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New Congressional staffers: Welcome behind ‘the green door’ of intelligence

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gives an opening statement during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss worldwide threats on Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Greg Nash
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines gives an opening statement during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss worldwide threats on Tuesday, May 10, 2022

As an aging member of the ‘Deep Swamp,’ I have now witnessed every election in D.C. up close and personal since 1990. Throughout that time, I’ve been personally involved with legislators and staff through my role as a CIA Senate Liaison, Hill staffer, former lobbyist, and now as aging professor lecturing about it all. In sum, parties change control — and fresh faced, new staffers come to the fray. 

For the latter, it also means a new generation looking at U.S. intelligence — the product and the budget that produces it.

So, from an old intelligence ‘deep stater,’ here are some tips for the new staffers to better understand and deal with what is behind the secret “green door” of intelligence.

Always the best of frenemies

Remember: The Intelligence Community (IC) is a part of the Executive Branch. You are part of the Legislative Branch. The Founding Fathers deliberately set up checks and balances to allow no one too much power — and they gave Congress the “power of the purse.” You help your member decide how the tax money of the people gets spent, not the executive.

This balance was meant to create conflict. There will always be a tension between intelligence and the overseers of the Hill.

However, that does not mean war.

The assumption that the executive is always lying or hiding information from the Congress is not true. Nor is it true that most Hill staffers are (or should be) playing an adult game of “I caught you.”

Also remember: Executive Branch congressional affairs offices will set up most of your briefings — I did it for five years for five DCI’s. They do this in knowledge of that conflict and to promote, protect, and project the interests of their agency/department … and sometimes cover over the flaws.

So, your job as a staffer is to be the discerning consumer and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.

The ‘green door’ of collecting secrets

Another issue I’ve seen for the newcomer is the daunting aspect of the IC as a place shrouded in the mystery of secrecy and, frankly, the legend of too many spy movies. My only thought on the latter is they have better script writers. My thought on the former: There is a lot there, but sometimes not as much as you might think.

First: Just because information is classified doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Nor does it mean its lousy.

It means the source of the information and the means by which it was collected are classified. That’s it. 

Second: In my experience, many sources are very good and uniquely capture information — human intelligence (often at great danger) or signals and overhead intelligence (often at great expense). But there is rarely a whole story told in one bite. More likely the collection has to be assembled in bits and pieces to create a whole story — in short, a story that might not be clear in its direction or outcome.

You’ll hear the argument that the information might be biased — from the source, who either does not really know or has an ax to grind, or from the intelligence collector, who may get only part of the story or who may get a case of “clientitis” and wants it to “be good.” It’s a substantive concern. But let me say as someone who was deeply involved in collecting source intelligence: All information is biased.

Again, your member pays you to use your judgement and ask questions. As with all information take nothing at face value.

No crystal ball analysis

Here are a few thoughts based on four decades of reading analytical product.

First, and most important in my view: It’s prediction, not crystal ball reading. They get it right. They get it wrong. Don’t be surprised by either. The world is a complex place, no matter how much information you collect, how classified it is, or time spent analyzing it.

And sometimes events simply change over time, making the original analysis obsolete.

Second: Intelligence analysis is written far more carefully than you’ll ever read it. Analysts may spend weeks or months writing the material you read. The material goes through multiple levels of review. Words are parsed. Verbs are carefully chosen. And you’ve got five minutes in a cold, harshly lit secure facility to read it — and less than a minute to translate it for your boss.

Third: The analysis will be hedged with words that indicate confidence, “estimative probability” as they say in the game. To the outsider, it is very confusing. Try to get to understand what they mean. You’ll read and hear terms like “certain” “almost certain” and “probable.” Feel free to push back at these words to get the true meaning. And, again, don’t be surprised if the analysts simply don’t know. 

Finally: You must come to realize that you, as a staffer, may have better and broader access to sources than the intelligence you receive. Remember: The analyst is often trapped by security issues that you are not when reaching out beyond the classified world. Every time they open their mouth they speak for and of the knowledge of their classified world, exposing secrets they know.

The spice in the soup

In sum, intelligence can — and does — produce some very interesting work. It can support your efforts on the Hill and give you a further base of information from which to work. But it is hardly flawless or comprehensive. You should think of it as the spice in the policy soup. Not the whole meal. 

And as a staffer, you owe a thorough understanding of its value to both your member, in the name of the taxpayers who are paying for it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what’s behind the green door of Intelligence. That’s your job.

Ronald A. Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Tags Bias Central Intelligence Agency CIA classified documents Classified information congressional staffers executive branch Human intelligence Intelligence Intelligence agencies intelligence community Legislative Branch national intelligence secrets Signals intelligence

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