Proper intelligence can mean the difference between initiating and preventing conflict, with potentially millions of lives in the balance.
Policy officials must always decide on courses of action with incomplete information. The role of intelligence is to plug as many of those gaps as possible.
The situation becomes exceedingly complicated when those tasked with gathering data withhold critical elements or offer it in such a way as to influence outcomes. A whistleblower claims to have uncovered disturbing evidence of such an undertaking with recent analysis issued from Central Command (CENTCOM) on ISIS.
Fabricating or manipulating findings is a serious charge with serious consequences. Whoever brought the issue to attention did so without much – if any – legal protection from possible repercussions.
Since my days as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, members always agreed that professionals in the spycraft community needed to present us with unvarnished knowledge as they discovered it. No fudging, no withholding and never any cooking the books to favor one conclusion over another.
We relied upon thousands of committed individuals – some risking their lives – to provide information that better enabled us to make decisions concerning international affairs and the future of innocent men, women and children the world over.
Good intelligence does not distort facts to favor Republican or Democratic positions on issues. Developing sound policy is a massive challenge already without adding partisan imprints.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, all of Congress recognized that partisan politics should be shelved as America faced a grave threat. We subsequently passed the largest intelligence reform bill since Congress created the CIA in 1947. We did so in the middle of a contentious presidential election year by eliminating partisanship from deliberations.
We also consistently demanded the best analysis. We traveled the globe to learn of events firsthand, to reference reports from field operatives against analysts at headquarters. They understandably viewed the world from different perspectives and held different information in their respective fingertips.
We welcomed debate and dissent on the meaning of facts and how they might impact analysis. It was important to engage different vantage points.
The raw details today might disclose the estimated amount of military hardware at ISIS’s disposal, whether it attracts popular support among those in the region and the level of danger posed by a caliphate the size of Indiana in the former Syria and Iraq. Based upon such information, good and knowledgeable people might draw different conclusions as to whether it poses a significant or insignificant threat.
Sometimes obtaining the necessary information was unnecessarily more difficult than others. Acquiring a simple data point might mean asking 20 questions of certain professionals because they weren’t always as forthcoming as we would have desired. At times, we would have to dig.
On occasion we found that details had been withheld from the committee. Management had hell to pay when that happened. Withholding facts from Congress is not an option. Those engaged in such damaging activity need to be held accountable and deserve harsh punishment.
Determining when that happens is a problem that is not so easily solved within the current framework. The espionage community has the weakest protections for responsible whistleblowers of any agency in the federal government.
They must first address the inspectors general of their respective agencies with complaints or observations of wrongdoing. That must change. They instead need direct access to the proper House and Senate committees to address their concerns and receive some level of indemnity.
Many times whistleblowers are among the most effective, and only, means of notifying Congress of potential misconduct. It’s very likely that the person involved in the recent activities at CENTCOM came forward at great personal risk.
Congress can solve the bipartisan problem immediately by providing the same protections to those in the intelligence community that other federal employees receive.
Skewed analysis from CENTCOM that could modify the approach to ISIS one way or another is unacceptable. A whistleblower may have saved the U.S. from terrible decisions that could haunt us well into the future.
Pete Hoekstra is the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism and the former Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.