The Politics of Intelligence that Endanger us all

By Terry Turchie

In May, Dennis Blair, the retired four-star admiral who became President Obama’s first director of national intelligence (DNI), became a casualty of Washington politics when he was asked to resign his post. He’d been a dead man walking for a while:

While the timing of Blair’s departure seemed a bit abrupt, the notion that his position inside the administration was shaky has been common gossip in Washington intelligence and political circles for weeks if not months. Blair, who had a glittering career as a military leader, rising to become commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, gained a reputation as a not particularly adroit operator in the Machiavellian world of D.C. espionage politics.

Think about that for a minute: D.C. Espionage Politics. Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball said it right – and he used the right adjective: Machiavellian.

There’s a strong central flaw in analysis and intelligence collection throughout our government: the idea that analysis must start with “collection priorities.”

Collection priorities are politically based; they change with every administration – and even within an administration. Unfortunately, the political differences they’re based on creates a kind of “groupthink” approach rather than dealing with clear and impartial examinations of the facts.

Dennis Blair’s biggest foe was Leon Panneta, the wily politico appointed by President Obama as his CIA Director. Blair’s mistake was in concentrating on the mission – keeping America safe through gaining critical intelligence – rather than on the politics of the mission. Panetta saw Blair’s efforts as a bid for independence from the CIA, and he was backed by the White House.

CIA Directors have long been close political allies of the party in power. Partisanship shapes their opinions and advice. When CIA Director George Tennant assured President George W. Bush that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – recall his infamous ‘SLAM DUNK” quote – he put politics over the protection of the American people in an age of enhanced threat from terrorism. He deprived his own agency of the credibility it needs to effectively do its job and have the complete trust of the American public.

The White House did nothing to back DNI Dennis Blair over CIA Director Leon Panetta. That sent a message to the rest of the intelligence community that Blair could be ignored.

Dennis Blair was only the latest casualty in the D.C. Espionage War. No matter how well-intended or highly placed, any intelligence officer who declares independence and bucks the political groupthink is history.

The fact that the partisan nature of the intelligence community endangers all of us is opaque to politicians inside the Beltway, and essentially ignored by journalists who appear to be transfixed by the partisan battles they relentlessly cover for all of us.

They’re all missing the key point: the worst consequence of the current political war in Washington is that America is far less protected than we should be.

Leave a Reply