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Congress and split intelligence decisions

AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, right, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to examine worldwide threats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

When I was a young man, I watched my hero, boxer Muhammad Ali, fight his way back from a politically imposed exile to the World Championship. Today’s history tends to overlook his losses and splits decisions with great fighters like Joe Fraser and Ken Norton. Split decisions are a painful part of a boxer’s life. It works that way in intelligence too. But, as with Ali, it should only be a part of the road to resolution.

In the past month, we’ve had two split decisions by the U.S. Intelligence Community — COVID origin at the Wuhan Lab and Havana Syndrome. Both have caused public outrage with wholesale rejection or simple reluctance to accept the most recent findings. Understandable. But answers still must be had.

The fog of intelligence analysis

It’s foggy out there in analysis land.

First of all, there is no such thing as 100 percent certainly in intelligence analysis. In my 40 years of professional experience, I have seen no single piece of data that — in a single flash — would produce the answer. With something as controversial and complex as COVID and Havana Syndrome, it gets even worse. Everyone and no one has an answer.

All analysis is the painstaking collection of information from various sources, with various access, with various axes to grind, and with various viewpoints. This foggy nature of analysis also causes its practitioners to be very (some would say overly) sensitive to what they conclude on a given topic. They write far more carefully than anyone will ever read it. In their caution and efforts at some form of precision, they use standardized hedge words like “likely” or “possibly.” It’s human nature. No one wants to be wrong. And sometimes, in layman’s terms, they simply don’t know. This is not something intelligence analysts want to admit. But, failure is an option.

And (no surprise) analysts themselves have different viewpoints. From where you stand is where you sit. That’s also enhanced by where you work. Energy Department analysts view life differently than their fellow intelligence community members at State. And it is the same around the board for all 18 members of the U.S. intelligence community.

Frankly, I was less than surprised that Energy has a different viewpoint on the origins of COVID and the Wuhan Lab than most other agencies. They relied on their sources and viewpoints and came up with an answer. It disagreed — and agreed — with other IC members.

To an experienced intelligence hand this is no surprise. To the rest of the normal world looking for an answer it’s a big surprise, viewed as either biased or unclear.

The judges of the IC delivered a split decision — with no resolution in sight.

The latest syndrome

In another split decision, Havana Syndrome is still yet to be resolved. It appears that the CIA and others have done an extensive and sympathetic job trying to sort through the hundreds of cases of Havana Syndrome — and, after long review, they have determined it was not caused by directed energy from a foreign power. But, still no definitive answer.

Again, to this experienced intelligence hand, it seems that after looking through as much evidence as possible, they simply can’t come to a conclusion. Less a split decision than a draw.

As someone who has been in the business for four decades, this is also a familiar story — controversial issues such as the apparent presence of POW’s in post-war Vietnam and the nettlesome, hard-to-pin-down Gulf War Syndrome. So let me suggest that before we stick a pin in Havana Syndrome and move on, we understand that we may not yet have all the facts.

And we don’t yet have the clarity of time and sorts of facts to make any final judgments. Both the POW issue and Gulf War Syndrome took decades to settle.

D.C. policymakers must be wary

First a warning — for a policy maker who needs to make a decision, there is another danger of reading intelligence analysis, especially on split decisions. First, you must always question the analytical underlying assumptions. Ceding only to the analytical written word is fraught with danger.

Let me remind you: In the 2003 Iraq-Saddam War, the IC kept asking what kind of WMD Saddam had — not whether he did. That misstep focused policy makers in a way to view evidence in one manner, ignoring or dismissing contrary evidence — of which there was plenty. You must be a wary consumer.

Another danger for Hill policy makers is accepting the analysis at face value because pressed by time — the “we got that off our plate” syndrome.

You have a ton of issues with which to deal, and no one likes dealing with hard, apparently unsolvable issues involving people who are suffering. There’s a temptation to think if you can provide a reason for the problem, great — you’re done. And those still complaining they were not heard – well here’s the report.

Don’t do it.

Time can make you a fool.

What next, Congress?

Split decisions on crucial issues like the COVID origin and Havana Syndrome simply are not good enough. This is one of those moments when Congress’s constitutional powers come into play. This is when real oversight should occur. It has been done in the past with some success.

I was involved in the support of a two-year bi-partisan Congressional Committee, chaired by then-Senators and Vietnam vets John Kerry and John McCain, to resolve the POW-MIA issues left over from a war finished 15 years earlier.

We have seen the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees press ahead for a decade trying to get to the bottom of Gulf War Syndrome that still affects thousands of Veterans. 

Whatever the political motivations, in my view, Congress seems to be moving ahead quickly — and justifiably — to do the same with COVID. It should do the same with Havana Syndrome.

Beyond the constitutional aspects of oversight, under any circumstances, Congress is not tied down to the same deep morass of analytic and internal political processes as the Executive; while it will always be dealing with some form of partisan politics, that’s at least in the open, versus behind the often closed doors of the Executive Branch.

In the final analysis, split intelligence decisions are not good enough for all those who have suffered and continue to do so. And they are certainly not good enough for American taxpayers who deserve better answers for their tax dollars.

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 coronavirus origin coronavirus origins covid origins COVID-19 COVID-19 origins Havana havana attacks havana syndrome Intelligence Intelligence agencies Intelligence analysis intelligence community Investigations into the origin of COVID-19 Muhammad Ali United States Intelligence Community Wuhan Wuhan Institute of Virology Wuhan lab

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