National Security News: Why Don't Politicians Listen to Good Intelligence?

Political leaders often rely on the intelligence community for guidance on national security issues. More times than not, a senior intelligence analyst is likely to encounter the difficulty of transforming his findings into public policy, or in other words, of communicating objective "truth" to political 'power." At the heart of the issue lies the vast differences between two cultures: the intelligence community on one hand, and policy formation on the other. These differences not only affect how intelligence is collected and interpreted, but fundamentally alter the overall implementation of the findings. More specifically, the major differences in interests, outlook, and freedom ultimately lead to the analyst's clash with the policy maker.

In order to understand the difficulty of passing intelligence findings to public policy, we must understand the root difference between the two cultures of the analyst and politician. The most striking difference is the very interests which motivate the two roles from a day to day basis. As Sherman Kent has noted, the analyst "wishes to be listened to, to influence policy for the better, and to stay objective." In contrast, politicians seek intelligence reports for the interest of political success, including career advancement and re-election.

As a result of this conflict of interests, policy makers and analysts view costs and benefits in completely different fashions. The cost a politician suffers from a policy failure will most likely weigh more against his reputation than the analyst who produced the material. Likewise, a policy maker seeks intelligence for the benefit of both national security as well as his individual career advancement. An analyst's view of success is work that remains objective yet is still valuable to both the client and country. The difference of costs and benefits, between analyst and politician, poses a major challenge to the transformation of intelligence. At its basic level, the policy maker can be seen driving the intelligence process. As more than one senior policy maker has said, "I want intelligence that helps me advance my agenda, that makes me the actor, not the reactor" (Mark Lowenthal, From Secrets to Policy). In most instances, this window of opportunity will run the risk of politicizing intelligence for the subjective interest of the politician.

Another aspect separating the two cultures is their respective outlooks. As a result of training, intelligence analysts tend to think long term over the broader scheme of a national security issue. Furthermore, they tend to be more skeptical of the various solutions offered as a resolution to the problem. In stark contrast, politicians generally hold the belief that all issues have concrete solutions. Likewise, their election cycles tend to hone their focus on the short term. The difference in outlook and resulting tension can be seen through the 2004 response to the Iraqi insurgency. Due to different outlooks and foreign policy visions, George Bush and the CIA were seen in constant verbal battle. The contrast in cultures, specifically in outlook, will often lead to policy disagreement between an analyst's conclusions and the policy maker's agenda.

Moreover, the politician's high degree of agency (freedom) multiplies the differences of interests and outlooks. Politicians can accept, reject, or modify an analyst's findings to fit into his broader national agenda. Therefore, the analyst is faced with a difficult decision. He can either stay completely objective, and run the risk of having his findings being ignored (such as the highly publicized failure of the evacuation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina), or combine objectivity with flexibility relating to his client's interests.

Due to the difference in cultures (interests, outlooks, freedoms), an intelligence analyst will likely be confronted with the difficult task of serving his client in an objective manner. Most likely, the intelligence analyst will have to allow for subjective space within his findings. Otherwise, the analyst runs the risk of an unhealthy relationship with his client. After all, the analyst needs the policy maker; however, the policy maker can survive without the analyst. 

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Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson is a graduate of the University of Virginia with Bachelors of Arts in Economics and Foreign Affairs. Born and raised in Alexandria, VA he has recently moved to Clifton where he helps operate a small business boutique. Kyle works within the African Affairs department of an international non-profit in D.C. focusing on improving the lives of millions through free enterprise, economic development, and job creation. Through research, and discussion, Kyle hopes to demonstrate the truths within personal liberty and freedom of thought. Kyle is a current graduate student of George Mason's School of Public Policy.

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