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When intel meets the political debate

Michael V. Hayden was director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009. He is a principal at the Chertoff Group, a security and risk-management firm, and an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.

The intersection of intelligence reporting and policymaking is tricky.

I’ve often likened the dynamic to a room in which intelligence and policy must meet, though each enters through different doors. Intelligence professionals bring to the conversation facts, data and evidence; thinking inductively, they try to use them to draw generalized conclusions. They should see the world as it is and, consequently, find it hard to escape a generally pessimistic attitude.

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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.”

Having voluntarily stepped into this public furor, the ODNI is likely to face more questions.

Some will deal with process. Did the idea for the statement originate with the ODNI? Would such a news release have gone forward absent White House approval of the concept? Was the text shielded from White House review before publication? Was Congress consulted or even informed? If the answer to any of these questions is no, the document — whatever its intrinsic merits — will be vulnerable to being labeled political.

There are also questions about the quality of the assessment. The release says that originally “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously.” What was the evidence of spontaneity? One must not confuse the absence of evidence of prior planning with evidence of the absence of such planning.

And how does spontaneity comport with the use of heavy weapons, indirect fire and sequential assaults against two separate installations? These circumstances are what prompted House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) to characterize the attacks early on as “a planned, coordinated event.” It was probably these same circumstances — known soon after the attack — that caused White House spokesman Jay Carney to belatedly admit that it was “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”

The ODNI release noted that “as we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment.” When? After attacks, there are usually competing hypotheses about what happened. When did the case for “deliberate and organized” begin to challenge and overtake “spontaneous”?

What were the relative strengths of the arguments when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows, labeling the events as spontaneous and not premeditated, to be followed 72 hours later by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center unequivocally labeling them terrorist attacks?

These are not unfair questions. As they are answered, it will be essential for intelligence officials — even after having publicly entered this fray — to keep in mind the “door” through which they still enter this process.

 
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