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Taking Politics out of Intelligence

(Update below)

It comes as no surprise to some that elements within our intelligence services play politics. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has come to a head in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. Now that we have acknowledged the 800 lb gorilla, what in the world should we do about it? Should we do anything?

Just because one works in the intelligence community does not mean that one surrenders any rights (though some – like free speech – come with caveats). People are going to have political opinions and vote the way they want; but the ballot box, not the country desk, is where political intrigues should stay.

Placing restrictions on the political activities of intelligence officers is neither a radical or draconian idea. In the financial and legal worlds “Chinese Walls” are erected to help prevent conflicts of interest. Members of the military are restricted from running in partisan elections. This latter restriction grows out concerns over a coup d’etat, but while most in the military may lean right, one need only look at the recent slate of veterans who have decided to run for state and national office as Democrats to realize that the military is not homogeneous politically. So concerned are we over a military overthrow that we’ve completely disregarded the political machinations of those who have a hand in sending soldiers to war.

What follows are some suggestions on ways we might reduce the amount of potential political influence in our intelligence services. The goal here is not the abrogation of any rights, but prudent steps to reduce the opportunities to overtly or covertly politicize intelligence.

Term Limits: Restrict the tenure of intelligence community staff above the grade of GS-14 to five years (you can come back after a five year hiatus if you want). This would apply to collectors in staff and management positions, analysts, as well as managers and executives. Officers come into their own at grade 12 or 13 and don’t start to have serious influence on missions until they get promoted beyond that. Five years is enough time to put hard earned expertise to use in a leadership position, but not enough time to fully instill the feeling that permeates so many “lifers”: that they ARE the mission, they know best, and they’ll be damned if any politician is going to tell them how to save the world.

Restrictions on Political Affiliation & Support: For the duration of one’s service in the community, you are prohibited from belonging to any political party or action committee, or donating time, money, or other resources to same. You are welcome to have your political opinions you are just required to voice that opinion at the ballot box, not in your written products.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: No political discussions, stickers, posters, buttons or other items in the office. No one is saying you can’t root for one side or the other you just have to do it on your own time.

Curtail Congressional Liaison: Keep the various agency Congressional liaison offices open, but as facilitators of meetings, not gatekeepers of information. Leave officers and members to meet alone and as they like to discuss what they will without the presence of a mother hen. Members deserve frank and direct – not “approved” – information.

The Four-Man Rule: Any meeting with a member of the House or Senate must be done with a fellow officer and in tandem with a member of the other party on the same committee. If you are raising a real national security concern, it is something that deserves attention from both sides of the aisle. It is harder to plot an intelligence-driven political coup if the opposition is sitting right in front of you. If you are blowing a whistle, having support from both camps can only help. If your views are valid you should have no problem finding an internal ally.

These are a starting point and certainly not all-inclusive. Additional carrots and sticks are also necessary, such as real protection for legitimate whistle-blowers and serious punishments for those who meet with members in parking garages and send signals to each other via the placement of potted plants.

Running football betting pools or selling Girl Scout cookies are all prohibited activities in federal offices, but that doesn’t stop them from taking place. It is not that the rules are meant to be ignored – they address real concerns – but they are best enforced when things get out of hand. Any rules meant to address political influence in the intelligence community will be treated in a similar fashion, because one way or another people will make their political disposition known. What we need is a hammer that can be dropped on those that cross the line between having political feelings and taking political action.

Update: Colleagues at Kent’s Imperative weigh in.  Clearly a complicated issue that no laundry list will solve completely. Keeping things above-board meeting/action-wise only takes care of the obvious and stupid. It is a nice exercise though, eh?

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.