Homeland Security

Managing intelligence in a world of post-truth BS

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It’s been a helluva six weeks for American intelligence. The president-elect has declined most daily intelligence briefings, characterized them as painfully repetitive, re-tarred the community with its failure on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, shrugged off a high-confidence judgment on Russian election meddling as “ridiculous” and reportedly had his staff take a threat briefing from the head of Israel’s Mossad.  

Transition team spokespeople have also alleged political agendas within the intelligence community but suggested conditions would improve when the new president “put(s) his own people in there.”

{mosads}That last point is chilling for a community that prides itself on — indeed, exists only to pursue — objectivity. At least that’s the ideal, even if the pursuit is sometimes flawed. And the whole package of transition actions and comments threatens the self-identity of those who feel that they do important and often irreplaceable work routinely valued by policy makers.

Intel veterans were also gobsmacked with Mr. Trump’s claim that the traditional President’s Daily Brief would simply tell him the same thing in the same words “every single day for the next eight years,” a description that ignores the shifting complexities of a turbulent world, the timely needs of a nation with global interests and an intelligence community with global capacities that he can tune to his needs.

Temperature levels across the intel network are high. Leaders are being asked fundamental questions about role and purpose that they have never had trouble answering before. Lower ranks fear that their past, current and future sacrifices will be neither recognized, appreciated nor matter much in policy deliberations.

The situation isn’t good; it’s worse than many expected, certainly worse than many had hoped. But before we join the slide toward despair and panic (and exit), let’s push back a bit against the council of our darker angels. 

There have been bright spots. During CIA nominee Mike Pompeo’s visits to the agency to prepare for confirmation, he has shown enthusiasm and humility and has been well received. Two other huge consumers of the President’s Daily Brief, retired Gen. James Mattis at Defense and retired Gen. John Kelly at Homeland Security, are known and respected officers.

Intelligence community leadership has stepped up. In one instance, a senior pre-empted his staff’s funk by telling his team to go back to their desks, pull out their oath of office, read it, and go back to work. Great advice. Continue to do what you should be doing; creating the best intelligence possible.

Adaptability has often been a strongpoint for the intel community. This is, after all, a transition. Presidents learn in different ways. For Bush 43 it was largely about the dialogue. Barack Obama was more the reader and, at least early in his administration, the word was out to keep it short. (One wag analyst complained that he was writing PDB haiku.). Jimmy Carter didn’t take a brief at all, preferring summaries from his national security adviser. 

For my money, more is better than less; personal is better than impersonal; direct is better than indirect; and dialogue is better than tossing the thing over the transom.

But the president decides, and if this president sticks to his never-mind-but-if-something-should-change-call-me approach (which might not survive the first crisis), I’d put a lot of effort in ensuring that Vice President Pence is fully up to speed. He acts like an avid consumer already, has the trust of the president and appears unburdened by preconceptions about what the intelligence should say. 

The vice president will be a busy man, but I’d also work to fold into his morning brief what we called “deep dives” under Bush 43. These were designed to give broader context than was regularly in the PDB’s tighter, more focused articles. The longer format allowed richer nuance and deeper background, and since it was briefed by the analyst authors rather than the regular briefer, it routinely prompted extended exchanges — and human contact.

Still, there’s the question of how to react to the president-elect’s ill-considered statements and tweets. I would never put this into an all-hands message, but the intelligence workforce needs to be counseled to ignore or at least discount them. Everyone is feeling their way here and there’s still a fair amount of campaign mode in the air. 

Watch what he says and does after he assumes the office is the message I would stress. What is said can often hurt, but it hasn’t always proven very predictive. I’d chill a bit.

Then jump over all of that by inviting the president to pay an early visit to the agency. Presidents Bush and Obama both spoke to the agency workforce at campaign-like rallies in the agency’s iconic lobby and both worked the rope line afterward. It would help the new president and the CIA better connect.

I’d also make sure that the new president had a chance to sit face-to-face with operators and analysts in some of the agency’s centers. (No one undercover will be in the lobby as the press is snapping its photos!) The counterterrorism center and the Syria task force easily come to mind. Put a human face on those who go into harm’s way to get otherwise unavailable truth and who will be sending their often unhappy news downriver to the White House.

The president and his leadership style may even make a few friends here, as these folks are generally frustrated with the slow pace of decision-making from the Obama administration. 

Finally, while working for the better, one can’t totally dismiss potentially darker outcomes. So, off calendar, I’d quietly have a meeting — cheese, wine, beer, pretzels, in the conference room, after hours — with my most senior leaders about the very concept of truth. And I’d begin with last month’s Oxford Dictionaries selection of post-truth — “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” —as the international word of the year. An understandable choice on their part, as the concept has caught fire in post-mortems of the last election and in ongoing American political discourse. 

You have to let a discussion like this go where it will, but in the end, I would urge a commitment that, no matter what happens more broadly in society or government, no post-truth BSever be allowed to cross the fence line at Langley. American intelligence has to be an institution ready to say, “Sir, we can’t back you up on that one, and we are prepared to say so.”

It may never get to that, of course, but if it does, best to know in advance who of your team you can count on to man the barricades with you.  


Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama CIA Defense Homeland security Intelligence National security

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