Carved into the wall at the entrance of the CIA headquarters is the biblical verse, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). It’s the polite, civilized version of the view within the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community that their job is “telling truth to power”—where they have the facts and the political types are officials whose ideological and bureaucratic biases stand in the way of sound statecraft.
It is not often that intelligence is so clear as to be undeniably true. While U.S. intelligence can rightly claim over the years to have produced intelligence that was critical to military and political leaders’ ability to carry out policies successfully, it is no less true that the history of American intelligence is filled with analytic misfires and outright failures that were no less important. That’s not a moral failure on the part of the IC; rather, it’s just recognition that intelligence work is a difficult business. So, a thoughtful skepticism on the part of senior and experienced policymakers toward whatever the intelligence community is saying is not only normal but should be expected if the policymaker is doing his or her job properly.
On the other hand, the higher up policymakers are, the more likely they are to be flooded with information of all kinds, constraints on their time, and an interest in seeing this or that policy they have fought for succeed. Pushing forward information that is soundly sourced but that might rain on his or her parade is no less important if the goal is effective policymaking and responsible statecraft. In other words, the intelligence-policymaker nexus is not some simple “in-box” and “out-box” structure, but rather, if properly understood, a more complex system of give and take that requires an honest appreciation on both ends of the limits of their arts.