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By Bruce A. Elleman, U.S. Naval War College Museum
Dec. 14, 2012

Joshua Rovner, associate professor in the strategy & policy department, U.S. Naval War College, discussed national security issues at the Eight Bells Lecture on Dec. 6.

His book, “Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence,” recently won the International Studies Association prize for best book in security studies.

Rovner asked many important questions: What is the role of intelligence agencies in strategy and policy? How do policymakers use (or misuse) intelligence estimates? When do intelligence-policy relations work best? How do intelligence-policy failures influence threat assessment, military strategy, and foreign policy?

Starting with Sunzi’s “Art of War,” military and political leaders have sought secret information, often by using spies. Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” warned, however, that secret information can be wrong and so a capable leader should mistrust it.

Given this background, Rovner explained that some military leaders, such as Adm. Chester Nimitz focusing on Midway, accepted the judgment of intelligence officers. But some, such as Russia’s Josef Stalin, ignored warnings of a pending Nazi German attack.

Still others, such as Adolf Hitler (who had an aversion to hearing bad news) politicized intelligence reports. Politicization can be due to personalities, organization designs, or to domestic politics, he said.

Rovner argued that the first two explanations are problematic, however, and focused mainly on the reasons why domestic politics can undermine intelligence policy relations and distort intelligence estimates.

Rovner analyzed how pressure from President George W. Bush’s administration contributed to flawed intelligence on Iraq. Intelligence agencies had suffered from a lack of reliable information on Iraq since 1998, when international weapons inspectors left the country.

For this reason, intelligence estimates were characterized by doubt and disagreement.

The tone and content of estimates changed in the summer of 2002, however, when the Bush administration decided to enlist the intelligence community in helping make the case against Saddam.

Pressure from above led the community to paint a much more ominous picture of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities. None of this was based on new information.

Under pressure from the White House, analysts were forced to derive worst-case scenarios based on patchy information from dubious sources. And after the intelligence community went public with these new and worrying conclusions, it proved unwilling to reassess its estimates.

This despite the fact that weapons inspectors returned to the country in the months before the war, and despite the fact that they turned up no evidence to support the claims that Saddam Hussein had any unconventional weapons or an active program to build them.

The relationship between intelligence and policy lies at the heart of recent national security controversies, including the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq. In both cases the relationship broke down — with disastrous consequences.

There is no foolproof solution to the problem of politicization, but Rovner offered some ideas about how to make it less likely, including a return to the “norm of secrecy.”


Posted by Dan Marciniak