orthodoxy on this issue can be found buried in a Q&A and complementary article published earlier this month in the Washington Post: "Obama repeated his pledge to end the Bush administration's 'politicization of intelligence' and said he would give the director of national intelligence--who currently serves at the pleasure of the president--a fixed term, similar to that of the Federal Reserve chairman."

It's common for Democrats to promise an end to Bush-style politicization of intelligence. But the way that Obama frames the issue--likening the DNI to the independent, technocratic Chairman of the Federal Reserve--indicates that his view of the intelligence process is ontologically opposed to the way conservatives see it. As Franklin Foer has explained in detail in The New Republic, the Bush administration justified its pre-war intel abuses using a methodological critique that dates back, at least, to the 1970s (some trace it back to Edmund Burke's distrust of the Enlightenment).

The administration argued that the CIA put too much trust in the social-science methods cultivated by people like the CIA's "father of intelligence analysis," Sherman Kent. Abram Shulsky, who ran the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans--the outfit that produced "alternate intelligence" to justify the Iraq war--decried "the view that intelligence is, at bottom, an endeavor similar to social science, if not equivalent to it," which led to the pernicious belief that "intelligence analysis can be divorced from the policy process and, indeed, be apolitical in nature. As a result, one can even talk about creating within the intelligence community an analytic arm along the lines of a 'world-class think-tank'."

By contrast, Obama's proposal reaffirms exactly that view: in saying the DNI should be like the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, (rather than, say, the Secretary of Defense, who always serves at the pleasure of the President), the candidate is throwing his weight behind the idea that the intelligence community (IC) should be an independent assessor of empirically-verifiable facts; that intelligence assessment is a non-ideological exercise in finding out what's true and what's not.

That task, in this view, is more appropriate for an agency with an independent mandate and fixed-term leadership like the Fed, the SEC, or the FEC. Like those agencies, the IC has made its share of mistakes. Finding the truth is--of course--a difficult task, and even those who strive for empiricism and objectivity inevitably commit errors. That's true even when the White House and Congress are not pressuring them. But, contrary to current, unwarranted popular perceptions, the IC is actually quite good at doing its job, learning from its mistakes, and adapting its procedures to meet new challenges.

Adopting Obama's approach toward intelligence wouldn't solve everything. We would have to ensure that a fixed term for the DNI does not become a license for complacency. And it would be important to strengthen oversight, minimizing the independent DNI's incentive to create a bureaucratic fiefdom like J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

But, ever since President Nixon's administration disregarded CIA data because he feared they were "soft" and in league with the liberal "Georgetown social set"; continuing through the notorious Team B "alternative intelligence" exercise in 1976 and Donald Rumsfeld's politicized 1998 ballistic missile commission; right up to the Iraq War, presidents and congressmen have used the intelligence community as a political football. Most recently, there was the scuffle over last year's National Intelligence Estimate, which can only be understood in the context of the Bush administration's past attempts to pressure the CIA over Iraq and Iran.

Because the CIA felt the need to push back against the Bush administration's constant pressure to find incriminating evidence about Iran, the Agency issued an NIE that basically slapped the administration in the face--creating a headline that rendered U.S. policy on Iran's uranium enrichment program all but inert until 2009. The Bush administration started this cycle of recrimination, and the end result is that Iran continues to enrich uranium--the most difficult part of making a nuclear bomb--and the U.S. has been helpless to pressure Tehran to stop, to the point where the Europeans were so alarmed they decided to take up the slack.

If the Bush administration had taken a pragmatic approach to Iran's activities, rather than cooking the books to fit its own views, we would have been able to have a substantive, gradual policy that increases pressure on Iran in proportion to its progress on uranium enrichment. And the IC and the administration wouldn't be looking over their shoulders at each other, so suspicious that it's near-impossible for the U.S. to figure out, and devise a rational response to, the true situation on the ground.

Working at the CIA, by all accounts, is like working at a company that's constantly being bought, purged, reorganized, and subjected to political recriminations. Establishing some independence for the intelligence community, as Obama suggests, would be a step towards rectifying that problem. At least, it would create some stability in the IC and place the mission of intelligence agencies in its proper context--of uncovering facts about the rest of the world, not furthering political agenda of whoever happens to occupy the White House.

Barron YoungSmith is a web intern at The New Republic. He was a research assistant on the upcoming book U.S. vs. Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security.