The Experience No One is Talking About

With all the talk of experience in the presidential campaign, there’s one glaring omission: experience in the shadowy world of intelligence. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are senators. Both have served on important national security committees. But neither candidate has any serious experience dealing with intelligence agencies from inside the executive branch.

Some say it doesn’t matter. Congressional experience gives the candidates enough familiarity with how intelligence agencies operate and how the intelligence process works. As RBC readers have pointed out, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton were all intelligence neophytes, all governors before they were elected president.

Maybe that’s right. But consider this:

1. Working with intel agencies from Congress isn’t anything close to working with them from the White House. It’s kind of like the difference between watching/funding/complaining about open heart surgery versus running the medical teams that perform open heart surgery.

2. Intel producers and customers are from radically different tribes. Intel people are all about data and analysis. Policymakers are all about action. Intel people use caveats and nuance. Policymakers tend to gloss over them. Intel people try to focus on strategic intelligence, the longer, over-the-horizon thinking. Policy people want to know what to do about North Korea this afternoon. Intel people live in a world where things get done by writing on paper. Policymakers live in a world where things get done by working with people. Even words mean different things. What’s a “fair chance of success?” What does “moderately confident” mean? An effective foreign policy requires a White House that understands the foreign culture known as intelligence.

3. There’s an old joke in the CIA that Director William Casey wouldn’t tell you if your coat was on fire unless you asked him. To effectively run the Intelligence Community, policymakers need to know what questions to ask, where to push, where to probe, where and how to ask for help. That’s harder to do if you haven’t done it before.

4. In the post-9/11 world, intelligence is more important and less understood than ever. As CIA Director Michael Hayden once noted, during the Cold War the Soviet enemy was easy to find but hard to kill. Massive military power was critical. Today, terrorists are easy to kill but hard to find. Intelligence, not sheer firepower, is the key to keeping Americans safe.

On-the-job learning may not be that difficult. But understanding how to manage our $40 billion intelligence apparatus will be one more thing on the president-elect’s long and ever-growing to-do list.

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.