Telling Truth to Power

It is hardly surprising that political leaders, like the rest of us, don’t like to hear bad news. Our current president is off the charts on that dimension, wanting to hear only good news and only about him, and is prepared, almost literally, to shoot the messengers if their tidings are bad.

By Gregory F. Treverton

Yet the challenge for U.S. intelligence remains even in more normal times: its job entails telling bad news; it is a job requirement. I was struck by that again and again in editing a history of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) with my colleague, Bob Hutchings.[1] The book contains the reflections of the last eight chairs of the NIC, including me, and all of them faced that challenge.

In a funny way, I have come to think that the unsung heroes of the end of the Soviet Union are intelligence, the KGB, and its chief, Yuri Andropov. Only the KGB was permitted to really know how dire the Soviet situation was. Andropov found a willing pupil in Mikhail Gorbachev, but happily for the world’s democracies, Gorbachev was clueless about how to save the Soviet Union once he understood how bad things were.

Sometimes, particularly in assessments that look forward, the news is not necessarily bad, just cautionary. Two NIC papers in January 2003 cautioned against the planned U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq but went unheeded by a George W. Bush administration bent on war and confident that both war and subsequent occupation would be easy. The president and his colleagues got where they were by projecting a high degree of self-confidence and self-assurance, and they didn’t like their pet project subjected to critical scrutiny.

In teaching about intelligence, I came to think of it and the policy world as separate “tribes.” The tribal markings are not indelible; people like Bob and I have moved back and forth between the tribes. The intelligence tribe, though, tends to take the world as given; it inclines toward the long view and worries about what might go wrong. By contrast, policy officers, especially those who serve at the pleasure of the president, have short time horizons; the average tenure of an assistant secretary is under two years. They came to Washington to signify and are likely to think the world is more malleable to American policy (and their own). They are likely to ask what might go right. In those circumstances, I sometime wonder not why intelligence and policy don’t communicate better but how they communicate at all.

One particular piece of truth telling, also a stock-in-trade of intelligence, is helping administrations understand how U.S. policies and actions look to foreigners. Sometimes, official Washington seems such a hothouse of interagency rivalry that the point of foreign policy—affecting foreigners—all but gets lost. So, too, I have come to think that of all the half-buried assumptions that have underlain American foreign policy over the last half century, the most important is that America is on the side of the angels and is so perceived by the rest of the world. I can’t decide whether that the “city on the hill” assumption is good because it means we have to hold ourselves accountable to our values, or bad because it so deludes us. We automatically think we are the solution, when much of the world regards us as the problem. That is true not just of this administration—which looks to much of the world somewhere between a threat and a bad comedy. It falls to intelligence to try to convey how others see us and our policies.

Just how big the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us was driven home in my first trip to South Africa, when white rule and apartheid were still the order of the day. In Pretoria, a young South African, a white Afrikaner, escorted me around the Voortrekker Monument, which commemorates the Boers who trekked east from the Cape Colony in the middle of the 19th century, seeking autonomy in practicing their religion. The imagery—Conestoga wagons and the like—was so evocative of the white Americans “winning” the West. And the battle names, like Sandy River, also evoked the wars the U.S. Army fought against native Americans. When I reflected on the similarities, my young guide took me aback: “What do you think America would look like now if you had defeated the Indians, but they still outnumbered you five to one?”

It was not a pretty thought, one that I come back to again and again, all the more so now when at long last the country is coming to grips with what can only be called its genocide of native Americans. It underscores the challenges intelligence faces in trying to tell truth to power when the news is bad or the reality unwelcome.

[1] Truth to Power: A History of the National Intelligence Council, Oxford University Press, 2019.

Published on July 15, 2019 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow