Intelligence and Policy

The world has always been a dangerous place, and each generation has had to confront its own set of challenges. During the years of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a nuclear standoff, the very survival of the international community was at stake. The danger was all too real, but it was clearly defined. By contrast, our contemporary challenges seem more baffling because the threats to peace are so shadowy and shifting. In responding to the dangers of international terrorism, the United States does not confront an established military force defending or advancing the interests of another state or superpower. The campaign against terrorism will not end with a treaty, and victory will not be realized through armed force alone, no matter how superior the military power of the United States may be.

The complexity of the struggle against international terrorism makes it all the more important that national policies and strategic decisions be informed by the best intelligence available. An important article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs argues that such was not the case in the decision by the Bush administration to launch a pre-emptive war against Iraq in March 2003. Paul R. Pillar, the author, concluded a long career in the Central Intelligence Agency by serving as national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. In the latter role, he was at the center of the interaction between policy makers in the White House and the intelligence community. While recognizing that there is always an inevitable tension between what policy makers want and what intelligence analysts can provide, he nonetheless concludes that the Bush administration’s use of intelligence on Iraq did not just blur this distinction; it turned the entire model upside down.


In retrospect, the intelligence provided by the C.I.A. on the issue of weapons of mass destruction was indeed flawed. The Bush administration is correct when it states that others shared its belief that Saddam Hussein either possessed W.M.D.’s or at least had active weapons programs that could soon produce such weapons. Pillar insists, however, that flawed intelligence about weapons programs was not the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq. The prevailing view within the intelligence community here and abroad was that the danger posed by any Iraqi weapons programs was being effectively contained by existing international oversight; military action by the United States was not needed and would lead to a messy aftermath.

The driving force behind this war of choice was an unswerving desire to drive Saddam from power in the hope of transforming the politics of the Middle East. Even before the war, however, the intelligence community concluded that it was unlikely that Iraq could be transformed into a democratic exemplar for the region. Instead it warned that Iraq could become a magnet for extremists from elsewhere in the Middle East. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration repeatedly pressed C.I.A. analysts to find a link between Saddam Hussein and the leaders of al Qaeda who had launched the attack. In the shadowy world of international terrorism, Pillar writes, almost anyone can be linked’ to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, but the intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion of an alliance between Saddam and al Qaeda. The Bush administration was not the first to employ intelligence to support policies already determined rather than to inform decisions still to be made. But its missteps point up the need for legal reform of the intelligence-policy making nexus.

Mr. Pillar proposes specific measures that could help insulate the intelligence community from excessive political pressure. He suggests that the United States follow the example of the United Kingdom in declaring that intelligence services should not be part of public advocacy of policies still under debate. The establishment of a nonpartisan office in Congress to exercise oversight of the policy-intelligence relationship could also prove helpful. The dangers of the present moment call for the kind of national leadership that will transcend fixed ideologies and develop a foreign policy informed by the best wisdom available. For this to happen, the elected representatives of the American people must rise to the challenge. The Republican majority can no longer give automatic support to any decisions made by the administration. The Democratic minority must move beyond the role of sideline critic and accept its responsibility to work for a bipartisan foreign policy consensus.

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