May 2

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

The recent directive from Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. essentially banning contacts between members of the intelligence community and the media has been criticized for undermining the public access to that community’s thinking and its role in society. However, it has another, and perhaps far more dangerous consequence: its negative impact on intelligence gathering and analysis.

Intelligence gathering relies on human contact by agents and technical means such as intercepts. In an age of voluminous unclassified information, the average analyst sitting in her or his cubicle needs help to decipher both classified incoming reports and open-source information. The analysts must discern first whether the information is correct and second what it means.

Most analysts, inside and outside the government, get help with this interpretation by exchanging ideas, asking questions, having friendly conversations, going to think-tank presentations in Washington and meeting with people abroad. Absent such contact, analysts are relegated to the confines of their own minds and computer screens. They can speak with co-workers, but the analyst in the next cubicle has the same limits on external input.

The danger in Clapper’s directive is that it will make contacts between analysts and outsiders even more rare. Its loose definition of members of the media and the constraint on discussing even unclassified material with them will mean that analysts already overburdened by security-related reporting requirements when they meet with outsiders will feel even more intimidated. In effect, under this directive an outside academic, a think-tank member or a nongovernmental organization staff member is now out of reach. The director of national intelligence may deny this, but practically speaking, what analyst would be willing to jeopardize his or her position by risking a conversation that could run afoul of the security bureaucracy? The intelligence complex is a risk-averse system.

Good intelligence analysis results from formulating ideas and making sure they stand up to challenges. Under the Clapper regime, however, analysts will only be challenged by other analysts. Already most of them are walled off from the subjects of their study by lack of access and sometimes lack of foreign-language abilities. They not only travel abroad rarely but such trips also are heavily scripted because of security issues. Hence the information they receive is of limited use.

The Clapper directive ignores what we have learned from recent experiences. The first of these were the misleading reports on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The most generous reading of the commission report investigating these shortcomings would be that the intelligence community was afflicted by a general lack of imagination. Second is the Arab Spring. A Stimson Center report demonstrated that among all the observers — government officials, intelligence officers, academics, think tank and NGO members, journalists — it was the journalists who came closest to accurately predicting the momentous events that upended so many regimes in the Middle East. One can also add predictions on the endurance of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. When many governments, including the Obama administration, were hinting that Assad had six months at most, some lonely voices in academia knew Syria well enough to see that this would not be the case.

Clapper seems to think that information is only valuable if it is obtained clandestinely. This is foolhardy, if not foolish. Moreover, he is instilling an element of enmity between the outsider and the intelligence analyst. If leaks are the issue, his concern is misplaced: It is an open secret in Washington that most intelligence leaks originate in the administration in power at any given time and not with analysts. (Edward Snowden is an exception, but he was determined to go public and Clapper’s policies would not have stopped him.) Even if we concede that on rare occasions information is inadvertently passed on, the global benefits of interaction with the outside world are worth the cost. Clapper is burning down the house to kill a mouse.

A modern intelligence organization should do exactly the opposite of what Clapper is trying to achieve. It should push its people out to experience the world and make as many contacts as possible. There is a wealth of information that one cannot possibly get from reading foreign newspapers, whose accuracy is always in doubt, or, for that matter, individual pieces of intelligence collected opportunistically and sporadically.

Finally, Clapper must also think of two other issues: morale and recruitment. Who would want to join an institution that increasingly does not trust its employees? And who would work for one that promises staff will not speak to anyone other than their bleary-eyed cubicle neighbors?