A Former Presidential Briefer Rethinks Truth to Power


Beth E. Sanner, a retired CIA officer with 35 years of national security experience, was Deputy Director for National Intelligence and the President’s intelligence briefer during the Trump Administration.

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OPINION — “I think we should stop teaching ‘truth to power’,” a CIA analytic instructor once told me. That was more than a decade ago, when I ran the Agency’s new analyst training program. My first reaction was shock and surprise. After all, it is central to the CIA ethos and is literally carved into the wall of its lobby, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

In a country where we cannot even agree on what is fact, let alone truth, we all might want to take a page from another intelligence community mantra: “be clear about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you assess.”  While I certainly am in no position to advise the entire country on this issue, I can say that perhaps those who interact with the intelligence community should stop entreating intelligence officers to “speak truth to power” but instead focus on their mandate to provide unbiased, objective assessments to US political and military leaders, as enshrined in the 1947 legislation that created the CIA. 

We should all agree that doing so with analytic rigor and integrity is more important than ever.  I did just that more than 100 times when I walked into the Oval Office to brief President Trump.  But I never sat in front of the Resolute Desk thinking, “I am speaking truth to power.”  And here’s why.

Philosophers have debated the nature of truth for millennia but, in practical terms, “truth” implies something that is indisputable. Yes, the intelligence community sometimes delivers judgments that no doubt are truths, but rarely do such truths extend to what would be most helpful to policymakers: the intent of our adversaries.

For example, it is a truth, an indisputable fact, that Russia has moved nearly 100,000 troops to the Ukraine border and that Russian President Vladimir Putin recently wrote that Ukraine has never been a legitimate nation state but rather always a part of Russia. While the intelligence community has put enough in the public domain to provide clear cause for concern, US leaders acknowledge that certainty about Putin’s intentions is lacking. He might plan to seize more Ukrainian territory, put more pressure on the West to stop increasing NATO military support for Ukraine (a “red line” for Putin), or create options to take military action should the US fail to sufficiently accommodate Russia’s demands. Without the intelligence community’s ability to provide certainty about Putin’s ultimate intent – perhaps because it truly is an unknown even to Putin – policymakers must try to determine the sweet spot between projecting enough firepower in Ukraine and in nearby NATO states to deter Putin but not so much as to provoke him. 

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Most often, the intelligence community grapples with limited and conflicting information, resulting in judgments that fall short of certainty. And because these assessments address complex issues in an uncertain world, we have in fact, been wrong.

Colin Powell’s recent passing resurfaced discussion of the intelligence failure regarding Iraq WMD in 2002, when a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. This was not the case. The subsequent investigation blamed sparse and flawed intelligence that contributed to the analysts’ reliance on assumptions and inferences based on Saddam’s previous behavior and intentions. Compounding the problem was a failure to communicate the weakness of the intelligence about Saddam’s intent. These failures prompted reforms to intelligence practices, including more transparency about the basis for judgments and explicitly noting degrees of confidence. 

Policymakers do not always require high-confidence intelligence community assessments to buttress a decision, but they do need clarity about the certainty of a judgment. President Obama decided to proceed with the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden with clear understanding that the intelligence could not establish bin Ladin’s presence in the compound in Pakistan with certainty. In fact, Obama and his team debated what he called “a 50/50 proposition,” far short of the certainty of a truth. 

Emphasizing that the intelligence community’s job is to “speak truth to power” also poses risks to the analytic process itself. Such a mindset is more likely to engender righteousness and arrogance than humility. Yet humility is the exact temperament required of analysts for sound, openminded critical thinking, including reconsidering judgments as new evidence emerges.  Analysts who confuse assessment, however strongly held, with truth, lose their ability to dispassionately and critically review those assessments. This phenomenon contributed to the Iraq WMD failure.

Just as important: defining the mission as “speaking truth to power” can erode the relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers, increasing the risk that decisionmakers will dismiss assessments that run counter to policy preferences. It’s all smiles and head nods when there is agreement, but disagreements are inevitable. Decisionmakers possess different experiences, perspectives, and sometimes information not available to intelligence analysts. Indeed, intelligence officers don’t expect decisionmakers to simply press the “I believe” button, but rather, welcome challenges and opportunities to candidly and transparently explain the basis for judgments. This shared experience builds trust and confidence in the integrity of the intelligence process. Conversely, if analysts believe they own the truth and a policymaker disagrees, then what does this imply about the policymaker’s judgment and integrity? In my experience, this approach undermines mutually beneficial dialogue, the policymaker’s ability to hear the analyst’s assessment, and ultimately the kind of respect needed to sustain the relationship through difficult disagreements.

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The intelligence community’s responsibility to “call it like they see it”—a phrase I prefer—is of critical value to decisionmakers, institutions, and the American people, no more so when their assessments run contrary to policy preferences. No other government agency is charged with providing unvarnished assessments on national security issues without regard to policy preferences. This is enshrined in every intelligence officer’s sworn oath to the Constitution. I lived that oath every day of my career, including clearly telling decisionmakers – including President Trump – when the intelligence community disagreed. Yet today, I think it is time to heed the advice of that instructor and speak less about truths and more about the intelligence community’s writ to provide unbiased, objective analysis regardless of policy preferences. If done well, perhaps decisionmakers might find it easier to consider the intelligence community’s findings, even when they disagree.

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Beth E. Sanner, a retired CIA officer with 35 years of national security experience, was Deputy Director for National Intelligence and the President’s intelligence briefer during the Trump Administration.

View all articles by Beth Sanner

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