When, in 1983, a spy satellite detected a new Soviet radar complex near Krasnoyarsk arrayed for a military purpose, a clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, some intelligence analysts, former officials, and groups such as the Arms Control Association and the Federation of American Scientists dismissed the site as insignificant. William D. Jackson, a professor at Miami University in Ohio, actually recommended that the United States should “avoid inordinately intrusive inspection and verification procedures which hinder progress in arms control.”
Once Reagan left office, however, there was no longer any need for diplomats and intelligence analysts to worry about his hawkishness. The intelligence community restored its initial conclusion that the Soviet Union had used biological weapons. In 1990, the Russian press exposed the KGB cover-up at Sverdlovsk, and two years later President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had maintained an offensive biological-weapons program. As for Kranoyarsk? The Russians admitted they had cheated.
The Cold War may have ended the Soviet menace, but the threat of rogue regimes continued. Shortly after taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton pressured the International Atomic Energy Agency to downplay North Korean non-cooperation: To accurately acknowledge Pyongyang’s cheating might have precipitated a crisis. When the General Accounting Office reported in 1999 that it could not verify North Korean distribution of U.S. food aid, the State Department refused to accept the findings, to avoid an admission of North Korean cheating that would undermine further engagement.
In the months before 9/11, senior diplomats worried that unvarnished intelligence about terrorism might hamper diplomacy. In a 2001 Atlantic Council report, for example, senior statesmen Lee H. Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft suggested that the State Department stop publishing its Patterns of Global Terrorism report in order to avoid putting terrorism front and center in the public debate. And as Iran’s nuclear program grew rapidly, the National Intelligence Council in 2007 charged intelligence analysts known for their partisan rancor with drafting a new National Intelligence Estimate that cherry-picked evidence and arbitrarily altered definitions to conclude that Tehran had ceased its nuclear-weapons work. In effect, the CIA and State Department applied to Bush the same treatment they had used to constrain Reagan.
Despite Obama’s castigation of Bush, no administration in modern history has dismissed intelligence as cavalierly as Obama has. Within the White House, “terrorism” became euphemistically “man-caused disasters.” When a gunman inspired by al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, administration hacks scrubbed any mention of radical Islamism from the fact-finding report. That set the stage for the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which political operatives dismissed intelligence suggesting that it was an Islamist terrorist attack, and instead claimed it was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video. To prevent the truth from emerging, senior State Department officials allegedly threatened whistleblowers.
In April 2013, Syrian leader Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, an action that Obama had suggested eight months earlier would trigger a U.S. military response. Iran, meanwhile, accelerated aid to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. Rather than address reality, the White House went into full politicization mode, suggesting that, despite the intelligence community’s findings, evidence of chemical-weapons use in Syria was inconclusive. Perhaps it was that troubling bee feces again. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, abruptly altered a Pentagon report to Congress, recasting a resurgent Iran sending Revolutionary Guardsmen to Syria as acting in self-defense.
Politicization is rife within the intelligence community and among its consumers. Too many officials sworn to protect and defend the United States twist intelligence — not to tar enemies but to exculpate them. Never in history, however, has deliberately underestimating enemy capabilities or denying their ambitions led to peace. The true cost of dismissing radical Islamism, denying chemical-weapons use, and downplaying Iranian aggressiveness could ultimately be far greater than those who are twisting the intelligence can imagine.
— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.