The role of military intelligence in policy making is not unlike the role of science in policy making, a point I make in my forthcoming book. In the Los Angeles Times last week Jennifer Glaudmans has an excellent op-ed about the politicization of intelligence under Robert Gates, former CIA director and current nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld. Her piece provides an interesting lens through which to think about the pathological politicization of science. Here are a few relevant excerpts (emphases added):
. . . we were asked, in 1985, to contribute to the National Intelligence Estimate on the subject of Iran.
Later, when we received the draft NIE, we were shocked to find that our contribution on Soviet relations with Iran had been completely reversed. Rather than stating that the prospects for improved Soviet-Iranian relations were negligible, the document indicated that Moscow assessed those prospects as quite good. What’s more, the national intelligence officer responsible for coordinating the estimate had already sent a personal memo to the White House stating that the race between the U.S. and USSR “for Tehran is on, and whoever gets there first wins all.”
No one in my office believed this Cold War hyperbole. There was simply no evidence to support the notion that Moscow was optimistic about its prospects for improved relations with Iran. All of our published analysis had consistently been pessimistic about Soviet-Iranian relations as long as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was alive.
We protested the conclusions of the NIE, citing evidence such as the Iranian government’s repression of the communist Tudeh Party, the expulsion of all Soviet economic advisors and a number of Soviet diplomats who were KGB officers, and a continuing public rhetoric that chastised the “godless” communist regime as the “Second Satan” after the United States.
Despite overwhelming evidence, our analysis was suppressed. At a coordinating meeting, we were told that Gates wanted the language to stay in as it was, presumably to help justify “improving” our strained relations with Tehran through the Iran-Contra weapons sales.
This is another example of ends-justify-the-means thinking that seem to be behind just about every pathological politicization of science. If your desired policy actions are virtuous, then it shouldn’t matter how you cause those actions to occur, right? In the end we will all be better off, right? Glaudmans indicates that this was the thinking on intelligence behind Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra effort, it was also the thinking behind the neo-conservatives push in Iraq, and it is behind those pushing for immediate and drastic action on curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases such as described in the Stern Review (which we have discussed at some length).
It’s possible that the Reagan administration would have gone ahead and made its overtures to Iran regardless of what was said in the NIE, but having the coordinated assessment of the intelligence community support its views certainly added legitimacy to its rationale. What’s more, if the policymakers had received better and more accurate intelligence, perhaps someone would at least have questioned the false sense of urgency. Instead, our intelligence was used as expensive intra-government propaganda. . .
During those years, the government was clearly dominated by people who had a strong ideological view of the Soviet Union. But their conflict was not with people who were “soft” on communism, it was with people who looked at all the available evidence, without much bias one way or another, and who had been to the USSR and witnessed its hollow political and social structure, seeing not an omnipotent superpower but a clumsy, oafish regime often stumbling over its own feet.
What is interesting about this passage is Glaudmans’ description of how those people seeking to provide good intelligence found themselves in conflict with the ideologues. This conflict occurs because those seeking to politicize intelligence beyond its limits are not necesarily threatened by their ideological opponents — indeed such stark contrasts actually make the ideological differences more apparent and thus serve more effectively as a political “wedge.” Instead the greatest threat to ideologues seeking to pathologuically politicize intelligence comes from those presenting solid analyses, which have a stubborn tendency to win out in the long run. On such conflicts, see for example a few of my own experiences described here.
Is all this ancient history relevant today? It is if you believe that policymakers are poorly served when analysis is concocted to support their preexisting positions. It is relevant if you believe that the failure to learn the lessons from the 1991 Gates hearings harmed U.S. foreign policy when, a decade later, we went to war on false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is relevant if you believe that Congress should take its oversight responsibilities seriously.
It is certainly the case that the current Bush Administration has contributed to the pathological politicization of intelligence, economics, and science across a range of areas. Of this there is no doubt. Fortunately, these issues are suffering from no lack of attention. The concern that I have and discuss frequently on this blog, which I see almost every day, is the contributions by scientists (and other experts) to the pathological politicization of science. Once you lose the capability to provide solid policy analyses, pathologically politicized information is all that remains.