Intelligence and policy makers: general considerations and analysis of the french case
As an introduction, I wonder if intelligence and securityservices have the ability to orient or even influence authorities’ Policy and opinions?
For more than 20 years that I’ve been studying intelligence, I’ve been hearing intelligence outsiders talk about services’ autonomisation and their influence, or even manipulation of politicians. In France, alike in majority of countries, these border on pure fantasy. In democracies, whether conspiracy theorists like it or not, I&S services are no halls of power and do not have their own policies.
– As stated Douglas Hurd (former Head of the British Foreign Office), neither SIS or GCHQ do what they want or have their own agenda, nor do they define their own requirements or take their own initiatives without Ministries’ knowledge and authorization. They do not forge missions, yet only carry out their tasks in support of specific policies.
– In the USA, all CIA « covert operations » (except for spying operations) are subject to the approval of the President and the Secretaries of State and defence, or their representatives. The CIA had no authority to act without that approval and it never did. In the States, according to Robert Mc Namara, Presidents are the final approving authority for all covert action programs of any magnitude or significance undertaken by the US government, often personally instigating large programs. And through it all, the CIA has been a faithful servant of the President, even when its professional staff disagreed with the programs and even when it was unfairly saddled with the blame for programs that became compromised or failed.
– Discussions I’ve had with ex-KGB officers have convinced me that, even under the Soviet totalitarian regime, The Tchekists scrupulously followed CPUS orders.
So I think agencies do not influence and do note even have the will to do so. Their main challenge is to be trust and yearn only for leaders to take into account elements that they bring forward. Influence can only be a personal one, as it is tightly linked to relationships between agencies’ leaders and their authorities.
I believe Intelligence leaders’ real challenge is to be listened to, not to influence!
Intelligence leaders main difficulties have never been to reach for information, to carry out an action or to come up with a pertinent analysis : it has always been to be trust by leaders. It is so almost worldwide, and has been so at all times, yet more specifically in France. The very few exceptions can be found in the UK, the US, Russia and Israel.
Consequently, I shall only discuss the difficult relationship between policymakers and Heads of I&S services, as stakes of the matter are essential. The latter are the condition to well operate both intelligence system and its efficiency. I shall also talk more about Foreign Intelligence than of Internal Intelligence.
In my opinion, most blocks – notably in France – arise from our politicians. We can name 4 reasons as to why relationships between agencies and their authorities are conflicted.
- politicians have no intelligence knowledge and feed themselves with preconceived ideas,
- they do not know how to wittingly use intelligence and often act apart from services,
- they do not trust in what services tell them,
- they politicize intelligence, divert it from purposes and attribute it their failures.
Now, let’s get into more details concerning these four points.
Politicians have no intelligence knowledge and feed themselves with preconceived ideas
In most countries, politicians do not understand what are intelligence, its possibilities and constraints. Misconceptions are numerous. Let me give you five examples:
Politicians are unaware of diverse occupations and different types of I&S services
Of course, they have not been trained for that. They don’t know the difference between secret, special, security or intelligence agencies… That’s wild unknown to them. They don’t know what is exactly doing an intelligence officer. They often believe that he is a geopolitical expert, when he is an « access to protected information » expert.
So policy makers need a better understanding of what intelligence collection and assessment can do, and its limitations.
They think « agencies know it all!»
One must bear in mind that an intelligence service does not know it all. It knows only what it has been asked to look for. Today, it is impossible to gather valuable information among the aggregate issues that shake the world.
If modern services are more and more efficient, they paradoxically cover a weaker proportion of needs in informing authorities, due to the diversity of international stakes and the explosion of new communication technologies and cryptology. Over a decade, they have lost monopoly of information and must cope with a new competition and private intelligence actors, with whom they must learn to coexist.
The role of intelligence services and their output is only one small specialized part of the Policy formulating process. And intelligence is scarcely evidence.
« A service can instantaneously answer their questions »
Of course not! Intelligence rhythm is not that of the political one.
« They can do it all!»
Allen Dulles said: « the problem of our field of activity is that politicians mistake us with God ». I&S agencies cannot change the world. That would come down to attributing them powers that they do not have.
There are only scarce examples where agencies played a really decisive role:
– during WW2, the Allies managed to produce a copy of Hitler’s encoding device, hence allowing them to read all the III Reich’s communications
– In the late forties and early fifties, when the Soviet intelligence got hold of the American atomic bomb trade secret.
« … but we must be wary of them as they are dangerous »
Policy makers say agencies are often mistaken: « CIA has forecasted 50 of the 20 last world crisis ». They also say: « Intelligence guys manipulate us and are out of control. We must keep a watch on them ». They often think members of intelligence community are not decent people.
In France, we do not raise Members of Parliament’s concerns by addressing intelligence as per say, but rather by explaining how to avoid being manipulated by services.
All these misconceptions are damaging intelligence credibility.
Politicians do not know how to wittingly use intelligence and often act apart from services
They misread the difference between gathering data and producing analysis
« Secret intelligence » (espionage) gathers facts and evidence that have been asked for and which are not readily available from open or official sources. Secret operators are not supposed to produce any assessment. That’s not their job! A Secret intelligence agency is only the investigative department of the Government.
Agencies’ role is not to provide the aggregate of information upon which a government must decide its policy. An intelligence service as per say does not dispose of the information aggregate. It is an organ in charge of gathering secret information, not of analysing it. It only gives sporadic information in response to specific questions (the search of Missing Dimension).
Politicians also scarcely ask the right questions
They don’t know what and when to ask. They do not know how to formulate adapted requirements. That’s pretty different from business intelligence, where entrepreneurs know exactly why they call for information, because they have a strong strategy and timeframe.
To ask an intelligence service to predict the future or to monitor international crisis is not within its field of expertise. I&S are not Think Tanks. Even analysts cannot predict the future. It’s up to governments to rely on precise facts provided by I&S and to choose between possible scenarios and define their Policy.
At that point it is normal that they ask specific questions to their services to comfort their Policy, and if they can, that services can answer those questions.
French and British organizations totally differ. In the UK, the PM each year brings Foreign Office and SIS leaders together to tell them his international strategy and attribute to one or the other, the kind of action that best meets his purpose. It is asked of SIS as much as results as information. That’s a « Pull » intelligence management process.
In France, most of the time, the staff of the DGSE is left without governmental directives, hence prompt to invent its own missions The agency is feeding French authorities with data it thinks could be interesting for them, because it had no specific requirements. That’s a « Push » process. But DGSE cannot please State authorities. One cannot be satisfied with answers to questions that have not been asked.
It has been assessed, some 20 years ago, that the MI6 gave, in terms of intelligence, 2 to 3 000 pages per year to the British Government. In France, DGSE gave to the French authorities 20 to 30 000 pages per year, most of which was either not read or of no interest to the latter.
A better process is needed to establish requirements; with a dialogue that balances what decision makers want to know with the art of the possible.
Governments are more and more demanding since 9/11
Since 9/11, politicians ask too much of their services. The latter are not responsible for delimiting the policies. One must not transfer responsibilities. Before 2001, British IS services liked to call themselves « Fact Finding Agencies ». It now seems that governments tend to ask for more: they want them to be « Problem Solvers Organisations ». That’s pretty different (and it’s not their tasks).
With terrorism, the pressure put on services keeps on growing. It is asked to the latter to avoid all surprises that could destabilize the government. The new political requirements, however, sit on grounds of significant budget increase, notably in countries hit by major attacks (except in France).
Politicians do not know how to manage and to properly evaluate intelligence activities
Heads of I&S services are responsible before the government. Politicians must hence early indicate to each new Head of service what it is they are expecting of them. « I shall judge you upon such criteria or success ». In France, their only recommendation is: « don’t cause me stirs during my mandate! ».
But politicians must refrain from being technically judgmental. The Head of services must know what he is asked to do but must remain sole judge of his methods, and services’ techniques and organization.
They believe covert action is a magic tool
Covert action is not a magic weapon that could help Policy makers to solve their problems and correct their mistakes, as is it often believed in most countries.
For example, in the US, Eisenhower believed that the CIA could be « more effective » and better utilized in covert action operations than in intelligence collection, and so he fully intended to use the Agency more actively than had Truman.
The abuse of the intelligence service by political leaders who weakly grasp at spy-novel tactics for pulling political chestnuts out of the fire, shows a misunderstanding, not only of covert action but also of the essence of international politics. I&S do not have to satisfy politicians’ grudge or fantasies.
Most importantly, their action must now be taken with greater transparency and be reported to legislative assemblies, which is a Copernican revolution.
Politicians often act apart from services
Politicians often dispose of their own network of trusted informants and often act apart from services when it comes to certain important operations. For example, the liberation of French hostages in Lebanon, in 1986, thanks to J-C Marchiani, a close friend and political ally of President Chirac.
Politicians do not trust in what services tell them
Historical examples where political leaders have listened and taken action according to intelligence information are scarce.
Information are bothering them as they do not want to shake their certainties
This regards French politicians whose intellectual background is built upon certainties and superiority.
Général De Gaulle understood nothing of I&S services, whose analysis could only compete with his own visionary talents. When a services’ representative would present him a report on such or such aspect of international situation, he used to say: “You’re probably right, but you don’t persuade me »; and he took action upon his own intuition.
Georges Pompidou, his successor, also said “Any banker knows ten times more about world matters than your bunch of drunken chief warrant officers and academics of little achievement”.
More generally, most politicians are deliberately distorting facts or ignoring data that contradict their personal opinions. Failure to delve more accurately into the mindset of the leader himself could be regarded as systemic. There are many examples of intelligence that has been mishandled by politicians.
- Before World War Two, French Deuxième Bureau insisted, as soon as Hitler took power, that he was preparing Blitzkrieg, thanks to the power of tanks and aircrafts. But this information counted for little against general staff’s long established plans of a defensive war behind Maginot line
- Likewise, Stalin, while pushing the NKVD to its maximum limits, did not listen when the latter’s information oppose his idyllic vision of relationships with Hitler. Despite the demential amount of intelligence gathered by the Soviet secret services, the CPUS leader will not draw strategic consequences. In USSR, intelligence always seemed secondary compared with Marxist dogma.
- 9/11 attacks are in line with this very logic. Had an agent reported UBL plans, he wouldn’t have been listened to by an America convinced of its invulnerability.
- Likewise, had an agent close to Saddam Hussein proclaimed that Iraq had no WMD; this intelligence would have collapsed with Bush’s pulse of war.
Intelligence men are not credible to them
Authorities stop listening to services when those don’t tell them what they want to hear. And as soon as his expectations are deceived, the politician is no longer interested in I&S agencies, and despises and distrusts them. In only a few countries do intelligence men take office or are regarded: Russia, Israel, UK and sometimes USA (cf. G. Bush Senior).
In France, intelligence suffers a very bad image and has never been recognised to its true worth. The ruling class, as public opinion culture of intelligence, is wanting. French Cartesian legacy has shaped a national sense of ideation and abstraction, sometimes to the point of refusing to admit facts. Politicians do not build in intelligence in their decision making process. A French politician will decide upon mental schemes rested during his scholarship, and will consider modifications of his surroundings only as mishaps that should rapidly come back to normal. For such men (and minds), intelligence is a parameter of second importance, when not a disturbing one.
French history is also full of a certain amount of failures that have deeply marked politicians and public opinion (Dreyfus, Ben Barka and Rainbow Warrior affairs…) The French Parliament has only recently agreed upon establishing a Parliamentary oversight.
They do not know how to analyse or do not take time to do so
Governmental authorities do not read. They often favour image to memos or comments.
Their paranoia makes them see disinformation everywhere
Let’s remember in May 1941, Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy in Japan, warned the GRU that Germany were to attack USSR on the following 20 th of June. He provided the GRU with the Wehrmacht Order of Battle, but was dismissed by Moscow who said: “We do not trust your information”. But intelligence provided by Sorge was very accurate.
Authorities politicize intelligence, divert it from purposes and attribute it their failures
Since 2001, UK and US Governments have politicized intelligence by pressures they put on their services. This situation has been observed before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The White House had asked its services not to objectively assess the situation but to provide it with any information that could justify its policy. Thus have been set up links between Al-Qaeda and Saddam or heard of Iraq WMD. The situation was very similar on a British end.
Part of UK and US intelligence officers have thus resigned where others have seen an opportunity for promotion when giving satisfaction to authorities. Subsequently, agencies have lost their independence and now resist authorities they serve.
There’s a great difference between a policy based upon intelligence assessment and intelligence based upon what politicians want. Intelligence must not be used to confirm or infirm positions or opinions. Balance is needed between political drive and objective assessment. A distinction had to be made between intelligence and the policy rationale.
Politicians often attribute their failures to intelligence agencies’ wrong doing
According to intelligence professionals, failures that the media attributes to their agencies are almost always mistaken political decisions. Governments like to attribute responsibilities of their bad decisions to their I&S services. It is always easy to do so as I&S agencies will never protest. Best example is 9/11 in the US.
One should not forget that the CIA is a unique Presidential organization. Every time it has gotten in trouble, it has been for carrying out some action ordered by a President, yet few Presidents have anything good to say about CIA or the intelligence they received, according to Robert M. Gates, former DCI.
It’s almost a rule: after the event, we discover that someone knew that something was cooking and that authorities have been warned. But politicians, although informed, will place responsibility on the agencies.
This is why Parliamentary oversight should better check on how the executive uses its agencies rather than agencies’ activities.
I don’t think that there is either positive or negative influence from agencies on Policy makers, or else only in isolated examples. Intelligence is more often manipulated, neglected or not listened to. Intelligence men main challenge is to be trust by their authorities and politicians’ challenge is to learn how to use their I&S agencies. The intelligence community needs that the characteristics and limitations of their profession be understood at the political level.
So policy makers should be more carefully briefed and trained on use and value of intelligence. Extravagant sense of mystery should be avoided. They should be able to interrogate the Heads of the agencies face to face – to establish both the confidence level and accountability for ensuring the intelligence will bear the weight that is put on it.
Politicians have their own objectives and methods, which have to be respected; and they are often driven by the short term. But time and efforts occasionally needs to be spent on questioning and delving beneath the intelligence product in a process from which both sides could learn.
Director, Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement (CF2R)