Book Review: Intelligence and Politics Origins and Reasons

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Intelligence and Politics

Origins and Reasons of Intelligence Intervention in Policy -- Uri Bar-Joseph

The salient question raised by Uri Bar-Joseph in his book Origins and Reasons of Intelligence Intervention in Policy, has to do with intelligence professionals interfering with -- or otherwise being allowed to have enormous influence over -- foreign policy decisions made by political leaders. Bar-Joseph's book also deals with political leaders who use intelligence-gathering experts -- and their findings -- to formulate personal agenda-advancing policies in a way that is an anathema to good government. This paper reviews and critiques Bar-Joseph's book -- as well as his 2009 article in Political Science Quarterly -- and provides scholarly sources as additional perspectives on what Bar-Joseph asserts and documents.

Moreover, there are arguments to be made "for" and "against" the idea of allowing political policy decisions to be based on what intelligence agencies have discovered or formulated out of pieces of the puzzle. To wit, is it wise to support the theory that George W. Bush's administration invented intelligence to advance the argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because it was politically expedient for Bush to use that shaky justification? Is it possible, given the literature, to say "yes" to the idea that the president and his inner circle received faulty intelligence -- and hence Bush based his decision to attack Iraq on flimsy intelligence? There is a third possible piece of the puzzle, a third potential explanation for the debacle in Iraq that was launched by Bush. Being "for" this third explanation requires buying into certain theories; being "against" it -- that bridge will be crossed in This paper's conclusion.

The Book, the Issues and the Literature

Indeed, what should the proper political relationship be between elected leaders and intelligence-gathering agencies within that government? When it comes to democratic nations having a need for accurate and objective intelligence prior in order to making foreign policy decisions, how does that process get done seamlessly, honestly, so that the policy is based on real world intelligence blended with pragmatism?

In his book, Bar-Joseph insists that "…intelligence work should be objective, autonomous, and free from political influence" (Bar-Joseph, 1995, p. 9). He goes on to scratch the surface a bit deeper, saying that intelligence should present two outcomes: a) to supply policymakers with "objective information, analysis, and, upon request, advice designed to assist action"; and b) to craft a policy from a political point-of-view but "through covert action" (p. 9). Quickly after those stated objectives the author admits that though policymakers are obliged to make decisions rationally using available intelligence "…this is rarely the case." Indeed, the "professional ethic" Bar-Joseph believes should be the rule of the day too often gets drowned in the fast-moving waters of "power politics" (p. 9). In the case of Bush and his decision to go to war in Iraq, the rational use of available was nowhere to be seen.

There is a common understanding, generally accepted by scholars and historians, that "real world" intelligence cannot possibly be isolated from politics; but Bar-Joseph asserts (p. 26) that this "state of affairs" is an "unavoidable evil." It is an evil dynamic because once the objectivity is lost, the intelligence can easily become "compromised and distorted" (p. 26).

Does Bar-Joseph seem surprised or is his anger aroused by this abuse of power through the manipulation of intelligence by the elected political leader? Not in the least. He says the thirst for personal power by political leaders -- and a chance to advance their "parochial interests" -- is exactly what kind of behavior "one can expect…from politicians" (p. 11). What does strike him as unethical and unacceptable is the desire for power by those intelligence officers. "Intelligence is not about making policy," Bar-Joseph asserts; rather, it is about "describing and analyzing reality…as a means to improve the quality of the policymaking process" (p. 11).

Fast forward to 2009, fourteen years after Bar-Joseph wrote his book. A reader finds that in this recent Bar-Joseph essay, the author is talking about the political leader bringing "politicization" into the picture. Whereas in 1995 he was suggesting that it is commonplace and predictable for a democratically elected leader to manipulate intelligence prior to his strategy being played out, in 2009 he asserts that it goes deeper. Bar-Joseph writes in his 2009 piece in the Political Science Quarterly:

"Scholars generally agree…that pressure from above to adjust intelligence products to conform to the policy preferences of political leaders, irrespective of the evidence, constitutes politicization… [but] if political leaders select intelligence directors who either share their own policy preferences or who are known for their loyalty, and the result is the screening out of dissenting viewpoints, is that politicization?"

That point made, Bar-Joseph surely understands that second scenario is not purely politicization. To wit, any newly elected president (using the U.S. As an example here) is going to locate intelligence experts that he not only trusts, but whom he actually agrees with on pivotal policy points. Isn't that how it has always worked? A liberal doesn't advance to high office and then bring in, say, a novice with a noted independent streak, or just to balance viewpoints, a hawkish conservative known for his cowboy diplomacy. Did Barack Obama bring in a novice or a conservative to run the Central Intelligence Agency? Certainly not. Obama chose long-time Democrat Leon Panetta, whose experience in the executive and legislative branches of national government -- and his squeaky-clean reputation -- made him an obvious choice for Obama.

Besides, Obama needed to create the impression of a clean slate, not just because his approach to government service is in many respects the very antithesis of his predecessor; but also because during his campaign for the presidency he attacked the CIA's behaviors. Obama attacked the CIA's policy of interrogation and torture (water-boarding), and he also launched pointed criticism at the establishment of the "Office of Special Plans" (OSP) that George W. Bush set up. This goes back to Bar-Joseph's assertion that it is unethical and unacceptable for the intelligence professionals to seek or gain power through the process of gathering and sharing intelligence. In this case, Bush actually helped his intelligence talent achieve power by allowing the formation of the OSP. "There is substantial evidence that the OSP was designed to circumvent the CIA," Bar-Joseph writes (p. 490) in his 2009 piece. The intelligence that the OSP was to gather was intended to demonstrate "both the existence of Iraqi WMD and a link between Iraq and al Qaeda," Bar-Joseph continues.

This provided the "rationalization" that Bush needed to justify going to war with a sovereign nation. In his 2009 article Bar-Joseph asserts that the Bush OSP was staffed "with analysts who were selected for their job precisely because they believed from the start in these hypotheses" (e.g., that Hussein was hiding WMD and that somehow al Qaeda was linked to Hussein) (Bar-Joseph, p. 491). There certainly is no coincidence in the fact that the OSP was stacked with analysts that had served under then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Meanwhile, in Part II of his book ("Intelligence Intervention in Politics") Bar-Joseph meticulously, with a fine-tooth comb, revisits with brilliance and reader-friendly narrative the intelligence gaffs that led to wrongheaded policies vis-a-vis: a) the CIA and the Bay of Pigs disaster in John F. Kennedy's administration; b) the blatant intelligence errors that led to Israel's "Unfortunate Business" mess in 1954; and c) Britain's embarrassing and damaging intelligence blunders in the 1920s.

But for the purposes of this paper it is appropriate to examine a more contemporary example in which wrongheaded intelligence played a major role in a policy failure, and that would be the Bush decision to attack Iraq in 2003. In his 2009 research piece, Bar-Joseph explains that "Much of the analysis and interpretation of intelligence…takes place in small groups" (p. 463). And the dynamics of small group can lead to "…illusions of invulnerability, unanimity, and moral superiority"; small group dynamics also launches "…tendencies to elevate loyalty to the highest priority goal" (p. 463). This small group dynamic that Bar-Joseph alludes to is called "groupthink" and it was given that title by philosopher Irving Janis.

Groupthink practices include ignoring any information that runs "contrary to collective belief" within the group; and groupthink's secret strategy sessions lead to a cutoff of any need for outside addition information "from experts" (Bar-Joseph, p. 464). The author mentions two other classic results of a groupthink situation: a) the possibility that something could go wrong is not on the table for discussion and hence no contingency plans are formulated; and b) the group begins to embrace "illusions of invulnerability, unanimity, and moral superiority" (p. 464).

Meanwhile, it is obvious that whatever intelligence the Bush Administration sleuths had gathered about Saddam Hussein's regime, the groupthink approach to policy decisions allowed only those intelligence reports that worked well for the mindset of the group. Washington Post journalist William Hamilton, after previewing an advanced copy of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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