The National Catholic Review
Patrick Lang

What is truth? John the Evangelist attributes this question to Pilate in his examination of Jesus. Pilate was expressing his frustration over the unpleasant reality that the man before him was probably innocent of the charge of treason to the Roman state, but that it would nevertheless be necessary, for reasons of imperial policy, to kill him. Ultimately Pilate ignored the truth, which too often also is a temptation for government officials who are making decisions about national security.

In order to protect themselves from such temptations, many governments have developed safeguards to insure that policy decisions are not made on the basis of the fixed opinions of individuals or small groups. Among the most important of such safeguards are intelligence analysts, who are generally career specialists in analytic thinking who have acquired encyclopedic knowledge of a particular subject. Policy staffs and decision makers are supposed to rely on intelligence analysts for data and expert judgments about significant issues of fact on which policy decisions should be made.

To make sure that the judgments are truly independent, elaborate safeguards are established. Intelligence organizations are generally positioned within the government in such a way that they are not directly subordinated to the policy makers whom they support. These organizations may support the national government as a whole, as the C.I.A. does, and have as its only superior the president of the United States. Or they may be within a department of government, as are the Defense Intelligence Agency or the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department. In the case of these two groups, their only boss is the secretary of the department himself. In this way, it is possible for the analysts to work with and support the policy formulating staffs with a certain degree of independence in their judgments. They can present hard data unfettered by fear of retaliation that could affect career advancement or budgets.

The Israelis carry this process of insulation to an extreme by maintaining within their Directorate of Military Intelligence a section named The Devil’s Advocate, which has the mission of presenting analyses that directly oppose those of the rest of the D.M.I. and indeed of the government itself. A senior intelligence officer is selected for this duty who understands that this normally will be his last tour of duty. A few men who have held this point have moved on to other ministries, but most have gone from this job into a retirement covered with honors.

In the world of foreign policy formulation there are two main groups of players. On the one hand are the intelligence analysts and their managerial supervisors, who are usually career professionals who have spent many years acquiring the skills and ethos of their craft. Their function in the process of foreign policy formulation is to describe reality as best they can. On the other hand are the policy formulation team of ministerial staff and politically selected seniors, who are responsible for proposing useful policy options and making decisions. Their purpose is to shape reality. Between these two groups there is constant tension, which is probably inevitable.

From time to time new people in a new administration try out the intelligence analysts to see how firmly they resist producing intelligence tailored to advance the agenda of the administration. In nearly all cases, a firm display of friendly distance is all that is required to set an appropriate tone for relations.

As a result, the government normally receives estimates, which are carefully vetted to allow for the vagaries of source reliability and the probable truth of individual pieces of information. Such estimates are made on the basis of the probabilities that develop from reliable sources and information that is believed by the intelligence community to be credible. To make sure that finished intelligence is not the brainstorm of one person or some small group, estimates are submitted to various agencies to see whether they hold water. Intelligence estimates should never be policy-prescriptive. For the intelligence people to support a unique course of action through their work product would pervert their function. If they were to do that, they would become just one more element in the policy-making apparatus rather than the guardians of truth that they should be. Facts, nothing but the facts should be their motto.

In the Bush administration, this carefully constructed system of checks and balances appears to have been distorted. It is now well known that some appointees in the Defense Department, the Vice President’s Office, the National Security Council and even the State Department entered office with a rigid and very ambitious set of geo-strategic goals for the future of the United States and indeed the world. As a result, the measured judgments of the intelligence community concerning such issues as the continuing presence of weapons of mass destruction and the degree of connection between Al Qaeda and the former government of Iraq were considered unsatisfactory by these people and insufficiently committed to the task of uncovering the truth of Iraqi culpability.

Unhappiness with what the intelligence community was producing grew to be so great after the first year of the Bush administration that the Defense Department created a small cell of civilians within the office of the secretary of defense dedicated to the task of critiquing the work of the intelligence community and re-examining the raw data from the vast stream of information available to the government. Its job was to find tidbits of information that had been overlooked by the professional analysts and that made the case for military action against Iraq. Not surprisingly, this group was able to apply the yardstick of its previous convictions to the available raw information (which included the self-interested statements of Iraqi émigrés) to find a pattern of information that could be packaged for the management of opinion at home and abroad.

Did they lie? No, the men involved would surely not lie. They can point to individual bits of information that were the basis of their arguments. It was certainly dishonest, however, to depict the strategic information warfare campaign that they were conducting as equivalent to the responsible work of American intelligence.

The next time a president of the United States appeals to his people or other nations to trust his words, there will be a noticeable coolness in the reception given to him. The very system for measured deliberations in deciding United States policy has been undermined by men obsessed with their own cleverness and dismissive of the cumulative wisdom of those who went before them in government. A retired senior C.I.A. officer recently remarked that he had never thought that the United States would, in the end, invade Iraq, but that now he understood what had happened. The normal work of government was ignored, he said. Now they can do anything; anything can be justified in this way.

Americans, their Congress and the president should ask themselves if they want to see this distortion of their foreign policy apparatus continue. Pilate was the representative of a mighty and unforgiving empire. There were no checks and balances in the structure of the Roman government. Our great republic has sought to carry out its business in the world on the basis of rational and careful judgments. Are those days behind us?

Patrick Lang, a retired Army colonel, served as chief Mideast analyst and head of human intelligence for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency during the 1990’s.