Shortly after the election, and after Trump had made some of his public remarks critical of the intelligence community, I happened to lunch with Herbert Meyer, who many readers will know was assistant to CIA director William Casey in the Reagan Administration, and vice chair of the National Intelligence Council. He remarked that Trump was running a large risk with the intelligence community, as they have ways of making a president’s life miserable.
Herb has returned to this subject with a recent lecture for Hillsdale College, just published in their Imprimus series under the title “How Intelligence Works (When It Does).” Worth reading the whole thing—it is not long, and Herb’s writing is always vivid and clear—but here are a few relevant highlights:
The performance of our country’s intelligence service is the latest example of an issue exploding into the headlines and becoming a shouting match, while failing to clarify anything about the issue itself. This explosion was ignited last fall by allegations that the Russians hacked into Hillary Clinton’s campaign to help Donald Trump win the election. The blast radius expanded after the election, when rumors surfaced that the Russians had deployed their nasty tactic of kompromat to undermine President Trump’s credibility by spreading rumors about his private behavior while in Moscow years ago. All this, on top of failures that had already wreaked havoc at the CIA and our other intelligence agencies—the 9/11 attacks themselves, the mess over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the weird 2007 National Intelligence Estimate whose key judgment was that Iran had abandoned its nuclear bomb program, Edward Snowden’s NSA espionage activities—has kept the issue of our intelligence service in the headlines. . .
Back in January, when U.S. intelligence chiefs released an unclassified version of the briefing they gave to President-Elect Trump about Russian efforts to influence the November election, Americans learned a phrase that’s unique to the world of intelligence: key judgment. It was a key judgment that Russia had hacked into John Podesta’s email server, and a key judgment that Vladimir Putin preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. Since these key judgments understandably erupted into a nasty political brawl, let’s take a moment to understand what a key judgment really is. Simply put, it’s the conclusion reached by our most senior intelligence officials, based not only on the evidence they were able to collect, but also on the insights it enabled them to reach based on their knowledge and experience.
A key judgment isn’t the same as a jury verdict. A jury verdict is based solely on the evidence presented to it. In a murder trial, unless the prosecutors can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty, you must vote for acquittal. But in a National Intelligence Estimate, you reach a key judgment by starting with the evidence, then combining it with your own knowledge and experience to reach a conclusion. . .
So why has our intelligence service suffered so many failures during the last decade or so, losing the trust of so many? Because it’s been run by career bureaucrats and administrators who rose to the top by managing intelligence rather than actually doing it. That’s like putting an airline executive with an MBA and a law degree into the cockpit of a jumbo jet. And like bureaucrats and administrators everywhere, our recent intelligence chiefs focused on structure rather than on people. Of course all organizations, including intelligence services, need the proper structure. But especially in an intelligence service, good structure is worthless without the right people—in this case world-class analysts who are deeply knowledgeable about the Mideast, China, Russia, terrorism, and all the rest. Make a list of our country’s leading experts on these subjects. How many of them have held top-level jobs in our intelligence service during the last dozen or so years? How often have the leaders of our intelligence service reached out to these people to seek their advice? The correct answers are: none and rarely.
We are still in the early days of the Trump administration, but to borrow an overused Washington cliché, we should be cautiously optimistic about the future of our intelligence service. Neither Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats nor Director of Central Intelligence Mike Pompeo are professional bureaucrats. They’ve built their careers on substance rather than on management. Each of them has proven he can talk about the key issues that confront us with an impressive level of personal knowledge and insight. Each is capable of actually doing intelligence rather than merely overseeing it. . .