Truth To Power

Posted March 11th, 2011 at 3:01 pm (UTC+0)
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“Where have you been?” I hear you say.

Well, yeah, I haven’t posted recently.  But it does get busy in the news biz these days.  It’s Egypt… Wait, no, it’s Bahrain… Wait, no, it’s Yemen… Wait, no, it’s Saudi Arabia… Wait, no, it’s Libya…

And speaking of Libya…

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper got himself in a bit of hot water with his boss, the president of the United States, Thursday when he opined at a Senate hearing that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi (N.B. it’s okay if your spelling of his name is not the same as ours) was likely to prevail against the rebels seeking to oust him.  To bolster his case, Clapper pointed to the huge advantage in men and weaponry enjoyed by Gadhafi and the comparative disorganization of the ill-trained and ill-equipped rebel forces.  He said Gadhafi was hunkered down for the long haul and has no intention of quitting.

Clapper’s comments came just as President Obama said Gadhafi no longer has a legitimate hold on power and officials reported that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton would meet with members of the Libyan opposition.


Reaction was sharp and swift.  National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon called Clapper’s analysis a “static and one-dimensional assessment.”  Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called for Clapper’s dismissal, saying his comments “will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi,” and that “it also undercuts our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.”

The mantra of the professional intelligence officer is to “tell truth to power.”  For a policymaker to make an informed decision, the information he gets from the intelligence world must be unbiased and honest, sometimes brutally so.  As director of national intelligence, James Clapper is not only the nation’s top intelligence officer, he is the president’s intelligence briefer.   For him, above all, it is imperative that he tell truth to power.

But policymakers don’t like bad news or information that undercuts their preferred plan of action. This penchant has led to intelligence being skewed to conform to a policymaker’s known biases.  Or political officials choose the bits of intelligence that conform to their expectations and ignore contrary views, a process known as “cherry-picking.”  It has been charged that this is what happened in the lead-up to the Iraq war regarding intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.   Bush administration officials, including then CIA director George Tenet, have denied this happened.

Politics has tinged the Libya issue, with calls from lawmakers for the Obama administration to ratchet up the pressure on Gadhafi with a no-fly zone and recognition of the rebel interim government, a step France has already taken. Clapper threw cold water on the no-fly zone idea, pointing out – as an intelligence professional would – that Libya’s air defense systems are more capable than some have suggested.  When Sen. John McCain asked if recognition of the rebel Libyan National Council would boost opposition morale, Clapper said, “It probably would raise their morale, sir, and that’s a policy call and certainly not in my department of intelligence.”

Clapper’s comments were backed up by other sources. The Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, agreed with Clapper.  And a study by the independent International Institute for Strategic Studies in London largely confirmed Clapper’s analysis of Libyan government vs. rebel capabilities.

Clapper has been in hot water before.  Last month, he came under fire for characterizing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a “largely secular” group during another congressional hearing.   In a December television interview, Clapper admitted he was unaware of a bombing in London that had been all over the news that day.

In answering senators’ questions about Libya, Clapper was doing his job.  He was telling truth to power.  His real mistake this time was doing it in public view.

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About this blog

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas is VOA senior correspondent and news analyst. He has spent more than 30 years covering a wide range of stories on political developments, war, and civil unrest. From 1990 to 1994 he was VOA’s bureau chief in Islamabad, and has made numerous trips back to the region since then. He was also Southeast Asia bureau chief in Bangkok from 1996-2001. He is now based in Washington, providing background and analysis on issues of intelligence, security, and terrorism for VOA’s worldwide audience.


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