The Corner

Willful Blindness and Intelligence Filtering

Andy, it is certainly easy to be irritated by that Associated Press report. I’m sure we agree on this issue, but, if I may: The problem is that President Obama appears to view everything through the lens of diplomacy; reality is secondary. The National Security Strategy should not be about diplomacy or pleasing adversaries; it should be about calibrating U.S. national security to reality.

When engaged in high-profile diplomatic processes, the State Department and, to some extent, the CIA tend to filter or self-censor intelligence so as not to allow to reach the president intelligence that could give reason to contravene his desire. While still acting as the Clinton administration’s Middle East hand, Dennis Ross basically lied to Congress to downplay the extent of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat’s involvement in terrorism.

After the 1994 Agreed Framework, there was immense pressure put on analysts to deny that North Korea was cheating. Famously, some CIA analysts and diplomats tried to claim that North Korea’s new processing plant was actually a nylon factory.

After Iranian president Muhammad Khatami began talking about a dialogue of civilizations, the Clinton administration sought to hush up the FBI’s finding of Iranian complicity in the Khobar Towers attack.

After the Iraq war began, the State Department long pooh-poohed evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq, fearing that evidence of Iranian malfeasance would sidetrack diplomacy. A National Intelligence Officer played with the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iran’s nuclear program, fearing that a broader conclusion might lead George W. Bush to make a policy judgment the CIA did not want.

In each case, our refusal to call a spade a spade led either to American deaths or a decline in the United States’ strategic position versus a rogue regime.

The other basic problem that this story suggests will plague the new National Security Strategy involves the purpose of diplomacy. Anyone who has ever worked with U.S. diplomats stationed abroad realizes that they provide invaluable insight into local perceptions of the United States and American foreign policy. The problem becomes, however, when the diplomats and their superiors in the State Department decide it should be their goal to change U.S. policy to make other countries happy, rather than to find better ways to explain U.S. security concerns and sell U.S. foreign policy.

This is no way to protect the United States from man-made disasters caused by states of concern.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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