A Response to Ken Lieberthal’s Report on the Intelligence Community

As a Federal Executive Fellow in Brookings’ 21CDI project I read last month’s publication “The U.S. Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right” by Ken Lieberthal with great interest.

It’s a fascinating work. The paper covers a lot of ground and makes some excellent points, most notably on the IC’s First Customer focus and on the difficulties surrounding the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) process.  Regarding the IC’s PDB obsession, I would argue the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards a greater emphasis on longer-term research under this administration. As to the dysfunctional NIE process, part of the underlying problem with their creation is that it is not clear exactly what role the National Intelligence Officers are supposed to play in this process: clearinghouse for the views of the entire IC or producers of their own independent analysis. The idea, historically, has been for the NIC to play the former role but the subordination of the NIC to the DNI seems to be pushing it towards the latter. Either way, I wholeheartedly agree with the author’s assertion that we should resist the urge to declassify the finished products.

I have to differ, however, on the constant assertion that the IC falls short in “deep country knowledge.” While we clearly need analysts with deep substantive expertise on China, Iran, Russia and other countries of high importance, there is just as great a need for broad specialists with strong analytic tradecraft, and swinging the pendulum too far back towards area specialization would damage the IC’s efforts in many key areas, especially those of highest national security importance.

For example, in August 2001, few could have predicted the importance that Afghanistan would pose to the intelligence community over the following years. At the time, only a handful of analysts were Afghanistan experts; in order to plus up the analytic cadre, a number of generalists, who could more easily transfer accounts and quickly produce strong intelligence analysis on a totally new target, were shifted to Afghanistan. Generalists have been able to make the transition to surge accounts more seamlessly and tend to stay on the issue longer than area specialists, who often feel out of their comfort zone. Continuing to successfully support efforts on Afghanistan, Iraq and counter-terrorism will be more difficult if the IC becomes, as Lieberthal argues, more specialist-centric.

It seems to me that Lieberthal’s vision for the intelligence community is to be a think tank with access to classified information, but that uses the secret information only to buttress what is already available in the unclassified realm. However, there is far more value and context to classified information than the author seems to believe. For example, debriefings of detainees in Iraq provided not only tactical targeting information on militant networks but also vital strategic information on these groups not readily available in the unclassified world—a far cry from the claims that it is “substantively marginal.” The belittling of the value of classified information is a bit disingenuous, especially where Lieberthal claims that it is more subject to manipulation. Is information gained from “official” government statistics or press releases not subject to manipulation as well?

We should also not downplay, as the report does, the importance of the ties between analysts and operations officers. One of the main findings of the 9/11 Commission concerned the dangers of firewalls between analysts and operators and, since then, the flow of information between the two camps has increased exponentially to their mutual benefit. On one hand, Lieberthal decries the IC’s lack of understanding of the credibility of its sources but at the same time, they seek to distance analysts from building the types of relationships that would help shed light on this credibility.Finally, the argument about the lack of interaction between the IC and the think tank/academic world is overstated. While there are certainly security concerns at play, there are still numerous opportunities for regular contact. For example, Brookings annually hosts a member of the intelligence community as a fellow and a number of its senior fellows have given presentations at IC-sponsored conferences throughout DC.