Why intelligence officials need to brief Congress on Iranian threats

Getty Images

The Pentagon announced this month that it is again upping the American military presence in the Gulf region. This move underscores the need for the ground truth about what Iran is doing and why. After much delay, the Trump administration reluctantly sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to brief lawmakers on the threat intelligence. Policymakers are not intelligence officials and so Congress needs to hear directly from the intelligence community if it is to best evaluate the threat and predictions regarding what Iran will do next.

I have experience with the difference between policymakers describing intelligence information and intelligence officials speaking to intelligence matters. There is a major difference here, which is why Congress needs to hear the unfiltered judgments of our intelligence professionals. During the Bush administration, I was a staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee and also the policy adviser to a member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Bush administration made the difficult decision to double down on Iraq and surge more American forces so that the Iraqis could have the time and space to create a representative form of government.

This was a tough sell to Congress and the Bush administration sent its leading policymakers and intelligence officials to make the case for why the surge was needed, its prospects for success, and how long it would take. Pentagon leaders and State Department officials regularly briefed members and staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Meanwhile, intelligence officials regularly briefed members and staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The tone and emphasis of the policymaker and intelligence community briefings were profoundly different. Neither was more legitimate and both were crucial to understanding the landscape.

Both then and now, lives were at stake. The differences in message coming from policymakers was so much more optimistic than what I had been hearing from intelligence officials during my separate Senate Intelligence Committee briefings that I received an agreement from Senate Armed Services Committee staff to write into the annual defense authorization bill that intelligence officials must be present in Iraq briefings. I believe that this made a material difference in balancing the optimism I was hearing from policymakers pessimism in one setting and the pessimism I was hearing from intelligence officials in another setting.

When I learned that policymakers were the ones making the case on the underlying intelligence about Iranian intentions without the intelligence community at the table to speak for itself I sensed deja vu all over again. Following the recent “intelligence briefings” by policymakers, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham concluded, “The threat streams from Iran against American interests are real and severe.” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy declared, “I have read the intel too and let me be clear, that is not what the intel says.” After the same briefing, it is more than clear to me that members and staff need to hear directly from the intelligence officials.

Our system is correctly designed for intelligence officials to speak to the facts and judgments as they see them and for policymakers to define what decisions they will make to address those facts. Sidelining intelligence professionals undermines the likelihood of agreement on basic starting points like what is going on and why. In 2005, intelligence officials were briefing the intelligence committees, while defense officials were briefing the defense committees. But today, the intelligence community appears to be kept away from the one briefing that the Trump administration was willing to do on the escalating yet somewhat ambiguous crisis with Iran.

I did not support the nomination of Gina Haspel to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency because of her role in disregarding the will of Congress during the Senate Intelligence Committee review of enhanced interrogation techniques. Most others defended her as a straight shooter, extraordinarily qualified on substance, and a much better option than an alternative nominee from President Trump. These were all valid retorts.

Now Congress needs to hear from the director on her judgments as to what Iran is doing and what Iran seeks to reduce the flaring tensions. The answer may be that Iran is still being hostile and anathema to American interests, but our leaders should at least start with this baseline rather than relying on policymakers to present those facts. It is imperative that we get the national security oversight process right this time around.

Todd Rosenblum is a former professional staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a former intelligence officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. He also served as acting assistant secretary at the Department of Defense and deputy undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security. He is now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Gina Haspel Intelligence Iran Mike Pompeo Policy

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video