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Taking the Politics out of Intelligence

(Note: An earlier version of this post ran back in February and it seems appropriate to re-run in light of recent events. I’ve fattened it up in a few places and retooled it lightly. A bad idea? Not really. Impractical? Possibly. A meaningful exercise? Most certainly.)

That senior members of our intelligence community (IC) play politics with intelligence information is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that has come to a head in the aftermath of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and current allegations against former senior CIA officer Mary McCarthy. Having acknowledged the 800 lb gorilla, what in the world should we do about it? Should we do anything?

Just because one works in the IC 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 nor draconian idea. In the financial and legal worlds “Chinese Walls” are erected to help prevent conflicts of interest between different lines of business within the same firm. Members of the military are prohibited 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 slate of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have decided to run for state and national offices as Democrats to realize that the military is not politically homogeneous. So concerned are we over a military overthrow that we’ve completely disregarded the political machinations of the intelligence officers who help send soldiers off 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 politicize intelligence.

Term Limits: In order to carry out any political machinations you have to be in a fairly senior position. You don’t see a lot of GS-9s getting rounded up for being subversive political operatives. As the IC is currently structured the only way to achieve senior status is to spend a lot of time in the system building up not only mission expertise but an extensive list of contacts through which you can carry out your plans. It would make sense then to restrict the tenure of IC 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 practitioners in all disciplines but especially managers and executives. Officers come into their own at grade 12 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. Added Bonus: Returnees might actually develop new skills and broader outlooks that they can now put to use in the business.

Restrictions on Political Affiliation & Support: Much has been made about Mary McCarthy’s substantial financial contributions to a political party and candidates within that party. Making contributions is certainly her right, but when they all go to one side of the political spectrum; the people who come to your defense are all from that same side of the spectrum; and you are accused of contributing to stories that portray the other side of the spectrum in a negative light; the idea that you are a neutral speaker of truth-to-power becomes questionable. So, I suggest that for the duration of one’s service in the IC you be 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 assessments.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Want to watch federal employees flush a day of tax-payer funded work down the toilet? Start a political discussion between the cubes of officers who are veterans working military issues and those who were previously academics working political issues. The WWE wishes they could put on a show like what you would witness. Best to avoid all of that and say: 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: People love to rend hair and gnash teeth over the supposed evils done by intelligence agencies, but they forget that Congress is responsible for making sure no such evils ever happen. By-and-large the oversight committees only get involved after a real or perceived scandal hits the papers. Members and their staffs are busy people, but watching orchestrated dog-and-pony shows and calling that oversight is what I call slacking. By all means each agency should keep their congressional liaison offices open, but they should be re-tooled to become facilitators of meetings, not gatekeepers of information. Leave officers and members or their staffs to meet alone and as they like to discuss what they will without the presence of a mother hen. If Members are going to do their jobs properly they deserve plenty of frank and direct – not “approved” – information.

The Four-Man Rule: I give a lot more credit to exposés that are not one-man productions. Color me skeptical, but either everyone else in the office is a scared drone and you’re the only one with the stones to speak up, or maybe things aren’t really the way you view them. Contrast most of the IC scandals to date against Able Danger, which has a squad of people lined up to express their dismay at malfeasance and missed opportunities. I submit that if you are going to blow a whistle you should do it with at least one other officer with knowledge of the issues you plan to raise. If your concerns are valid you should have no trouble finding an ally. I also recommend that any meeting with a member of an oversight committee must be done not only with a fellow officer but with a member of the other party on the same committee. If you are raising a legitimate national security concern then it deserves attention from both sides of the aisle. It is also harder to plot a politically-driven intelligence coup if the opposition is sitting right in front of you.

These are a starting point and certainly not all-inclusive. Additional carrots and sticks are also necessary, such as real protection for whistle-blowers (those who follow the rules) and serious punishments for those who meet with unauthorized recipients 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 there are bad rules – they address real concerns – but there is no need for a heavy hand when no offense is taken. Any rules meant to address political influence in the IC should be treated in a similar fashion because in DC especially, people make their political dispositions known. What we need is a hammer that can be dropped on those that cross the line between having political beliefs and taking political action.

Update: Looks like Ms. Chavez agrees.

Update II: Steve Hayes wraps it all up for us.

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.