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:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


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