A Note From an Intelligence Insider: Speaking Truth to Power


President Obama’s now infamous assertion that the U.S. intelligence community underestimated the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) brought to mind the adage attributed to Sherman Kent, a former professor at Yale recruited into the Office of Strategic Services and widely regarded as the father of CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, that the purpose of intelligence is “to raise the tenor of debate.” Much has been debated since the president spoke, in the press, on the Hill and the in the halls of government, regarding the adequacy of the intelligence community’s warning, the potential consequences of the rise of ISIL for a strife-torn region and the wider implications for the United States. President Obama clearly felt himself ill-served, and, as a former CIA officer, I can readily imagine the muttering in the halls of Langley and elsewhere about having been thrown under the bus yet again.

So, did we miss the boat or not? Did we or didn’t we warn appropriately? Did we or didn’t we fully appreciate the strengths and prospects of this particular homicidal Sunni militant group and the limited capacity of neighboring states to respond effectively?

The short answer is I don’t know. I worked on Iraq for the better part of ten years, and I have deep familiarity with the analytic story line on that unhappy land, but since retiring from the Agency some months ago, I’ve had no access to the finished intelligence provided daily to the White House. Could it be that the analysts at Langley and elsewhere didn’t see what was afoot? I’m deeply skeptical, but maybe. Could it be that political leaders are aiming to deflect criticism of flawed policymaking? Maybe. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

That said, it’s actually the wrong question to ask. And now that the dust has settled a bit about what President Obama said, it is time to start asking the right questions. Finger pointing and endless debate over “Who shot John?” make effective grist for the mills of the Washington commentariat, but they undermine the trusting relationship that has to exist for intelligence to play its essential role supporting the formulation and execution of U.S. foreign and national security policy. It was once my job to brief the president each morning on the intelligence community’s analysis of developments around the globe and their implications for the United States. Based on that experience, I’d say that the right question is “How can the intelligence community best serve policymakers?” Drawing from my experience, intelligence best raises the tenor of debate when it provides policymakers with one or more of the following:

Ground truth. Sometimes the discussion turns simply on the question of what, in fact, is going on in a given circumstance, and there are times when that is unknowable without the intelligence community’s capabilities.

New understanding. Shedding new light on a long-term issue—think the rise of China or the machinations of Russia under Putin—or framing developments in a way can permit policymakers to more readily develop an effective American response.

Historical context. Circumstances change, but the fundamental tools of statecraft—the diplomatic, political, economic and military levers of national power—are a constant. Gaining an appreciation of how and to what effect earlier statesmen wielded their powers under similar circumstances, can be highly instructive for decision-makers grappling with a similar issue. For instance, there were valuable lessons to be derived from the British experience fighting a tribal war in Iraq early in the 20th century.

Understanding of the intentions of our adversaries or the capabilities of our allies. Seeing the world through the other guy’s eyes—across chasms of linguistic, cultural, historical, ethnic or religious difference—is perhaps the hardest part of intelligence analysis. When we shed light on how our adversaries think, what they intend to do, and the ability of our friends to contribute to a common approach we do policymakers an immense service.

Insight into the leverage the U.S. Government has in a given circumstance. Any time we can add to policymakers’ understanding of the utility and potential efficacy of the tools they have at their disposal we have made a real contribution to men and women in incredibly difficult jobs wrestling with exceptionally hard problems. Statecraft is three dimensional chess, and the intelligence community’s input on how foreign actors are likely to respond to a policy choice can help policymakers determine the best way of advancing U.S. interests.

What has any of this to do with the latest brouhaha? Only this: if the intelligence community is to really serve the leadership of this country (and I saw time and time again how extraordinarily effective it can be) there has to be a give and take between the occupant of the White House and the intelligence that exists to serve him (or, possibly in the future, her).

Confronting a difficult decision or a convoluted problem, the president needs to poke and prod the analysis he’s offered by the intelligence community, to ask questions, or to push back when the case is unconvincing, all in a bid to extract the very best of the intelligence community’s thinking. Intelligence analysts, for their part, need to make their case as clearly, convincingly and concisely as possible.

For the policy process to work most effectively—for the decisions policymakers reach to be as sound as possible—the president has to be confident he or she is getting the very best of the intelligence community’s thinking. He has to want the community to speak truth to his power. At the same time, the intelligence community needs to have some sense that its views actually inform the deliberative process. This give and take hinges on a degree of mutual trust, and only when it exists can both sides really do their respective parts to advance and defend U.S. national security. Casting blame and finger pointing undermines the relationship between the president and his intelligence community, and the country is the weaker for it.


Timothy D. Kilbourn spent almost thirty years as a military analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency. He was the deputy director of two divisions, Dean of the Sherman Kent  School for Intelligence Analysis and served for several years as the daily briefer to President George W. Bush.

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