Paul Pillar

Harold P. Ford and the Integrity of Intelligence

A former boss of mine, for whom I worked in the early 1980s, died earlier this month at age 89. Hal Ford embodied some of the best qualities to be found in public servants who work on national security matters. He was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council when I served what would be the first of two stints in that organization. Hal came to the council after a couple of jobs on Capitol Hill, which in turn followed an earlier career with the CIA that dated back to the first few years of the agency. During that career he worked primarily on East Asian matters, and he was heavily involved in the agency's analytical work on Vietnam. Subsequent events would show most of the judgments in that work to be sound.

Sound or not, those intelligence judgments had almost no effect on the main directions of U.S. policy on Vietnam in the 1960s. In that respect the situation resembled one forty years later with another woebegone war, in Iraq. The reasons for the lack of effect were different, however. The makers of the Iraq War had no use for intelligence as an input to policy-making; they disregarded it or, when it got in the way of their public selling of the war, tried to discredit it. They plowed ahead with their war while holding an optimistic view of its consequences that differed sharply from the pessimistic judgments of the intelligence analysts. The makers of the Vietnam War, in contrast, were serious consumers of intelligence. Lyndon Johnson's White House and, even more so, Robert McNamara's Pentagon peppered the analysts with requests for their judgments on important questions regarding Vietnam. Many of the policymakers shared the analysts' pessimism. But they plowed ahead with their war anyway, largely out of an unquestioned and mistaken belief that for the United States to cut its losses in what had already become a major commitment would inflict severe damage on U.S. credibility—an argument one hears today in debates over the war in Afghanistan.

Strains between intelligence and policy arose again for Hal Ford during the period I worked for him—under the Reagan administration, when the policymakers' dominant foreign policy theme was to see the evil hand of the Soviet Union behind almost every kind of trouble and mayhem around the world. This tension underlay an episode in Hal's life that the obituaries in both the New York Times and the Washington Post highlight: his public opposition to the nomination of Robert Gates to become director of central intelligence in 1991. Hal opposed the appointment because of Gates's role in politicizing intelligence analysis to conform with the policymakers' preferred view of the Soviets as threatening and aggressive.

The obituaries note that this opposition was one of principles and professionalism rather than personalities or personal relations; Hal had a fine relationship with Gates, who during the 1980s was head of the analytical directorate at the CIA and later deputy director of central intelligence. The obituaries do not elaborate on a couple of other aspects of the politicization involving Gates. One was that it did not take the form of the popular conception of arm-twisting to change judgments but instead of the more common, and more subtle, ways in which an intelligence manager can influence processes and products to bend them in a preferred direction. Policymakers were eager, for example, to find a Soviet hand in the attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981. Gates ordered the analysts to prepare a paper that would muster as much evidence as possible that the Soviets were involved; he never asked for a paper that would make the opposite case. After the ordered paper was duly prepared, a prefatory note explaining that it was an intentionally one-sided case rather than a balanced assessment got deleted when the paper went through Gates's office on its way to the consumers.

Another aspect of the role of Gates in such manipulation is how quickly and totally it seems to have been forgotten. When Gates was nominated to become secretary of defense in 2006, the subject barely came up. The nomination won broad support, with Gates's principal qualification for the office seeming to be that he was not Donald Rumsfeld. The episodes earlier in his career do not necessarily mean that he was a bad choice to be defense secretary. Gates has bent to bosses and circumstances, and to whatever way his ambitions were taking him at the time. In the 1980s he was a young agency deputy director who owed his meteoric rise chiefly to the patronage of his then boss, director of central intelligence (and ardent Cold Warrior) William Casey—the most ideological and policy-driven intelligence chief this country has had. Gates, now at a different stage in his career, does not face the same motivations and pressures he did before.