The White House Has a Policy Problem, Not an Intelligence Problem

The White House Has a Policy Problem, Not an Intelligence Problem

The controversy du jour centers on President Obama’s recent 60 Minutes interview where, among other comments, he singled out Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for the intelligence failures that allegedly missed the Islamic State (IS) threat. This raises a larger and more important set of issues, specifically whether this is in fact an intelligence failure, or a policy failure? It is both, but primarily the latter.

In a typically balanced and well-reported analysis on Monday, Peter Baker of the New York Times described the multiple missed signals and inaccurate assessments that afflicted some intelligence assessments and many policy decisions. No entity in the intelligence and policy community is blameless, and Baker’s article details numerous mistakes that contributed to the prevailing crisis. However, it also contains a couple of telling passages that point to the biggest failures being at the policy level. Such as the opening anecdote about multiple intelligence reports in late 2013 warning of the growing strength and menace of the Islamic State (which is sometimes called ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria:

But the reports … generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. "Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it," said a senior American intelligence official.

And later in the article there is this:

Mr. Obama was determined not to let the United States be dragged back into a war that he had opposed from the start and that he had promised during his first campaign for the White House to end.

In other words, starting at the top with the president, the senior levels of this White House did not want to hear bad news coming from Iraq and Syria. They had a rigid narrative built around a set of policy assumptions and priorities, and a growing terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria was ignored because it did not fit that narrative. The main White House policy assumptions included:

  • The threat of jihadist terrorism is severely diminished;
  • American involvement in Syria will make things worse;
  • Iraq is a stable country that we have no interest in;
  • The United States will not do any more military interventions in the Middle East.

Taken together, these tenets of Obama administration policy created an epistemological environment in which decision-makers were likely rendered almost incapable of reading intelligence assessments that offered contrary evidence.

This raises a larger point about the complex relationship between intelligence and policy. Despite persistent myths to the contrary, it is exceedingly rare that policymakers explicitly try to distort or manipulate intelligence products. Far, far more common, in my experience, is that policymakers simply see what they want to see in intelligence reporting, and ignore or downplay what they don’t want to see. In other words, the breakdowns come when policymakers try to squeeze and filter intelligence into their own policy preferences, rather than trying to alter the intelligence reporting itself.

I suspect that has been the case with the Obama administration’s persistent failures to perceive the growing IS threat and state failure in Iraq. Even just from what is available in open sources, it is clear that for over a year, if not longer, the intelligence community has been sending persistent, clear, and specific warnings about the growth of the Islamic State and its increasing capabilities and nefarious intentions. Other policy leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio have done the same. But these intelligence warnings were sent into the White House fishbowl, which distorts the perceptions of policymakers and decision makers up to and including the president.

If this sounds alien to readers who have never worked in policy and been intelligence customers, it shouldn’t. Think for a second about your own reading preferences — chances are you are like most other people and gravitate to reading opinion pieces and outlets that generally agree with and reinforce your own convictions, while you either avoid entirely or at least read with more skepticism those outlets and articles that disagree with you. We see what we want to see. That is a natural fault of human cognition, and in most people it just breeds intellectual laziness and shallow partisanship. But for national security decision makers it is a fault that carries much more serious consequences.

I have written previously about ways in which friction can develop between policymakers and intelligence analysts, often from the unreasonable demands that policymakers place on intelligence. The other week, Director Clapper memorably described this phenomenon with a sardonic nod to Catholic doctrine:

We are supposed to keep the country safe, predict anticipatory intelligence, with no risk, and no embarrassment if revealed, and without a scintilla of jeopardy to privacy of any domestic person or foreign person. We call that "immaculate collection."

Clapper is a stand-up guy, and has shown leadership and integrity in taking responsibility for what he concedes the intelligence community got wrong. President Obama needs to show the same candor, humility, and leadership in taking responsibility for the policies that he and his administration got wrong. This is not about keeping score of mistakes; it is about the commander-in-chief sending a signal to his team that he and they need to read intelligence with open minds rather than through the distorted lens of mistaken policy biases.