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2014 Archives

Joshua Rovner on Iraq and the Politics of Intelligence

Excerpt

The following is from the July 30, 2014, edition of Cicero and is about a new book by SMU Professor Joshua Rovner, the Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics & National Security Policy.

July 31, 2014

n Fixing the Facts, Joshua Rovner explores the complex interaction between intelligence and policy and shines a spotlight on the problem of politicization. He describes how the Johnson administration dealt with the intelligence community during the Vietnam War; how Presidents Nixon and  Ford politicized estimates on the Soviet Union; and how pressure from the George W. Bush administration contributed to flawed intelligence on Iraq. He also compares the U.S. case with the British experience between 1998 and 2003, and demonstrates that high-profile government inquiries in both countries were fundamentally wrong about what happened before the war.

So just what is “politicization” of intelligence? Some—often those accused of doing the politicizing—tend to wave away its existence or import or even argue “intelligence is politics.” What is it and why is it important to look at?

Politicization is a word we use all the time without defining it. Some observers use it whenever there is overlap between the worlds of intelligence and policy. Others shrug it off because they assume there’s no way to keep those worlds apart.  To some extent this is true: if intelligence agencies are to play any part in the policy process then they must work closely with their policy counterparts.  But calling the normal day-to-day interaction “politicization” isn’t very useful for our understanding of intelligence-policy relations.  One of the things I do in the book is describe routine relations and then explain why politicization is a sharp deviation from the norm.

I define politicization as the manipulation of intelligence to reflect policy preferences.  Sometimes policymakers pressure intelligence leaders to change their views so they line up with stated policy.  Sometimes intelligence analysts color their findings in ways consistent with their own views. In either case the result is that political bias creeps into estimates.

Politicization is important because it has terrible effects on the quality of intelligence.  In the short term, it causes intelligence analysts to present their findings with unrealistic confidence, even when the underlying information is patchy and unreliable.  Politicization occurs when issues are open to multiple and competing interpretations.  If the answers were obvious there would be no reason to turn to intelligence in the first place.  But those who are interested in using intelligence to win political arguments cannot abide estimates that are hedging or inconclusive.  So they manufacture exaggerated intelligence and pretend that it represents a firm consensus.

Read the full story.

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