Furor has arisen over President-elect Donald Trump’s charges that our intelligence agencies are politicized.
Spare us the outrage. For decades, directors of intelligence agencies have often quite inappropriately massaged their assessments to fit administration agendas.
Careerists at these agencies naturally want to continue working from one administration to the next in “The king is dead; long live the king!” style. So they make the necessary political adjustments, which are sometimes quite at odds with their own agency’s findings and to the detriment of national security. The result is often confusion – and misinformation passed off as authoritative intelligence.
After Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, George W. Bush intelligence adviser John Brennan stayed on as Obama’s Homeland Security adviser. He is currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
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Under Obama, Brennan loudly criticized the use of enhanced interrogation techniques under the Bush administration. Brennan praised his new boss for his superior approach to combating terrorism.
Brennan, who had served a year as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center under Bush, later assured the nation that enhanced interrogation techniques had helped “save lives” and were an important tool in combating terrorism.
In 2010, Brennan inexplicably declared that jihad was “a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one’s community,” rather than the use of force against non-Muslims to promote the spread of Islam, as it is commonly defined in the Middle East.
Brennan assured the nation that the Obama administration’s drone assassination program had not resulted in “a single collateral death” – a claim widely disbelieved even by administration supporters.
Compare the similar odyssey of James Clapper, former undersecretary of defense for intelligence under George W. Bush.
During his Bush tenure, Clapper had declared that weapons of mass destruction in Iraq indeed had existed but were “unquestionably” sent to Syria shortly before the war began – a hypothesis perhaps favorable to the Bush administration but unsupported by his own intelligence officers.
Clapper also stayed on in the intelligence community under Obama and eventually was promoted to director of national intelligence – and soon made the necessary transformations to adapt to an entirely new approach to radical Islamic terrorism.
Clapper asserted in congressional testimony that the National Security Agency under the Obama administration did not collect intelligence on Americans. Later, he confessed that such an inaccurate response was “the least untruthful” way of answering.
Few were convinced when Clapper insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was “largely secular” – although that declaration fit well enough the themes voiced by Obama in his earlier Cairo speech.
Clapper was also faulted by military intelligence officers at CENTCOM for purportedly pressuring Pentagon officials to issue rosy reports about the supposed decline of the Islamic State – not accurate, but an administration talking point.
Former CIA Director George Tenet stayed on from the Bill Clinton administration to serve under George W. Bush. He soon became a chief proponent of the claim that Saddam Hussein had inventories on hand of weapons of mass destruction.
Tenet assured the president that WMD in Iraq was a “slam dunk” case – a conclusion that turned out not to be based on solid intelligence but was certainly welcomed by the administration.
Few believed early intelligence talking points that the American deaths in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 were the result of a spontaneous riot caused by a right-wing filmmaker residing in the United States.
But that implausible intelligence narrative dovetailed with the Obama re-election themes of an al-Qaida on the run and the dangers of Islamophobia in America. The false Benghazi hypothesis fueled then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s false claims on Sunday morning talk shows that the Benghazi deaths were not caused by al-Qaida affiliates.
Such politicized assessments are not uncommon. The 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate ludicrously declared that Iran had halted work on nuclear enrichment in 2003. It was likely a politically driven pushback to the flawed 2002 intelligence on Iraqi WMD.
The media should spare their current outrage at any suggestion that politics affects the administration of some 16 major intelligence agencies. Journalists should instead listen to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York State, who cynically warned Trump that intelligence agencies “have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
Careerism and ideology at the top sometimes undermine the work of patriotic and gifted case officers in the rank and file. The integrity of intelligence depends on the probity of individual intelligence chiefs – and the degree to which administration operatives are kept away from intelligence directors.
Reform requires honesty rather than the present self-righteous hypocrisy.
There are far too many separate intelligence agencies and thus too many agendas. Directors should have term limits. They should not reinvent themselves to bounce between various directorships from administration to administration.
Issuing absurd, politically driven hypotheses should be grounds for dismissal – and giving false testimony to Congress should earn perjury charges.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.” You can reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.