Friday, December 21, 2007

Intelligence politicized - again?

Recent Congressional calls for yet another investigation, this time into the destruction of CIA terrorist interrogation tapes, highlights another common misunderstanding of the U.S. intelligence community: the difference between the overall intelligence community and the Central Intelligence Agency. While this is understandable for the average citizen not to be clear on that difference, it is puzzling to hear it from a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

The Honorable Peter Hoekstra, one of many seeking an investigation, has been a member of the HPSCI since 2004. So why is he demanding that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) be held responsible and threatening with subpoenas, when it was the deputy director of operations at the CIA who ordered the destruction of the agency's own interrogation tapes. Has he learned so little about intelligence organizations and the activities of the very community he is helping oversee?

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 created the office of the Director of National Intelligence and subordinated the CIA once and for all under a national office, on par with the other intelligence agencies (DIA, NSA, NGA, etc). Whether CIA has accepted this arrangement remains debatable and Hoekstra's description of intelligence community leaders as "arrogant" may well fit the CIA leadership of 2005, when the tapes were destroyed. No doubt certain elements within the agency will continue to consider CIA "first among equals" and act accordingly.

While congressional oversight of the intelligence community mandates that the HPSCI and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) must be notified of significant intelligence activities in a timely manner, it is debatable
whether the destruction of the interrogation tapes actually rose to the level of significance requiring congressional notification. Much depends on how routine such actions are in other cases and if the tapes were destroyed after Congress requested them as evidence. Otherwise much of this latest congressional "outrage" could be viewed as yet another incident of playing politics with intelligence.

Any intelligence professional will view such "operational" documentation as highly sensitive and generally not releasable outside the organization. Consumers of any intelligence resulting from these interrogations, including congressional committees, should be concerned only with the end product, not the operational source information and methodology. The fact that some disagree with suspected methods and are eager to use such suspicions for political gains does not entitle them to this information. When dealing with national security and intelligence issues, there are good reasons for the classification and limited access to this information. This is also why each intelligence agency employs ever increasing legal staffs to review and approve specific activities. Let's not cripple ourselves in the pursuit of political correctness.

The possibility of politicizing intelligence also comes to mind with the release of the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. The 2007 NIE assesses "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
Contrast that with the 2005 NIE assesses "with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons." What is really behind this reversal? Should we assume an intelligence failure in 2005 or in 2007? Are there elements within CIA who disagree with national security policy and are using the NIE process to pursue political preferences?

Inquiring minds want to know...