Earlier this week, the collective leadership of the United States intelligence community briefed Congress on the Worldwide Threat Assessment Report. In doing so, they provided testimony that seemed to contradict virtually every aspect of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, including the decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, the threat posed by Iran, North Korean denuclearization, and improving relations with Russia.
The president, in typical fashion, lashed out, criticizing the intelligence community’s collective analysis, which predictably elicited criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. They accused him of undermining public confidence in the pronouncements of the intelligence agencies and damaging national security.
Rare is the politician who is well enough versed in the minutia of history and foreign affairs to generate original thinking—or bold enough to challenge the status quo on the grounds that it isn’t working. Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush were among the original thinkers, leaders who opened relations with communist China and oversaw the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, respectively. Among those who challenge the status quo is Donald Trump, a political maverick who, rightly or wrongly, has sought to challenge the conventional dogma in ways no previous politician ever has.
There is no better illustration of the intellectual corruption of the intelligence community than its performance in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The current dean of the intelligence establishment, the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, illustrates perfectly the slavish impulse to conform. In his book Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, Clapper writes, “We heard that Vice President Cheney was pushing the Pentagon for intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and then the order came down to NIMA [the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which Clapper headed at the time] to find the WMD sites [original emphasis]. We set to work, analyzing imagery to eventually identify, with varying degrees of confidence, more than 950 sites where we assessed there might be WMDs or a WMD connection. We drew on all of NIMA’s skill sets…and it was all wrong.”
One of the most damning indictments of the intellectual vacuum within the intelligence community comes from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s examination of the failures that led to the erroneous conclusions over Iraq’s WMDs. That report found that not once did the intelligence community question the underlying assumption that Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction, despite no hard intelligence sustaining that assumption. Instead, every assessment started by assuming that Iraq possessed those weapons.
The same mindset permeates the intelligence community’s analysis today. To understand why, consider the current crop of intelligence community leaders. The track record of these so-called professionals is not impressive. They would do well to heed the president’s exhortation that they “go back to school.”
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.