Policymakers, on the other hand, tend to be more optimistic, envisioning the world as we would want it to be, thinking deductively as they try to apply a set of generalized principles — the ones that got them elected — to specific situations.
Even in the best of times, the burden on intelligence is heavy, as it is the intelligence professional’s task to get into the heads of policymakers and deepen the officials’ understanding. That must be done without breaking the linkage to his fact-based, dark, inductive, world-as-it-is roots. Often this means making life more difficult and more complicated for the policymaking consumer.
This is especially true when policymaking blends into partisan electoral politics and the interpretation of intelligence becomes part of the political debate.
That’s a minefield in which few intelligence professionals would want to wander, so many were surprised last week when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) seemed to voluntarily enter the fray with a news release broadly outlining the course of intelligence assessments of the Sept. 11 attack on two U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
It was an unusual step. To be sure, then-CIA Director George Tenet took public responsibility for allowing President George W. Bush to utter the infamous “sixteen words” in his 2003 State of the Union address that repeated a British claim that Iraq was seeking uranium for its nuclear program. That instance was about a claim that the U.S. intelligence community could not support and, by its own admission, should have stopped.
In another instance, as Director Leon Panetta was taking command of the CIA in 2009, I used one of my exit interviews with him to point out that — campaign rhetoric to the contrary — the Bush administration had not “cooked” the conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Panetta needed to know that the intelligence community had just gotten it wrong. But that was a private discussion.
Last week’s statement from ODNI was public and — whatever its intent — seemed well suited to give the administration cover for its early claims that the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous and almost random, the product of rage over an Internet video rather than a targeted and purposeful attack by a potentially resurgent al-Qaeda.
A summation by McClatchy Newspapers was typical; beyond updating the public, it reported, the ODNI statement appeared to be an effort at “shielding the White House from a political backlash over its original accounts.”