The Price of Candor

When it comes to the toughest calls, lawmakers can't always handle the truth.

When Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that government forces in Libya probably would win out over protesters and rebels, you could almost hear the collective head-slapping across town. The political class, at least, thought it a gaffe bordering on disloyalty that the nation's top intelligence official dared suggest, at a time when the United States was contemplating a military intervention, that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi "is in this for the long haul," and that "over the longer term the regime will prevail."

Headline writers were aghast. Reporters asked the White House whether President Obama still had faith in his intelligence adviser. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., no great fan of Clapper, called for the DNI's resignation. "Some of his analysis could prove to be accurate, but it should not have been made in such a public forum," Graham says.

Clapper's candid assessment, which was a lot more nuanced than it was reported in the press, begs a question of policymakers. What, precisely, do they want from their intelligence professionals?

Do they want intelligence leaders to speak their mind, or should they toe a party line? Should analysts speak truth to power, or should they tune their remarks to the prevailing political frequency? Just because Clapper, or any DNI, serves at the pleasure of the president, should he be expected to say only things that the president wants to hear? Clearly, the knee-jerk answer in Washington is, yes, if the DNI wants to keep his job. And that's upsetting, because it means policymakers haven't learned one of the most important lessons of every major intelligence failure of the past decade: It's essential that professionals be empowered to call it like they see it, and they cannot be cowed by an adverse political reaction.

We learned from the flawed prewar national intelligence estimate on Iraq's weapons programs that marginalizing divergent opinions doesn't help policy- makers make better decisions. In that instance, a contrarian State Department analysis that Iraq wasn't pursuing a nuclear weapons program was relegated to the status of footnotes. As it turned out, this unpopular conclusion was correct. But intelligence leaders who approved the final document gave in to group think, and to the pressures of an administration that had long since made up its mind that a war in Iraq was the right way to go. George Tenet, the top intelligence adviser to Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, should have made more of the minority views, but he was always too inclined to please his bosses.

A few years ago, Clapper gave a speech in Chicago and expressed regret for having signed off on the Iraq estimate when he was the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Clapper bears the scars of a bad call, which might help explain why he's so willing to speak out now. There could be reasons why Clapper isn't suited for the job of DNI. He appeared dangerously out of touch last year when he confessed in a television interview that he didn't know about a major terrorist plot broken up in London four hours earlier. But to pillory Clapper for his honesty is to tell future intelligence leaders-and the community at large-that sticking out their necks will only bring down the ax. I can think of few better ways to guarantee another catastrophic intelligence failure.

Shane Harris is senior writer at Washingtonian magazine and the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State. He's a former staff writer for Government Executive.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.