Intelligence and Policy in the Face of Terrorism

Expert View

A slightly different version of this article appeared recently in the Washington Times.  General Hayden has requested that we reprint it in The Cipher Brief following Thursday’s horrific attack in Nice, France.  He believes that it has special relevance for the intelligence community today.

I recently joined other former security officials to urge the United States government to be generous to Syrian and other refugees driven from their homes by today’s conflicts.  We brought out the usual argument: we need to live up to our historical heritage as a refuge and, besides, failing to provide haven would prolong the kind of global disorder that ultimately makes us all less safe.

I personally had a third argument that we did not include: American expiation.  It’s not that we directly caused the tragedy that is today’s Syria.  That’s more properly tied to Bashar el-Asad, Syria’s simultaneously feckless and brutal president, and Abu Bakr el Baghdadi, the theocratically fanatical caliph of the Islamic State. 

The guilt for 400,000 Syrian deaths and nine million refugees is clearly theirs.  But the one nation that had it most within its power to ameliorate if not prevent that suffering was the United States of America.  And–for reasons of personality, policy and politics–we did not.

How much (or how little) of a role did intelligence play in crafting that outcome?  How much did intelligence really shape the thinking of a President who famously keeps his own council?

The answers to such questions are complex and these answers will also be slow arriving. 

Complex because intelligence rarely tosses a tight syllogism at a policy maker, a series of incontrovertible “whereas” statements followed by some inevitable ‘therefore”.  At its most influential, intelligence generally creates the left and right hand boundaries of policy deliberations.  And even then, the smart intelligence officer recognizes that there are other legitimate inputs into a policy maker’s calculus: budgets, politics, opportunity costs, priorities, personal beliefs, world view and the like.

It’s also early.  A final accounting of the role intelligence played in the Administration’s Syria (and Iraq) decision making awaits yet-to-be written memoirs and histories and the release of not-yet-declassified documents.

I’m betting they’ll make fascinating reading when they become available.  I know what I’ll be looking for.

Like, what did intelligence analysis say about the likely impact of zeroing out the number of US forces in Iraq, a decision the President labeled “a promise kept” while he was “leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant’ country and something that the Vice President suggested “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”

Most observers believed that the departing US forces were the stopper in Iraq’s toxic bottle of sectarian tensions.  Relations between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shias and Kurds were always going to be tough, but at least with the Americans there, no one thought that the others were going to devour them. 

As the last American crossed into Kuwait, Shia Prime Minister Maliki issued an arrest warrant (for murder) for his Sunni Vice President and all sides retreated into their own corners to prepare for battle.  Sunnis correctly assessed that their “government” would turn increasingly predatory and began to create space for the all but destroyed al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) to resurrect itself as the Islamic State (ISIS).

All this was somewhere between predictable and inevitable so comparing the language of the intelligence analysis with the triumphal public statements should make for interesting reading. 

I’m also curious what the White House was told–with all imbedded American troops gone– about the residual ability to monitor the performance and character of the Iraqi army, the one institution in the country we were betting on (hoping?) to be genuinely national.  How surprised were we when that army collapsed, abandoning its equipment and the city of Mosul in 2014 to a few thousand ISIS fighters?  Had we known about its politicization, corruption and deterioration?  And if we hadn’t, did we know that we didn’t know?

A few months before the fall of Mosul, the President described that city’s future ISIS occupiers as “the JV team.”  How much did that regrettable assessment reflect what was being said in the morning briefing?

Abraham Lincoln once complained that George McClellan, his cautious Commander of the Army of the Potomac, had a bad case of “the slows.”  Clearly we had a case of “the slows” in appreciating the threat from ISIS.  But was it largely the intelligence slows or the policy slows?

An intelligence officer never has a more difficult job than when he or she is bringing news to a President that cuts across his preferred policy or politics.  “ISIS on the rise” dramatically cut across “al Qa’ida is on the run” and “the tide of war is receding,” staples of the President’s 2012 campaign.  In the face of that narrative, how clear was the 2014 intelligence on a rising AQI/ISIS and how dramatic and insistent was its presentation?

Indeed, during 2012, the Administration pushed back against efforts (some from within the Administration and presumably based on the same intelligence the President was seeing) that the United States needed to do more to effect the outcome of Syria’s civil war. Feeling some pressure in August as the US election campaign was gathering momentum, the President signaled that his restraint had limits.  Speaking in response to a question at a press conference he said: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.” 

In the ensuing months there were several instances where the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in limited, local engagements.  In June 2013 the White House told Congress (and the public) that “our intelligence community assesses [with high confidence] that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” 

Facing no obvious response, the regime then doubled down.  In August more than 1400 Syrians were fatally gassed in a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs,

Within ten days the White House released an intelligence paper that assessed “with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out the chemical weapons attack against opposition elements.”  The report catalogued multiple streams of intelligence supporting that conclusion and then reminded that high confidence was “the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation.”

The stars were aligned for US action.  The 2012 red line was clear and indeed had been reemphasized in subsequent messages to Congress.  The intelligence had been carefully collected and analyzed and the community’s judgements were as strong as its art and science could ever craft.

A few hours after the “high confidence” judgements were released, however, the President strolled the South Lawn with his chief of staff Dennis McDonough and decided to walk away from his redline. 

The President had his policy reasons for doing so.  More intriguing was his later explanation that he also had intelligence reasons for doing so.  Jeffrey Goldberg reports in his exhaustive Atlantic article, The Obama Doctrine that Jim Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, had warned the President that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk,” a phrase that echoed the words allegedly used by George Tenet to describe the flawed estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

I’ll really be awaiting other memoirs and accounts to divine exactly what happened here.  Intelligence is rarely expected, indeed is rarely able, to get to the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard of judicial processes.  Intelligence is designed to enable action even in the face of lingering doubt.  An Administration excusing its inaction on a high confidence assessment because–well–that’s an insufficient level of confidence undercuts the whole concept of intelligence. 

Frankly, I doubt that the intelligence falling short of absolute certainty really affected the outcome.  Other factors dominated the policy and the decision making. 

That dynamic–preferred policy driving the appreciation and impact of intelligence–seems to be afoot today in the ongoing discourse over how well or not well we are doing in the war against ISIS.

Shortly after the recent terror attack in Orlando, the president held a press conference where he reported that “we are making significant progress” in the fight against ISIS.  The terror group was “under more pressure than ever before” and was losing key leaders, fighters, money and ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

That constitutes a defensible (if incomplete) description of one aspect of the conflict.  The White House positioned Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper with several other officials standing alongside the President.  The image was clearly meant to silently endorse the President’s upbeat message.  Hard to tell what the DNI thought of that, especially when the President closed with some overtly political messaging.

A more complete intelligence picture of ISIS was rolled out 48 hours later when CIA Director John Brennan added darkly somber context to the President’s optimistic assessment. Brennan warned Congress that ISIS remained “formidable” and “resilient” and added that “our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach.” 

The Director’s tone was markedly different than the President’s.  He wasn’t a political leader with seven months left in office trying to put the best face on what many believed to be a flawed policy.  He was speaking as the director of an Agency that was still going to be in business in eight months.  He also seemed to reflect the anxiety expressed by one intelligence community veteran who headlined his blog with the question: “If we are winning the fight against ISIS, why aren’t we more secure?” 

Almost as if on cue, on the same day as Brennan’s testimony, the New York Times reported that more than fifty State Department officers had weighed in via the Department’s dissent channel complaining that America’s light hand in Syria had permitted that country’s human tragedy and that the path to peace was blocked as long as Bashar el-Asad still ruled.  A few days later, the Administration’s nominee to head US forces in Africa conceded that he was “not aware of any overall grand strategy at this point” when it came to fighting ISIS in Libya. 

More recently, after the horrific attack on Istanbul’s international airport, Secretary of State Kerry chalked the atrocity up to ‘desperation,’ desperation borne of ISIS’ battlefield losses at the hands of a successful Administration policy.  Another Administration official, though, later dissented: “It’s not a sign of weakness or desperation.  They are adapting in a different way.”

Clearly not everyone was reading the intelligence or the relative success of policy in the same way.

It was a great example that intelligence matters, even when it’s immediate effect might be limited. The current Administration’s policy is fairly described as a level of effort approach, more defined by what we will not do than by what might be required.  I am not sure what Jim Clapper or John Brennan could say about the level of human suffering; the destabilization of Turkey, Jordan or even Europe; the ascendency of Iran or Hezbollah; the empowerment of a Russia or even continued threats to the West that would cause a fundamental recalibration of the current approach.

But it may not always be so.  As the President often says, elections matter.

So as always we will need intelligence to be the ruthless truth teller in the room. And it needs to be perceived as such.  In that regard, the community has one item to clean up.  Some 50 analysts at Central Command (responsible for Iraq and Syria) signed on last year to a formal complaint to the Pentagon’s Inspector General that their intelligence reports were being inappropriately manipulated.  Negative reports were being suppressed and analysis was being softened as it went up the chain of command, or so the complaint alleged.

It’s been nearly a year since the press first reported the complaints and the IG investigation.  The charge casts a pall over the integrity of US intelligence. Nothing is more damning than the charge that intelligence has been politicized.  It’s past time for the matter to be resolved, one way or another.

American intelligence needs to clear its decks.  2017 will be a very pivotal year for it and for the government and nation it serves.

Expert View

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