When Politics and Intelligence Meet

Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, modern states and their intelligence organs have gone from denying the existence of espionage to plausible deniability of their operations to an open secret and, finally, to daily front page news. Over the last decade, policymakers in the United States and elsewhere have used—some would argue abused—intelligence publicly to support their security policies. Pulling intelligence into the public sphere and its use to support policy has led to charges that intelligence has been “politicized.” The distance which should be kept between those who make policy decisions and those who inform them with intelligence has been a source of debate since the beginning of the intelligence community and remains so today.



“Politicization can manifest itself in many ways, but in each case it boils down to the same essential elements: ‘Almost all agree that it involves deliberately distorting analysis or judgments to favor a preferred line of thinking irrespective of evidence. Most consider ’classic’ politicization to be only that which occurs if products are forced to conform to policymakers views. ‘ (DCI Robert Gates)


Politicization of intelligence occurs when political, individual or organizational advancement and the related policy positions of policymakers come to subjectively influence the Intelligence Cycle, altering the ideally objective nature of its products. Loch Johnson discusses it among his “Seven Sins of Strategic Intelligence.” Joshua Rovner identifies as many as eight different forms of politicization, but agrees with Johnson and James Wirtz that it is useful to separate them into categories, the most relevant being “direct manipulation” and “indirect manipulation.”

“Politicization is like a fog. Though you cannot hold it in your hands…it is real and it does affect people.”

Direct Manipulation

Direct manipulation—the most blatant form of politicization—is an “active effort to shape analysis so that it fits preferred policies.” This can include reaching certain conclusions or ignoring facts in an effort to “terminate political debate or to gain political support.” It can also be identified as estimates being “formulated to complement prevailing orthodoxies and predetermined policies” and “reversing the rational decision-making process, which uses information objectively in order to calibrate means and ends.”  For example, Johnson relays the story of a senior U.S. National Security Council staffer who put in a call to CIA asking for an estimate to be changed after finding it did not support White House policy. In this case, the Deputy CIA Director heard about it and brusquely rebuked the caller.

Direct manipulation is claimed by some to be the rarest type of politicization because of the lack of many such ‘smoking gun’ examples of policymakers generating phone calls or emails specifying certain conclusions. It may not necessarily mean it does not occur—it may just mean evidence is unavailable due to the secret nature of intelligence. A CIA man once said, “Politicization is like a fog. Though you cannot hold it in your hands…it is real and it does affect people.” Policymakers can easily present a different version of episodes of supposed politicization and parry criticism of involvement in intelligence by invoking their right to challenge and oversee intelligence, as the WMD Commission Report characterized the conduct of the Bush administration.

On the other hand, Rovner posits that this form of direct manipulation may indeed be rare because there are easier ways to engage in politicization. He offers “manipulation by appointment”, where policymakers use their power to place personnel with similar views to their own into intelligence community positions, is easier. Those they appoint do the “politicizing” for them. Kevin Parsneau found that in a study of presidential sub-cabinet appointments from 1961 and 2006, presidents appointed significantly more ‘loyalists’ than ‘experienced’ officers to positions in order to build an executive branch to support their policies. This type of manipulation undoubtedly transfers to the intelligence community as well.


Indirect Manipulation

“Indirect manipulation” is achieved by policymakers sending signals to the intelligence community regarding their preferred estimates or findings, often suggesting resulting punishment or reward. Not catching these signals or challenging political or institutional orthodoxies can be dangerous for the careers of analysts who may be singled out for not conforming. For example, during the siege of Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War, an analyst delivered a bleak report on the history of withstanding military sieges to General William Westmoreland and his staff. Following the briefing, Westmoreland made it known he would not listen to negative assessments of the situation and, therefore, did not receive any more.

Intelligence briefings to policymakers are often limited to oral exchanges due to the short time they have available to read estimates and become a location where conscious or subconscious changes in vocabulary or tone can occur or where policymakers can be told or hear what they want to hear. For example, President Kennedy was unable to devote more than 45 minutes at a time to briefings before the Bay of Pigs.

At times, the very questions policymakers ask “frame” the answer they expect to receive within an expected range of responses. Vice-President Richard Cheney and his staff were accused of indirectly manipulating CIA’s estimates on Iraq by conducting continual interviews of analysts and admonishing them to keep looking for evidence of unconventional weapons until they found it. The then-deputy chief of CIA’s Directorate of Operations said there was no direct manipulation, but the “barrage of questions and frequent visits…created an environment that was subtly, but unmistakably, influencing the agency’s work.”


Where Does Politicization Occur?

Politicization can occur during any phase of the Intelligence Cycle. Mark Lowenthal points out that the intelligence requirements policymakers set for the intelligence community are inherently politicalbecause they are where policy and intelligence meet. Manipulation of estimates by policymakers can occur during the processing, analysis and dissemination stages. These stages involve making judgments as to the reliability of information, piecing it together with all other available related information, drawing conclusions from the information, and then communicating it to policymakers, after which the cycle begins anew with new or different requirements.

Politicization also occurs during the collection stage. Following the setting of intelligence requirements by policymakers, planning what information to collect and how, as well as what not to collect and to ignore, can also be politicized. Lowenthal gives the close interface between intelligence and policymakers on collection matters, especially when it involves obtaining clearance to undertake risky operations or involving high-ranking foreign officials, as an example. The journalist James Risen details a 2002 episode in which CIA collection chiefs from throughout the Middle East were told by senior CIA leaders that the Bush administration was making clear “there will be no further debate on the issue” of Iraq, that the U.S. was going to war, and that is where they needed to focus operations. It was made clear they were no longer interested in collecting intelligence contrary to that end.

Nonetheless, some question if politicization exists, arguing that intelligence is politics by its very nature and politicization is charged whenever estimates support one policy position over another, which inevitably occurs. Others, such as Gregory Treverton, argue politicization is the cry of those who would resist change or the result of bruised egos when a position differing from their estimate is adopted. As Richard Betts explains:


“For issues of high import and controversy, any relevant analysis is perforce politically charged, because it points to a policy conclusion. Various disputes—about which elements of information are correct, ambiguous, or false; which of them are important, incidental, or irrelevant; in which context they should be understood; and against which varieties of information pointing in a different direction they should assess—are in effect, if not in intent, disputes about which policy conclusion stands or falls.”


As discussed above, “smoking gun” examples of direct politicization of intelligence estimates are rare. From this fact one can choose from several conclusions: That it does not occur; that it may occur and evidence could be there, but remains concealed or undiscovered in archives, either by design or due to the secret nature of intelligence, or; it does occur and policymakers use more subtle methods to engage in politicization. There are cases that present evidence of indirect manipulation of intelligence, but their ambiguous nature means there will always be disagreement as to the degree of influence of policymakers on intelligence estimates.


[Photo: Flickr CC: US Coast Guard]


Chris Miller is a veteran of the U.S. Army, serving as a military adviser and in NBC/CBRN defense. He is a Purple Heart recipient following two tours in Iraq and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRNe, small arms, COIN, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.


1 comment

  1. Tom 2 December, 2014 at 15:51 Reply

    “smoking guns” are rare? I can think of several under Clapper. Lying to Congress numerous times, on things from NSA surveillance to Benghazi, come readily to mind.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *