The Politicization of Intelligence, Revisited

Photograph Source: Erik Drost – CC BY 2.0

The politicization of intelligence typically involves pressure from policymakers on the intelligence process.  For example, pressure from the Reagan administration on CIA director William Casey and deputy director Robert Gates regarding the Soviet threat ensured that the Central Intelligence Agency would miss the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Pressure from the Bush administration on director George Tenet and deputy director John McLaughlin to support the war against Iraq produced phony intelligence on non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

The reverse can also be true, however.  The military and intelligence communities are fully capable of pressuring presidential administrations with the use of worst-case or slanted intelligence.  The Biden administration is currently facing such pressure from director of national intelligence Avril Haines and CIA director William Burns as well as from senior general officers.  The critics of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in the mainstream media, particularly in the Washington Post, as well as in the Congress, such as  Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), have made good use of these high-level comments to oppose the withdrawal.

The head of the U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth Mckenzie Jr., said last week that it would be “extremely difficult” for the United States to watch and counter terrorist threats in Afghanistan—such as al Qaeda—when U.S. forces leave the country.  In their international threat assessments to the Congress, Haines and Burns similarly warned that the capabilities against terrorism in Southwest Asia will be weakened by the U.S. withdrawal.  Other military and intelligence officials have warned that the U.S. departure could undermine peace talks with the Taliban and increase the odds of intensified civil conflict.  These warnings ignore the fact that the United States has had one foot out the door ever since the peace talks began, that the prospect of successful talks with the Taliban was negligible, and that Afghanistan has been in a state of civil conflict since the coup against the king nearly fifty years ago.

In exaggerating the problem of intelligence collection in the wake of withdrawal, Haines and Burns are explicitly ignoring the major advances in surveillance technology over the past ten years.  U.S. visibility in Afghanistan currently is far superior to what existed twenty years ago at the time of 9/11.  Burns’ view that there is a “significant risk” in detecting and responding to extremist threats is simply wrong.  It is reminiscent of CIA director Tenet’s wrong-headed underestimation of our verification capabilities in the 1990s, which led to pressure on the Clinton administration to walk away from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In actual fact, al Qaeda and the Afghan branch of the Islamic State have limited resources in Afghanistan.  Al Qaeda no longer represents a significant threat to the United States, and the Taliban consider the Islamic State an enemy force.  Even in the 1990s, when al Qaeda emerged as a threat against the United States, there was sufficient collection of intelligence outside of Afghanistan to prevent the attacks of 9/11.  Despite useful intelligence from foreign intelligence services, both the CIA and the FBI were unable to track the international movements of al Qaeda operatives, including their presence in the United States.  Overall, the failure was marked by a lack of imagination and an inability to connect the dots, somewhat similar to the intelligence failure that accompanied the threat against the Congress on January 6th of this year.

The intelligence community’s annual threat assessment to the Congress provides an additional opportunity to use intelligence to influence decision makers.  These assessments are often unreliable because they contain no discussion or even mention of the most important independent variables in the international arena—the policies and actions of the United States.  The United States, after all, is the only genuine global political actor and the only global military force.  We spend as much for our military and intelligence capabilities—more than $1 trillion—than the rest of the world combined.  Since the Second World War, we have used military power more aggressively and more frequently than any nation or group of nations.

The militarization of our international security policy, moreover, has contributed to a worsening of the international situation, which is not mentioned in the global threat assessment.  More than 150 nations, including all of our NATO allies, have joined the 1997 Ottawa Convention to ban anti-personnel land mines.  But President Joe Biden has bowed to the pressure of the Pentagon to ignore the treaty; the Pentagon also blocked President Bill Clinton’s efforts to join.  The United States has the world’s worst record in ratifying international treaties; nearly 50 treaties are unsigned or unratified.  In addition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the list includes the Law of the Sea; the Rights of the Child; and the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.  Yet the intelligence report blames only China and unnamed regional actors for “ignoring” international rules and institutions.

The intelligence community indulges a self-fulfilling prophecy in concluding that there is a greater risk of future conflict because of “China’s challenge to the United States and the Western-led international system.”  Its report does not mention that there are greater diplomatic opportunities for the United States in Asia because of the emergence of China.  Nor does it mention the heavy U.S. military footprint in the western Pacific, which represents the challenge of “containment” to China.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for