Review (Guest): Fixing the Facts – National Security and the Politics of Intelligence

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Joshua Rovner

5.0 out of 5 stars It Takes Two: Strategic Intelligence and National Security Policy, September 30, 2011

By Retired Reader (New Mexico) – See all my reviews

In the U.S., the relationship between strategic intelligence and the formulation of national security policies has been to say the least complex and often confusing. This book provides what has long been needed, an objective and scholarly review of this relationship.

Rovner provides an excellent theoretical background to guide his examination of specific case histories that he has chosen to illustrate the relationships between strategic intelligence and policy. Ideally intelligence analysts should be able to operate without interference to produce strategic intelligence reports that are honest, objective, and supported by the best information available. Again ideally policy makers should be free to challenge such reports. Finally both analysts and policymakers should be able to hold rational discussions over differences in interpretation and conclusions in which the supporting evidence is considered objectively. Unfortunately this ideal is often thwarted by what Rovner calls “the pathologies of intelligence-policy relations.” He has identified three such `pathologies':

1) neglect-policy makers ignore intelligence that does not fit their assumptions;

2) politicalization-the most egregious of the pathologies and one that has several different forms; and

3) excessive harmonization – intelligence analysts and policymakers are in such close agreement that they fail to critically scrutinize their conclusions.

In the course of his discussion, Rovner also makes an interesting observation about secrecy.   Secrecy he notes, can be used by intelligence agencies as a source of power and as a means to support dubious analysis. Policymakers can use secrecy to support dubious policy decisions by implying that there classified evidence supporting their conclusions.

In any event Rovner provides case studies from the Vietnam War, the ongoing controversy of Soviet Military capability and intentions, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. These case studies accurately illustrate the pathologies hampering of productive intelligence-policymaker relations. Rovner does not assign blame but explains how this relationship got off track.

Originally, U.S. Strategic intelligence was largely produced by the Office of National Estimates (ONE) of CIA from 1947 through 1972. ONE was an in house CIA operation whose main analytic arm was the powerful Board of National Estimates (BNE) under the legendary Sherman Kent. BNE actually produced very good strategic intelligence which was often ignored by policymakers. For example as the U.S. moved toward ever greater commitments in South Vietnam based on the so-called “domino theory”,  BNE that produced two estimates pointing out that this theory was hopelessly flawed. They were ignored, but  nonetheless presented good intelligence. President Nixon decided that ONE was too independent and ordered it disbanded and replaced with the more politically pliable National Intelligence Council (NIC) and a system of National Intelligence Officers who could be political appointees. This began the long process of decline of the U.S. ability to produce accurate strategic intelligence.

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Comment by Robert Steele at Amazon:

Excellent review, being cross-posted to Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog. There are many books that support all three pathologies, but I will just link a few in support of your own review:
Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform
Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy; Second Edition
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger Security International)
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

I was thinking about Sherman Kent today, and his question of Sam Adams when Kent sacrificed his integrity to agree with Westmoreland's demand that the guerrillas not be counted: “Are we going beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty?” Anyone who has to ask that question has lost their integrity.

On second thought, a couple more books, and a pointer to my own reflections at Phi Beta Iota:

Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft: Selected Essays (Brassey's Intelligence & National Security Library)
America's Strategic Blunders: Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, 1936-1991

Search for:

Journal: Politics & Intelligence-Partners Only When Integrity is Central to Both

Note: at third glance, I notice that the cover art is funnier than I realized: FIXING replaces FACING–so instead of Facing the Facts, we have Fixing the Facts.

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