Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Roundtable: The State of Civil-Intelligence Relations
Roundtable: The State of Civil-Intelligence Relations

Roundtable: The State of Civil-Intelligence Relations

When people think about national security policy one of the key tension areas they consider is that between elected and appointed civilians and the uniformed military. Such civil-military relations are important in a democracy because as the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington pointed out in his groundbreaking book The Soldier and the State:

Nations which develop a properly balanced pattern of civil-military relations have a great advantage in the search for security. They increase their likelihood of reaching right answers to the operating issues of military policy. Nations which fail to develop a balanced pattern of civil-military relations squander their resources and run uncalculated risks.

The same basic principles and balancing act also apply to the collection and analysis of intelligence and the relationship between civilian decision makers and intelligence professionals. Many focus on the role of the military due to its size, resources, and competencies in the management and application of violence, but the intelligence community (IC) is also extremely important in discerning the intentions and capabilities of competitors and adversaries—with its own smaller paramilitary lethal assets. Due to its more opaque profile, the IC tends to attract conspiracy theories, and there can be debates between whether “knowledge is power” or “power is power.”

But like the military, the IC is not a monolithic actor. There are 17 different agencies involved in the collection or analysis of intelligence across the United States Government with a vast majority of them being inside the Department of Defense. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) receives a lot of attention for its standing within the IC and for its role in conducting sensitive collection and producing analyses used at the highest levels of government. Since its founding in 1947, the CIA has had a key role in many successes and scandals. (Of course, due to the clandestine nature of intelligence work, the public is much more likely to hear about scandal than successes, at least initially.) To discuss the state of civil-intelligence relations, the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute convened an online discussion, moderated by Michael P. Noonan, with its Senior Fellow Carol Rollie Flynn, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and the president-designate of FPRI, and Stephen Slick, a CIA veteran and Director of the Intelligence Studies Project and the Inman Chair in Intelligence Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Michael P. Noonan: First off, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Rollie for her selection as the next president of FPRI! 

Thanks for agreeing to take part in this discussion. Recently, matters relating to the intelligence community have been in the news. In September, it was reported that a high-level Russian asset was exfiltrated from that country due to concerns about their safety. Some speculation has come out that this is due to the peculiarities of the current administration. This administration does seem to have more of a track record of unease with the IC than others—but all administrations in my lifetime seemingly have their own tensions with the intelligence community or parts of it. Do you both think that there is something different about this administration and others in terms of how it relates to the IC? How would you assess the so-called “deep state” argument?

Carol Rollie Flynn: One of the issues that has led to tensions between the CIA and various administrations is the CIA’s role as an unbiased, non-partisan organization. I remember former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey used to say that his role was to be the “skunk at the garden party.” When all the heads were nodding and agreeing that a particular policy was achieving great results, he would have the unenviable role of pointing out that the situation on the ground wasn’t so rosy. Basically, the CIA’s role is to call balls and strikes as we see them, and that doesn’t always go down so well with policymakers. The current administration—more than others in recent memory—has accused the CIA and the IC of partisanship, specifically of being pro-Democratic Party and anti-Trump administration. In my thirty years at the CIA, I never witnessed any partisan behavior among the career CIA employees that affected how they did their jobs, and I did not have a clue how 95 percent of my colleagues voted or whether they were Democrats or Republicans. It simply wasn’t something we talked about. I do think some of our recent CIA Directors have been more openly partisan after leaving office than has been customary, and I believe that this has damaged the reputation of the CIA as it has given the appearance of partisanship.

I’m not familiar with this particular Russian case and I haven’t worked for the current administration, so I’m not in a position to say whether keeping secrets has been more of a problem than in the past or not. Re: the “deep state” argument, I think it’s pure hogwash. There is no “deep state.” If anything, the people who serve in the military, law enforcement, and IC tend to be politically conservative.

Stephen Slick: Thank you, Michael, for the invitation to participate in this discussion. And, congratulations to Rollie and best wishes to her for a long and impactful tenure at the helm of FPRI.

On the question of the Trump administration’s relationship with our Intelligence Community, I agree with Rollie that some degree of tension is inherent in the system. The IC plays a unique role in the Executive Branch. While the IC is interested in helping the president succeed in keeping the country safe and prosperous, its role is to contribute to those ends by providing objective, fact-based assessments of security challenges. No president welcomes being told that his policies are failing or that his options are constrained, but most have proven wise enough to value an unbiased view when it is offered in confidence.

The IC’s relationship with President Trump was imperiled from the outset. As President-elect, he reacted defensively to the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment confirming Russia’s interference in the election that brought him to office. Immediately after being sworn in, he delivered clumsy partisan remarks to CIA employees gathered at the Agency’s memorial wall to honor fallen colleagues. Media reports that the whistleblower who complained of the President’s improper actions regarding military assistance to Ukraine is in fact a CIA officer appear to have fueled his suspicions and misguided claims that intelligence agencies that exist to serve his office are part of an unelected, undemocratic “deep state.” This claim is, of course, not only deeply ignorant, but also dangerous in ways that may outlast this administration.

Noonan: Now, obviously, just as with the uniformed military, there needs to be a sense of “civilian control,” where the bureaucracy is responsive to elected officials. But it also seems, as with the military, that the IC is also made up of professionals who have a certain amount of autonomy based upon the community’s unique expertise, standards, and discretion. Where does the line exist between the IC and elected and appointed officials in terms of politicization of collection and analytical products?

Flynn: The IC has an inter-agency process—the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF)—for determining collection priorities, and while, in theory, the administration in power could change those priorities, the collection priorities, at least at the macro level, have remained remarkably consistent over the past couple of decades, at least post-9/11. At a micro level, those priorities do change depending on the needs and proclivities of the administration. For instance, post-9/11, when we deployed troops to Afghanistan, we had to revise our collection priorities quickly to include all things Afghanistan. Likewise, as ISIS emerged and became more dominant, the priorities would have been adjusted to reflect a need for intelligence collection on ISIS. While the specifics change over time to reflect current events, the macro requirement to collect intelligence on terrorism, for instance, has been a priority for many decades. Our collection priorities, embodied in the NIPF, are also reviewed by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, which are responsible for authorizing and appropriating the IC budget. So while Congress doesn’t technically determine the IC’s priorities, it is important for Congress to be cognizant of and comfortable with these priorities, otherwise they won’t fund them.

Politicization is a dirty word at the CIA and certainly in our training we are taught that politicization is a no-no, one of the cardinal sins of intelligence collection and analysis. Clearly though, there is the potential for politicization in determining our collection priorities. There is also a fine line between collection to protect national security and collection directed toward topics that could potentially assist the current administration politically. But certainly protecting national security would concurrently be politically advantageous to the administration, so determining the line between national security and partisanship is not always clear.

In the human intelligence (HUMINT) realm, your ability to collect intelligence is very much dependent on where you have existing sources and/or where you’ll be able to recruit new sources. In reality, you almost never have all the human sources you need or with the access to information that you require. Sometimes, you’ll end up with multiple sources in a particular area and no sources in another. Or you might have a very valuable source in a particular area, say the Defense Ministry of a foreign country, and then that source gets fired or decides to retire or gets sick and can’t go to work for months on end. So that means you no longer have access to critical intelligence, and you must then find another source who is willing to commit espionage and pass sensitive information to the CIA, which is usually not a speedy process. That’s just the reality when you’re dealing with human beings.

Slick: I appreciate Rollie’s primer on the NIPF and formal processes that have existed for years to guide both collection and the production of finished intelligence. It is important to remember that the right to set national intelligence priorities belongs to the president and his administration. The IC’s priorities are flawed if they do not accurately reflect the collective judgment of the president and the national security council. National intelligence is a service industry that must respond to its customers’ needs and not devolve into a “self-licking ice cream cone” that ratifies its own preferences for how to spend its time and energies.

During the George W. Bush administration, the president was personally engaged in the annual priority-setting process. For example, he elevated the collection priority of certain topics and lowered others while encouraging IC leaders to align budget and resources to match his priorities. 

Based on the most recent national security and defense strategies, we are likely witnessing a generational shift in intelligence priorities (generally) away from counterterrorism and toward China, Russia, and peer/near-peer conventional competitors. This shift in focus is not political in a partisan sense, but rather appears to be based on evidence, threat assessments, and informed deliberation.

Noonan: Did either of you have a problem with how the administration removed Sue Gordon from being the deputy of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence? While former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was removed, he was a civilian appointee. Gordon was in her position as deputy director as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. By removing her, did this overly politicize the process, or should the president be afforded the right to select his/her own senior staff? Could it have an effect of driving individuals with partisan policy preferences forward in administrations in the future?

Flynn: I don’t know the nitty-gritty details of how Sue Gordon’s resignation unfolded, but only what was has been reported in the media, i.e., that President Trump did not intend to appoint Ms. Gordon to the DNI position after DNI Dan Coats resigned. However, President Trump praised Sue Gordon as a “professional” with a “long and distinguished career” in accepting her resignation. So my sense, which is pure speculation, is that Gordon was not forced out and decided to resign rather than stay on in the number two job.

This is certainly not the first time that a career employee in the number two spot has been bypassed in favor of a president’s choice. Although I haven’t conducted exhaustive research on this, it seems quite common for presidents to choose their own person rather than elevate the number two. A Deputy DNI has never yet been nominated to fill the top spot although a few have served as Acting DNI in the interim between the departure and arrival of DNIs. Likewise, at the CIA, it is common for a president to overlook a career Deputy CIA Director. For instance, career CIA analyst Michael Morell was the Deputy Director of the CIA and a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. Morell was bypassed twice when President Obama nominated General Petraeus and John Brennan, both of whom were technically political appointees because they had already retired from government service at the time of their swearing-in. Morell did serve twice as Acting CIA Director, but President Obama never nominated him for the top job. The current CIA Director Gina Haspel, a career CIA employee and a member of the Senior Intelligence Service who was elevated from the Deputy CIA Director to the top job by President Trump, seems to be more the exception than the rule.

One might argue that filling these top IC positions with political appointees, and bypassing the career deputies, might politicize the process and encourage partisanship within the IC. I believe this could be true. Certainly, former CIA Director John Brennan has been more partisan than most of his predecessors, and some observers have been highly critical and argued that, even though no longer in office, Brennan’s open criticism of the current administration has created a perception, a false perception in my opinion, that the CIA engages in partisan politics. On the other hand, another former CIA Director, Michael Hayden, has also been highly critical of President Trump, and Hayden was still an active duty military officer when President George W. Bush, a Republican, nominated him to be CIA Director. At the time, Hayden was the Deputy DNI.

There are those who argue that it is very important that the DNI and the CIA Director positions be filled by someone the president trusts and feels comfortable with as they must speak truth to power. In other words, they must be a person the president will listen to even when they have to be the “skunk at the garden party” and tell the president things he or she may not want to hear and that run contrary to what the president might believe or desire to be true. There is also the issue of access. Some previous incumbents of these positions, such as former CIA Director James Woolsey, rarely had access to President Clinton. I would speculate that if Leon Panetta had been President Clinton’s Director of Central Intelligence, Panetta would have had much more access and influence than Woolsey in this role. Panetta after all served as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff in the White House and no doubt would have been able to get in front of the President with much more frequency and thereby highlight the CIA’s intelligence. One of the historic issues with intelligence is senior policymakers’ tendency to ignore it. There are ample examples of this throughout history. However, if that intelligence is delivered by someone the president trusts, it is less likely that the president or other senior policymakers will ignore it.

Slick: As Rollie observed, we do not know the full circumstances that surrounded Sue Gordon’s decision to step down as the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence. She is a respected career intelligence officer and well regarded by peers, subordinates, and members of the congressional oversight committees. The law calls for the DNI, PD/DNI, and other senior intelligence leaders to be nominated by the president and subject to Senate confirmation. Far fewer IC officials are beholden to the president for their jobs than is the case in most other executive agencies. This strikes an appropriate balance between the trust and confidence that a president must have in senior members of his administration and the inherently non-partisan nature of intelligence work. For the good of the IC and the country, President Trump should act quickly to nominate qualified national security figures to fill the top two jobs at the ODNI. 

Noonan: You both have vast experience on many sides of the intelligence profession. How would you explain the cultures of the CIA to outsiders? What role do members of the IC strive to fill? Is it about providing the best estimates and analyses and letting the chips fall where they might? Is it about calling balls and strikes, so to speak?

Flynn: Ideally, the CIA should be calling balls and strikes. As I’ve previously noted, I’ve always found the CIA to be a non-partisan place, at least as far as how we do our work. Over the years, I witnessed various political storms that have brushed the CIA. For instance, after the arrest of CIA officer Aldrich Ames for espionage, there were calls for the dissolution of the CIA, most notably from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who sponsored a bill to that effect. Another more recent example was the Iraq WMD fiasco, when we were accused of politicization and group think, or Benghazi when we were also accused of politicization of our analysis. In my experience, while these are very serious matters that have resulted in changes to how we do our business, there are usually only a small number of individuals who are directly involved in dealing with these flaps. Particularly in the foreign field, our rank-and-file operational folks are very much focused on their day-to-day jobs and don’t get drawn into inside-the-beltway maelstroms. I also recall that the CIA’s senior leadership in each of these instances urged the workforce to focus on the mission and that’s pretty much what we did. 

Slick: Indeed, one of the great challenges for intelligence officers—collectors and analysts—is to develop deep expertise and understanding for political forces in foreign states while remaining professionally disinterested in the policies being pursued by our own government. It requires strict personal discipline reinforced by a strong organizational culture that acknowledges and rewards this unique ethos. The best intelligence officers can generate information and insights on important national security challenges while deferring to elected or appointed officials to develop responsive policies.

Noonan: Final question, what advice do either of you have for people who are interested in working in the intelligence field? What should they be reading? What sorts of experience will help them out? 

Flynn: The IC needs a variety of talents and skills, and there is no one path to an intelligence career. The CIA’s website has a lot of information on the various career opportunities, including a reading list for those interested in applying for work, so that’s a good place to start. I would strongly recommend reading some of the books on the reading list. If interested in an overseas, operational career, it is very advantageous to have fluency, or at least conversational level skill in a foreign language and experiences either living or working abroad. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations rarely hires individuals right after they finish school and prefers candidates who have at least a few years of real world “life experience.”

Slick: Rollie’s advice to prospective intelligence officers is similar to that which we offer to students at the University of Texas. Foreign languages, quality time overseas, and a sincere curiosity about what is happening outside our borders are all important attributes. Because hiring at IC agencies remains highly selective, good grades, strong writing skills, and relevant substantive expertise are all necessary as well. As Rollie noted, reading some of the better recent books on intelligence will help candidates better understand the nature of an intelligence career and also demonstrate to a recruiter a seriousness of purpose about entering this demanding (but infinitely satisfying) profession.           

Noonan: Thank you both so much for your time and for your insightful answers to my queries!