Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to Discourage the Speaking of Truth to Power

The damage done by the Chas Freeman saga.

By , a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The aborted appointment of Charles Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council inflicts multiple costs on the U.S. national interest, some of which Freeman enumerated in characteristically lucid fashion in his withdrawal statement (reproduced at The Cable). The affair demonstrates anew the strength of the taboo against open and candid discussion in the United States of policy involving Israel. It thus perpetuates damage from U.S. policies in the Middle East formed without benefit of such discussion. It also perpetuates damage to the ultimate interests of Israel itself, where, ironically, no comparable taboo prevails. Not least, the Freeman matter demonstrates the power of calumny and misrepresentation to kill something as desirable as the appointment of an experienced and insightful public servant.

Less immediately apparent but also serious is the damage to objectivity and professionalism in the U.S. intelligence community. Intelligence officers can see through the smoke screens thrown up by Freeman's attackers, involving Saudi donations or out-of-context comments about China, and perceive the affair as exactly what it is: the enforcement of political orthodoxy about U.S. policy toward Israel. (If any intelligence officers could not perceive this, they would be abysmally poor analysts.) The message to intelligence officers is clear: Their work will be acceptable only if it conforms to dominant policy views. This standard is exactly the opposite of what a professional and impartial intelligence service should provide.

The application of this or any other litmus test regarding policy views to the filling of an intelligence position is contrary to the very nature of intelligence, which does not make policy. It is contrary to the concept that good intelligence officers are bright, perceptive, creative, and committed people -- and thus are bound to have their own views on policy, including foreign policy -- but do not let those personal views intrude into the performance of their jobs. That concept applies both to career intelligence officers and to anyone appointed to senior positions from the outside, la Freeman. (The difference is that those from the outside have had earlier opportunities to express their policy views in public.)

The aborted appointment of Charles Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council inflicts multiple costs on the U.S. national interest, some of which Freeman enumerated in characteristically lucid fashion in his withdrawal statement (reproduced at The Cable). The affair demonstrates anew the strength of the taboo against open and candid discussion in the United States of policy involving Israel. It thus perpetuates damage from U.S. policies in the Middle East formed without benefit of such discussion. It also perpetuates damage to the ultimate interests of Israel itself, where, ironically, no comparable taboo prevails. Not least, the Freeman matter demonstrates the power of calumny and misrepresentation to kill something as desirable as the appointment of an experienced and insightful public servant.

Less immediately apparent but also serious is the damage to objectivity and professionalism in the U.S. intelligence community. Intelligence officers can see through the smoke screens thrown up by Freeman’s attackers, involving Saudi donations or out-of-context comments about China, and perceive the affair as exactly what it is: the enforcement of political orthodoxy about U.S. policy toward Israel. (If any intelligence officers could not perceive this, they would be abysmally poor analysts.) The message to intelligence officers is clear: Their work will be acceptable only if it conforms to dominant policy views. This standard is exactly the opposite of what a professional and impartial intelligence service should provide.

The application of this or any other litmus test regarding policy views to the filling of an intelligence position is contrary to the very nature of intelligence, which does not make policy. It is contrary to the concept that good intelligence officers are bright, perceptive, creative, and committed people — and thus are bound to have their own views on policy, including foreign policy — but do not let those personal views intrude into the performance of their jobs. That concept applies both to career intelligence officers and to anyone appointed to senior positions from the outside, la Freeman. (The difference is that those from the outside have had earlier opportunities to express their policy views in public.)

Americans place heavy expectations on their intelligence officers to save them from the follies of their elected leaders, and from the public’s own delusions or inattention. Those expectations became enormous in recent years because of the Iraq war, which the Bush administration had sold to the public through an assiduous campaign that involved the twisting and selective exploitation of intelligence. As the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 and 2005, I saw firsthand how the intelligence community was expected to make judgments that others would use as a politically convenient substitute for making their own judgments about policy, to articulate details about those judgments that others did not make time to absorb, to resist the excesses of a propagandizing administration that others did not resist, to convey politically inconvenient truths to the public while others who were much better positioned to speak publicly did not convey them, to force water down the throat of a policymaking horse that not only did not want to drink but did not even want to be led to the water, and to call the horse to account while it was stomping on the intelligence community’s chest with its hooves.

A fundamental impediment to the intelligence community’s meeting such expectations is that it is as much a part of the executive branch, commanded by the president, as those who make policy. It is extremely difficult to try to perform the sort of miracle work that those who have soured on the Iraq war have come to expect from intelligence officers without becoming vulnerable to the charge — which we also heard repeatedly in recent years from proponents of the war — that officers who begin to sound out of step with the administration’s message are pursuing their own policy agenda. This is why there is a long history in the United States of intelligence bending to policy imperatives, even in environments less intense than the one the Bush administration created regarding Iraq. The intelligence community needs all the encouragement it can get — not just retrospective recriminations — to exercise any independence at all.

The Freeman affair gives it the opposite of such encouragement. If even a former ambassador, speaking out as a private citizen, has crossed a line rendering him ineligible for service in the intelligence community, the lines constraining those already within the intelligence bureaucracy are several times more confining. And the confining has to do not just with public statements but with privately rendered judgments.

The main impact of this affair on intelligence work is not likely to involve the Arab-Israeli dispute, even though it is what concerns those who shot down Freeman. The most important facts and patterns about that tragic conflict are an open book; we don’t need the National Intelligence Council to tell us the implications of continued expansion of Israeli settlements, the consequences of rockets fired at Israelis, or the effects of unending occupation on the emotions of those under occupation. The main effects will instead come, perhaps subtly and invisibly, with other issues on which a dominant policy imperative emerges — such as the Iraq war, though not necessarily with as intense an environment as what the Bush administration created to sell that initiative. The effects will consist of intelligence officers being at least marginally less willing than they otherwise would be to challenge the ethos surrounding the policy and to point out ways in which the policy might be misguided. Some such policies will be misguided, will come a cropper, and will lead to the usual recriminations about how intelligence failed.

When that happens, those in Congress and elsewhere who acquiesced in the character assassination of Chas Freeman — or even worse, participated in it — should ponder two things about intelligence. First, they should ask how they could expect intelligence officers to show superlative courage in bucking political orthodoxy when they showed so little themselves. Second, they should reflect on how their own pusillanimity in the face of the lobby that gunned down Freeman has made it even less likely that intelligence officers will be able to muster such courage in the future.

Paul R. Pillar is a former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA and a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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