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The intelligence community serves the president's agenda — not the other way around

The intelligence community serves the president's agenda — not the other way around
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On Friday, a group of former intelligence community luminaries authored an article for the Washington Post criticizing President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE for removing Russ Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC.  They maintained that Travers’s ouster fits a pattern of “continuing dismissal of career intelligence professionals” that is “deeply destructive” to the “nation’s safety” and an “unprecedented attack.”

Strong words. Should we be worried? Certainly not to the degree suggested by the writers. 

A number of the authors are former directors and principal deputy directors of NCTC. I had the privilege of being an early principal deputy director of NCTC after it was established by law in 2004. I know most of these men, consider them friends, and have deep professional respect for each. They are patriots who served with distinction.

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But I must respectfully disagree with key aspects of this argument they advanced. The removal of any intelligence community (IC) professional is never — repeat, never — a threat to our nation’s safety, as the headline of their article claims, and the American people should not be led to believe that it ever could be. It is an alarm that cannot be set.

Russ Travers possesses deep intelligence experience and institutional knowledge — and is a great guy to boot. But he is not irreplaceable; none of us is. Senior executives in an appointed role, in particular, serve at the “pleasure of the president.” Not a quaint phrase. It is the law.

And that is the wisdom of the governance infrastructure that has been created in this country.  Authority and expertise is diffused across many agencies and syndicated among many individuals. This is done on purpose. It can have its bureaucratic overlaps and frustrations, but it helps mitigate the risks of concentrated power and hoarded information found in totalitarian or autocratic governments.  

It also helps to ensure that we don’t skip a beat when institutional knowledge is dismissed or retires or becomes incapacitated. An early leadership mentor of mine in the FBI stressed that a good leader recognizes and makes certain that the void created when he or she leaves should last no longer than the one left by a fist withdrawing from a bucket of water. An old metaphor, but an apt one. Leaders should never think of themselves as indispensable.

Their article additionally advances, as a given, a notion that the intelligence community is or should be apolitical and independent. This novel viewpoint has gained currency among some former IC professionals who disagree with or have made plain that they don’t like the current president.  It is not the traditional understanding of the role of the IC.

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The IC exists to serve and support the foreign policy agenda of a popularly elected president which is, by its nature, political. For example, the policy agendas of President Obama and President Trump concerning Iran and China couldn’t be more different. Each president had a right to expect intelligence collection and analysis that informed and supported his administration’s requirements and objectives.

The idea that a president should hew to the “expertise” of an unelected IC bureaucracy and seek its stamp of approval, or else be cast as “politicizing” the community, is nonsense. IC professionals indeed should provide best advice based on solid intelligence — a president may risk ignoring it at his own peril — but the decision rests with the one who is answerable to the American people every four years.

While the IC likes to tout its deep expertise and cadre of careerists who have served multiple administrations, the reality is that each president must evaluate input from a community that has been dead wrong on many occasions. Not necessarily because of intentional malfeasance or unprofessionalism or lack of patriotism; they just simply got it wrong. Intelligence is a tough game and hard to get right.

So put yourself in a president’s shoes. You would like your decisions to be as richly informed as possible and based on the most reliable intelligence available. You would likely turn to others whom you trust as your first source of input.

Accordingly, a president has a logical right to surround himself with a team that he trusts. What is illogical is the expression of shock or disappointment when a president removes one set of leaders in favor of another set in whom he has more confidence. That is not an “attack” on the intelligence community.

The article’s authors claim that this will have a “chilling effect” on IC professionals who will be afraid to speak the truth at the risk of losing their positions. Well, if you don’t speak the truth because of fear of losing your job, you shouldn’t have that job. Their claim insinuates a rather timid, unprincipled IC workforce that I don’t believe is worthy of that generalization.

It is true that America faces a whole host of challenges that are actual dangers. Any president will have a daunting task evaluating and correctly prioritizing very real threats to the country.  But characterizing the removal of any intelligence agency leader as “deeply destructive to the nation’s safety” is a bit of community self-importance that’s eye-rolling. We’ll be just fine.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.