Knowing what is going on in the Hobbesian world of international politics is an essential function of the state apparatus. Detecting, assessing, and countering external threats, real and potential, helped the Byzantine empire survive a thousand years longer than its Western counterpart—well beyond its strictly geopolitical potential for endurance. Essential to its longevity was its decisionmakers’ ability to gather reliable data from hundreds of postmen (verdarii), merchants, and missionaries. Their reports were mostly unencumbered by the need to please one or another court faction at Constantinople.
Half a millennium later, the British developed intelligence-gathering and -processing into a fine art. It was a tool of maintaining a global trading empire with a minimum of force and expense. Its key ingredient was the work of professionals and willing amateurs who were engaged in collecting, processing, and evaluating information from all over the world. They conveyed the state of play in distant lands, regardless of what the government of the day in London may have wanted to hear. La perfide Albion functioned very well for some three centuries, owing in no small part to its depoliticized and decentralized “secret service.” It relied on countless businessmen, ship captains, tourists, and adventurers whose loyalty and reliability could be taken for granted, because they all belonged to the same cultural milieu.
The United States has the most highly developed intelligence-gathering and -processing apparatus known to man, as is to be expected from the mightiest power in history. It is very expensive, technologically unsurpassed by its rivals, and capable of forming the assessments necessary to the task of making America invulnerable to external threats. Its major defect is that its top appointees have become willing—since the end of the Cold War—to produce the findings desired by their political bosses, regardless of the input of their field operatives.
Historically, this phenomenon has plagued totalitarian regimes. Soviet spies had provided ample warnings of the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa. Stalin’s a priori refusal to take them seriously made his intelligence chiefs reluctant to argue otherwise, with devastating results. Hitler’s rejection of his own services’ assessments of the Soviet war-fighting potential greatly contributed to the defeat of the Reich. By contrast, throughout the Cold War the government of the United States could rely on a professional intelligence apparatus created by Harry Truman in 1947. Its inputs were unhindered by political considerations, notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and in the post-détente decade which followed Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the onset of an ideologically driven concept of full-spectrum U.S. global dominance, has produced an unexpected degradation of the intelligence community’s institutional culture. The greatest foreign disaster in recent American history—the war in Iraq—was justified by tragicomically flawed “intelligence,” as demonstrated by Colin Powell’s U.N. Security Council performance in February 2003. Two years earlier, the machine was unable to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks—numerous alarming leads notwithstanding—blinded, in part, by the political blinkers imposed by the Saudi connection of the political nomenklatura.
Less costly in American lives and treasure, but not in terms of our long-term strategic interests, the intelligence community was unable to predict the chaos in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi, to grasp that there were no “moderate” rebels in Syria, to consider the security consequences of the ongoing migrant invasion of Europe, to anticipate Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s geostrategic shift after last summer’s failed coup in Turkey, or to provide a timely warning of Rodrigo Duterte’s game-changing pivot to Beijing. It is of course possible that lower-level operatives and analysts have done their work with due diligence, but the decisions made in Washington do not indicate that their efforts were taken into account by their bosses.
The problem of politicized intelligence gathering and processing is now chronic. Its most recent manifestation was the claim that the Russian government, including Vladimir Putin personally, had ordered and supervised the hacking of the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign’s emails. On December 16, Obama’s CIA appointee and former counterterrorism advisor John Brennan asserted that the Kremlin swayed the election in Donald Trump’s favor. As we now know, the FBI, under the much-maligned James Comey, and James Clapper’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence, both begged to differ. Brennan nevertheless falsely claimed that they all agreed with his assessment of Moscow’s nefarious role in the U.S. election.
Such abuse must stop. America needs first-class intelligence in an uncertain world filled with dangerous eccentrics (Kim Jong-un), Islamist maniacs (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), and unstable autocrats (Erdogan, et al.). America’s intelligence community does not need obedient servants of the Deep State, whose sole purpose is to provide more grist for the mill of eternal warfare.
One of President Trump’s primary tasks in the field of national security should be to discard his predecessors’ practice of demanding intelligence that supports previously developed policy decisions. This practice has undermined the professionals’ esprit de corps, their ability to keep their minds open to the real threats to America’s long-term security—which come primarily from the Sunni Muslim world, Saudi Arabia and Qatar included.
Mike Pompeo’s record on the key issue of depoliticizing intelligence looks sound. He needs to clean the stables at Langley, to weed out political cronies and ideologues who have served us badly over the past two decades.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.