Intelligence agencies have to remain non-partisan and ‘speak truth to power’. Is this being threatened in the US?
This piece was published on Homeland Security Today on February 25, 2020
HOMELAND SECURITY TODAY — For those who have never worked in the intelligence community the whole thing must seem kinda nebulous. True, there are programs like Homeland and MI5 (aka Spooks), some of which I am sure received some input from former spies or even a cautious nod of approval from current ones. Nevertheless, most people must know that these entertainment products cannot replicate what really happens ‘in the shadows’.
I had the privilege of working in those dark areas for more than three decades in Canada. And I must confess that I find myself, much to my wife’s chagrin, yelling at the TV things like “that’s not how it works!” when I watch the aforementioned programs. I really need to remind myself that this is fiction, based to varying degrees of accuracy to reality.
Intelligence has often been called the world’s oldest profession (or is it the second oldest?). It has been around for a very long time and it can contribute to decision-making. Is it always spot on? Of course not, but it is an important part of our efforts to understand what is going on and what we can/should do about it.
There are signs that the current US Administration does not like what it is getting from the USIC and is on occasion outright rejecting its findings.
It is also important that intelligence remain immune from political meddling. While it is obvious that governments – i.e. politicians – can and must task intelligence agencies with what to collect the results of that collection and the analysis which accompanies it must not be fiddled with. These agencies provide the best advice they can irrespective of who asks for it. This is what is called ‘speaking truth to power’.
I am beginning to despair of the current situation in the US intelligence community (USIC). As a Canadian and a fellow member of the ‘5 eyes’ network I developed an appreciation for what the USIC was capable of and how it contributed to our collective Western, and by extension international, security and safety.
Is this starting to change?
There are signs that the current US Administration does not like what it is getting from the USIC and is on occasion outright rejecting its findings. There is perhaps no better example than the dismissal of clear intelligence that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential elections.
A further blow to the USIC is the current president’s decision to name an amateur as the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, has been put forward as ‘acting director‘: the general consensus is that he is unqualified and anything but an intelligence professional. This is akin to naming a plumber as the Surgeon-General. How inspired would Americans be by that?
Maybe I am wrong and maybe Mr. Grenell will turn out to be an outstanding DNI, despite the unfortunate fact that nothing in his background is grounds for optimism. If so I will be the first to issue a mea culpa.
The more likely scenario, in my view, is that this appointment is one more example of political partisanship and one that is not in the interests of the American people or its allies. Look, every party in power gives out partisan posts like candy and I am in no position to determine whether the Trump White House is any more or less egregious in this regard.
Gazillions of dollars on intelligence every year
To me what is more damaging is the effect on morale within the USIC. I maintain contact with some old friends in that community and I have yet to have heard any positive reflection of their work under this administration. In fact, the reactions I have received (completely unscientific) are worrisome. They have all told me how discouraged they are to see how their work is either being ignored or is being used to further ends it should not.
I repeat: any government has the complete right to use information it has to whatever goals it chooses. If we do not like those goals we can always ‘vote the bums out of office’ – this is how democracy works after all. But the fact that no one I have spoken to seems to support this particular use of intelligence should tell us something.
Maybe I am wrong and maybe Mr. Grenell will turn out to be an outstanding DNI, despite the unfortunate fact that nothing in his background is grounds for optimism.
The US spends gazillions of dollars on intelligence every year. There are tens of thousands of very professional, patriotic Americans in the USIC who see their work as a vocation, not a job. The hours they spend doing their utmost to keep the US and its allies safe are uncountable. I continue to see the alliance as a very important accomplishment in the post-WWII period and I hope we can maintain it – warts and all.
It would be nice if their contributions were taken seriously. Are they perfect? No. But they are given for a reason and that reason is a good one.
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