Paul KerrMore About Intelligence

A quick follow-up to Jeffrey’s post about intelligence and political pressure. Paul Pillar, former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, said during a 7 March CFR appearence:

MR. BASS: In your Foreign Affairs piece, you talk about a politicized and pressurized environment between the intelligence community and the Bush administration, which, you argue, generated a fair amount of ill will. And you said that this was all done quite subtly, in the piece.

I wonder if you could explain to us, perhaps with some examples, what this looked like in the real world, what this looked like in your day to day job? How did you feel that sort of subtle pressure on a day-to-day basis, memo to memo, meeting to meeting, e-mail to e-mail?

MR. PILLAR: Well, probably the main thing day to day—and this is something that the Silberman and Robb commission mentioned as a phenomenon they observed, although they didn’t carry the casual linkage as far as I’m carrying it—differential treatment that different draft intelligence assessments get as they go through the procedure of being coordinated and approved. And you have to remember, anything that sees light of day as a published—published in the sense of a classified paper—intelligence assessment goes through usually multiple levels of review, various supervisors, branch chiefs and so on, weighing in, approving or disapproving, remanding, forcing changes. That can be a speedy process or it can be a long, very torturous process.

And one of the things the commission observed was that assessments that tended to support or conform with the case being made for war had an easier time making it through that gauntlet than those that did not. And the only thing I’m adding to what the commission found was to pose the question, what is the most important reason why that was the case? And I think the most important reason, besides the overall mind-set that turned out to be erroneous, was the desire to avoid the unpleasantness of putting unwelcome assessments on the desks of policymakers.

MR. BASS: So how does this actually work? Because some of the gauntlet that—you’ve described there is a gauntlet that’s within the bureaucracy of the intelligence community, not directly in the purview of the policymakers—
MR. PILLAR: Well, it’s all within the intelligence community—what I’m talking about—yeah.

MR. BASS: So you feel that the pressure from the policy side to give us answer A rather answer B has sort of permeated down through the bureaucracy?

MR. PILLAR: Through every level, yes. From the most senior levels through, you know, levels like my own to the level of the working analysts. I mean, it was quite apparent from—certainly from, I would say, early 2002—if not that, mid-2002—that we were going to war, that the decision had been made, and there is other reporting to this effect that supports that. And you know, intelligence analysts, they get paid to try to make sense of, you know, government decisions. Usually it’s foreign governments, but—(laughter). But you know, it would be a pretty obtuse intelligence analyst who couldn’t have discerned by fairly early in 2002 where the U.S. government was going and what the preferences of our own government were. So it was all too apparent.

MR. BASS: Who’s putting the screws on in this process? Who’s sending this pressure going through? The pressure isn’t done amorphously; it has to be done individually and—
MR. PILLAR: No, but it’s not—it’s not a matter of screws, Warren. That’s where—
MR. BASS: That’s too harsh a way of phrasing it.

MR. PILLAR: That’s where the inquiries of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Silberman-Robb commission, which overall did an excellent job, fall a little bit short. The question was posed, basically, to analysts: Were your arms twisted? And the answer that came back, unsurprisingly, was no. Unsurprising for two reasons.

One, it’s particularly damning for any analysts to admit foursquare that his or her analysis has been politicized. I mean, that’s an even more damning admission than to say you’ve made a more mundane kind of analytic error because it gets right to your analytic and professional integrity.

Also unsurprising because, certainly in my experience, the great majority of cases of actual politicization—successful politicization—are unvariably subtle. If you get someone trying to twist arms and be blatant about it, it’s almost always unsuccessful if for no other reason than you get a bunch of analysts’ dander up and in more of a resistance mode rather than a conforming mode. So it’s not turning screws, it’s not twisting arms.

I thought this next part was quite interesting, and it says a lot about how ‘wingers tend to view the world – the real problems are uncooperative bureaucrats and insufficiently righteous individuals opposing their policies.

As opposed to, say, facts.

For example, the IC said that Iraq wasn’t procuring uranium from Niger because the IC opposed the invasion of Iraq. It was not because Iraq was not procuring uranium from Niger.

Pillar said:

You know, one of the reasons I think that this issue of politicization has tended to be reduced to the question of turning screws and twisting arms is it’s almost looked at as some kind of game. You know, you have the intelligence team against the policy team, and the question is, was there a foul that the refs didn’t see? And if the intelligence team didn’t score points when they were supposed to score points, was it because they were fouled by the policy team?

Well, it’s not a game. The intelligence people and the policy people are supposed to be on the same team on behalf of the same national interests. And we ought to be concerned, you know, even if there are no flagrant fouls, there’s no place where the ref is going to pull out his handkerchief and throw it on the ground. We ought to be concerned any time that there is an environment created that discourages, rather than encourages, intelligence analysts from producing their best, most objective product. And even if it falls short of a flagrant foul, that’s an issue of importance.

Also, note Josh Marshall’s follow-up to the CBS Drumheller piece. He talks about what the Robb-Silberman Commission did – or didn’t do – with the information he gave them.

BTW, not only has this great country produced Snakes On A Plane, but it has also given us the urban combat skateboard. Oh yeah.

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