The Price of Candor

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

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.