Yes, Mr. President, Foreign Intelligence Is Different

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Former Congressman Bob Barr’s take on our current intelligence climate.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II — a conflagration which the Allied Powers won due in no small measure to our ability to secretly obtain Axis military intelligence – the Truman Administration and the Congress comprehensively restructured our nation’s foreign intelligence system.  Among other things, that effort (which at the time was highly controversial) birthed the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The fundamental underpinning of these dramatic changes to the manner in which foreign intelligence is collected, analyzed, distributed and presented to the president and other top civilian and military leaders, is the notion that the highest and best intelligence requires a coordinated effort, with clear lines of authority and responsibility; all operating in a non-political environment of secrecy.  While the theory behind this restructuring has never been fully realized – institutional jealousies continue to plague the effort – every previous president since Truman has at least understood (or came to realize) that foreign intelligence is unique, something that must be handled carefully and confidentially.

George H.W. Bush was perhaps the President who best understood the unique environment within which foreign intelligence must be considered.  While this can be explained in large measure by virtue of the fact that he headed the CIA shortly before being elected President, it also reflects the fact that he was a user of the product of the Intelligence Community throughout his many years as a public official at the national level.

Bush 41 knew, for example, that charging the CIA with protecting “intelligence sources and methods” is far more than a technical term nestled within the CIA Act of 1949.  He understood the reality that directly or indirectly revealing intelligence produced by our country’s intelligence agencies, without a clear and authorized objective, can and usually will have negative short- and long-term consequences for national security goals.

For example, a president or other high-level policy maker who discloses his or her knowledge of or views on intelligence information or capabilities, necessarily reveals important information to our adversaries—information that greatly facilitates their job of figuring out what the president of the United States thinks and how he likely will react to foreign stimuli.  This in turn may embolden our adversaries (including non-state actors who also read newspapers and Tweets) to engage in hostile actions, relatively confident in concluding that the President of the United States will ignore information he receives from his own intelligence services.

Other consequences resulting from a President neither understanding nor caring about what happens if he telegraphs publicly what he thinks about a matter presented to him by his own intelligence services, come in ways we may never know –

  • A highly-placed human “intel source” decides not to disclose important information to one of our intelligence agencies, for fear of being “outed” by an administration that does not respect the secrecy that must accompany the transmittal of such information.
  • The intelligence service of an ally nation pulls back on the intelligence it previously shared with their American counterparts, in the wake of public remarks by an administration official that mischaracterizes or erroneously misstates information received from that friendly foreign service.
  • A foreign leader considered an adversary of the United States, listening to an American president publicly criticize his own intelligence services, may be emboldened to challenge the United States, relatively secure in concluding that even if intelligence information revealing those steps finds its way into the hands of the CIA, it will be dismissed once it reaches top decision makers.

The above examples are but a few of the very real potential consequences resulting from a president or other high administration official publicly criticizing the foreign intelligence he receives, or about the agencies of his own government that present it to him.  These consequences may be obvious – a foreign but friendly intelligence service stating publicly it will henceforth limit what it shares with us.  The consequences more likely will result in something we may never know – a source deep within an adversary’s military who simply does not disclose vital information that could save American lives, because he concludes the risk is not worth it because American leaders will simply not believe it.

Even these few examples, however, should constitute a sufficiently bright red light to a U.S. president that any disagreements he might have with the CIA or any other component of his own Intelligence community, must be kept within his own Administration.  They also should signal to him that his assessments of the intelligence product he receives are not to be shared cavalierly with an adversary foreign leader, much less with a social media platform.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th Congressional District from 1995-2003. He served previously in the CIA for eight years during the 1970’s. 

Bob Barr served in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003, representing Georgia's 7th Congressional District as a Republican. He was the Libertarian Party's nominee for President in 2008.

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