Presidential Experience and Intelligence

With all due respect, I suggest an amendment to Amy Zegart’s concern about lack of intelligence management experience on the national tickets.

Amy Zegart is concerned that the Presidential candidates lack direct experience in managing the intelligence community.

But of course the President doesn’t directly manage intelligence production or even its use in policy making. His main role is to select the people to run (and transform) the community and to set up a substantive and procedural framework for policy deliberation and execution that ensures that intelligence is well used.

In fact, the most important characteristic in using intelligence is often skepticism and an ability to ask the right questions. John Kennedy and his administration would probably not have survived the Cuban Missile Crisis without the prior inoculation about the failings of the intelligence community through the Bay of Pigs episode.

Through his academic and Senatorial work, Obama has enough understanding of the complexities involved to see the importance of these arrangements, and he has experienced people advising him who have both used and managed intelligence professionally.

McCain also has ties to people with the relevant experience, but there are legitimate questions (as he himself seems to recognize in his response to Katie Couric) about whether he comes to closure too quickly on a course of action. He is used to acting as a lone operator — can he back off and let a deliberative process work? (Ironically Obama’s Law Review experience may be relevant here.)

There are grounds to believe that too much immersion in past patterns of intelligence would be a bad thing. George H. W. Bush was the only post-war president with the kind of experience Amy seems to desire, but his administration was not quick to come to an accurate understanding of the likely evolution of the collapsing Soviet Union, or to translate such an understanding into policy or realigning intelligence. Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense in that administration had overall responsibility for the preponderance of the intelligence budget, and he was also a consumer as SecDef, so he had precisely the experience Amy values. He then pretty much ran intelligence as VP in the current administration. Surely that is not the model for the value of experience that Amy wants to uphold!

I have very conservative friends in the intelligence community who support Obama because they believe that McCain will not bring enough change to Intelligence. The kinds of cultural divides that Amy cites between intelligence producers and consumers need to be short circuited to produce more meaningful interactions. In the days of the internet and Google we can no longer have intelligence producers regard themselves on the model of a magazine publisher.

Intelligence products too often are so abstracted from the policy context as to be useless. They almost never consider how a foreign government would react to a policy change; thus they tend to reinforce the status quo. As an intelligence consumer, I often found that reading the product gave only a glimpse of the real analytic and technical issues that could be uncovered by talking directly to analysts. With modern information technology this interchange can be developed and much more productive. Similarly, the divide between operations and analysis also needs to be re-engineered; we need to understand intelligence as an active process of obtaining information by interacting with the world, rather than a passive matter of “collection” followed by “analysis.” Operators will also be need to brought closer to the policy and analytic processes.

The President’s role in all this is first to understand the Constitution and take care that the laws are faithfully executed. Past that, he needs to be sophisticated enough about the complexities of the 21st century and familiar enough with the potential of information and decision technologies to set the right tone for the needed changes and a proper deliberative policy system, to be a good judge of horseflesh in prospective senior appointees, and to referee inevitable disputes among these appointees.

I know who fits these requirements best, both between Obama and McCain, and between Biden and Palin.