Thursday night’s intelligent Vice-Presidential debate drew heavily on input from the intelligence community, perhaps too heavily. Answers from both candidates about Libya, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan contained multiple references to information provided by U.S. intelligence sources. Having worked in the intelligence business I wanted to share some concerns about the candidates’ comments and what can be done about them.
Policy makers such as Congress and the President are consumers of intelligence. As consumers, they rely on the intelligence community to provide them with safe, reliable products. In the case of intelligence the product is information. Where does the information come from? It comes from open sources such as news agencies and academic studies, but it also comes from classified sources such
as human contacts. Most importantly, vital pieces of information often come from other intelligence organizations. The phrase “intelligence community” is misleading because really there isn’t one. There are a bunch of intelligence organizations with many different missions, funding, and capabilities. If just one agency plays I’ve got a secret, then no one else will know about it. Which brings us to Libya.
Vice-President Biden stated he was initially told by intelligence sources the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya was part of a violent reaction in the Arab world to the publication of an anti-Islamic video.
Yesterday we learned from the Washington Post there was a secret CIA base near the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which may have been the real target of the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens. Until the televised hearings on the Benghazi attacks, the presence of the CIA base was classified. Now it’s out in the open. Did the intelligence agencies that gave the Vice-President their assessment know about the CIA base? That’s a question I hope Congress asks but behind closed doors this time. The role of intelligence is even more vital when it comes to Iran.
Congressman Ryan stated at least three times that Iran was “moving faster” towards a nuclear weapon. That sounds scary to the public, but the public needs to know there is not a consensus among intelligence professionals that Mr. Ryan was correct. Vice-President Biden indicated that even through Iran may be enriching uranium, they are no closer to having a nuclear weapon. Every country with working nuclear weapons has conducted nuclear weapons tests prior to fielding their hardware. Has Iran conducted a full-scale nuclear test? No they haven’t, and I have a high degree of confidence we have the ability to detect such a test if it occurs.
The information provided by intelligence professionals is designed to help consumers make the best possible decisions. But intelligence is not intended and should not be used as the sole basis for policy making. Both candidates Thursday night seemed to be doing just that by using intelligence assessments as the basis for their policy positions. What do diplomats, allies, businessmen, or other sources of knowledge think? They may have insights or perspectives the intelligence world lacks or missed. Intelligenceprofessionals are not all knowing. The best policy decisions will come from using all available sources of information, not from relying solely on intelligence assessments.