The Great Spy Debate
WASHINGTON – In the months leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, veteran intelligence analyst Robert Cardillo was given the nickname “Debbie Downer.” With each new tidbit of information that tracked bin Laden to a high-walled compound in northern Pakistan – phone records, satellite imaging, clues from other suspects – Cardillo cast doubt that the terror network leader and mastermind was actually there.
As the world now knows well, President Barack Obama ultimately decided to launch a May 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound that killed bin Laden. But the level of widespread skepticism that Cardillo shared with other top-level officials – which nearly scuttled the raid – reflected a sea change within the U.S. spy community, one that embraces debate to avoid “slam-dunk” intelligence in tough national security decisions.
The same sort of high-stakes dissent was on public display recently as intelligence officials grappled with conflicting opinions about threats in North Korea and Syria. And it is a vital part of ongoing discussions over whether to send deadly drone strikes against terror suspects abroad – including U.S. citizens.
The three cases provide a rare look inside the secretive 16 intelligence agencies as they try to piece together security threats from bits of vague information from around the world. But they also raise concerns about whether officials who make decisions based on their assessments can get clear guidance from a divided intelligence community.
At the helm of what he calls a healthy discord is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who has spent more than two-thirds of his 72 years collecting, analyzing and reviewing spy data from war zones and rogue nations. Clapper, the nation’s fourth top intelligence chief, says disputes are uncommon but absolutely necessary to get as much input as possible in far-flung places where it’s hard for the U.S. to extract – or fully understand – ground-level realities.
“What’s bad about dissension? Is it a good thing to have uniformity of view where everyone agrees all the time? I don’t think so,” Clapper told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. “… People lust for uniform clairvoyance. We’re not going to do that.”
“We are never dealing with a perfect set of facts,” Clapper said. “You know the old saw about the difference between mysteries and secrets? Of course, we’re held equally responsible for divining both. And so those imponderables like that just have to be factored.”
Looking in from the outside, the dissension can seem awkward, if not uneasy – especially when the risks are so high.
At a congressional hearing last month, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., read from a Defense Intelligence Agency report suggesting North Korea is able to arm long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. The April 11 disclosure, which had been mistakenly declassified, came at the height of Kim Jong Un’s sabre-rattling rhetoric and raised fears that U.S. territory or Asian nations could be targeted for an attack.
Within hours, Clapper announced that the DIA report did not reflect the opinions of the rest of the intelligence community, and that North Korea was not yet fully capable of launching a nuclear-armed missile.
Two weeks later, the White House announced that U.S. intelligence concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad has probably used deadly chemical weapons at least twice in his country’s fierce civil war. But White House officials said the intelligence wasn’t strong enough to justify sending significant U.S. military support to Syrian rebels who are fighting Assad’s regime.
Because the U.S. has few sources to provide first-hand information in Syria, the intelligence agencies split on how confident they were that Assad had deployed chemical weapons. The best they could do was conclude that the Syrian regime, at least, probably had undertaken such an effort. This put Obama in the awkward political position of having said the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and have “enormous consequences,” but not moving on the news of chemical weapons use, when the occasion arose, because the intelligence was murky.
Lamborn said he welcomes an internal intelligence community debate but is concerned that the North Korean threat was cavalierly brushed aside.