The line dividing consensus from group think is narrow and not well defined. There are four principal agencies in the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) who actually produce raw intelligence — the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Why is this important? The USIC is on the record supporting the analytical conclusion that Russia is in trouble, Putin is on the ropes and Ukraine can expel Russia from Ukrainian territory as long as it gets the necessary support. How can so many people with advanced degrees from top flight universities be so blind and so deluded? The answer is simple — the USIC is a collection of gargantuan bureaucracies that do not encourage or promote thinking out of the box. Any analyst inclined to engage in counter intuitive or counter narrative analysis is not just ignored. He or she will be punished and, in some cases, fired or shuffled off to dead end jobs.
Let me take you inside the process I experienced as an analyst. I would arrive at my desk in the Central America Branch of the Middle America Caribbean Division of the Office of Africa and Latin American Affairs (ALA) around 7am and had to quickly read a 6 inch stack of paper containing the latest intelligence in order to identify any issues that would merit producing an article for the National Intelligence Daily or the Presidential Daily Brief. (Can you smell the bureaucracy?)
The intelligence I perused consisted of messages from State Department and Embassies overseas, intercepted voice and electronic communications courtesy of the NSA, DIA human intelligence reports and CIA human intelligence reports. Let’s say that after my review I knitted together several pieces of intelligence showing that the Central American leaders were working in secret to produce a peace plan that ran counter to the policy of the President of the United States regarding Nicaragua. I would go to the morning Branch meeting, brief my colleagues and Branch Chief on the story and would get the green light to produce an analytical piece explaining the particulars of the Central American plan.
For the sake of illustration, let us assume that I used a CIA and a DIA human intel report, a message from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, and an NSA piece reporting on a conversation between the President of Honduras and the President of Costa Rica. As I wrote that article I needed to refer specifically to the sources I was drawing on. Once my draft was complete I then submitted it to my Branch Chief who, like a dog marking territory, would piss on my prose and edit it with untrammeled glee.
While that was going on I had to send my draft to my counterparts in the Directorate of Operations at CIA, the Central American analyst at DIA, the Central American analyst at State INR and the NSA division that produced the report on the intercepted conversation. Everyone of those analysts had the opportunity to concur with what I wrote or offer their changes. Getting their approval is known as the “clearance process.”
Most of the time there was little disagreement and I secured their approval quickly. On occasion there would be a difference of opinion and a negotiation would ensue on finding mutually acceptable language. Once in a while the disagreement would be profound with no chance of compromise. In those rare cases, the dissenting analyst from one of the other agencies could write a dissent. This always was discouraged but not prevented.
After I made the changes requested by my Branch Chief and the other coordinating agencies, the piece went to the Chief or Deputy of the Middle America Caribbean Division (MACD) for another round of editing. I would make those changes and then it would go to the front office of ALA. Rinse and repeat. Once I had the blessing of ALA I could submit the proposed draft to the editing staffs of the National Intelligence Daily and the Presidential Daily Brief.
That was 38 years ago. Today there is no paper shuffling back and forth. Everything is done on line with computers. But that has not made the process more efficient. It has created more opportunity for a variety of people to weigh in and tweak the piece.
There also is something that did not exist when I was there — a Top Secret version of Twitter where analysts throughout the IC can congregate and engage in the same nonsense that occurs on unclassified Twitter (e.g., you may get mocked with snarky comments). Unlike regular Twitter, where you can mask your identity and hide behind a key board, the IC classified version of Twitter requires you to use your real name. And guess what? That classified channel of Twitter is regulated by senior managers who are quick, so I am told, to cancel anyone who dares offer an analytical perspective that departs from the “community standard.”
For example, imagine you are an analyst who tries to argue that the actions by the U.S. and NATO created a motive for Vladimir Putin to launch the Special Military Operation. Odds are you will be ridiculed or even cancelled. When analysts are being punished for stepping outside the IC “consensus” you have what I describe as Group Think on Steroids. There is enormous pressure to conform and no incentive to swim against the ideological current.
If you want to know why the United States has intelligence failures (e.g., Saddam is hiding weapons of Mass Destruction) this is why. No bureaucratic entity in the world, regardless of whether it is a government enterprise or a publicly traded company, likes or encourages “boat rockers.” People who rock the boat (don’t tip the boat over now) or color outside the lines have a short life in any bureaucracy. That person is fired or put into a dead end job or subjected to so much pressure and abuse that he or she decides to quit. This ain’t the world of Jack Ryan sitting around a table with a bunch of colleagues amicably working together to figure out what those dastardly Irish terrorists will do next. Pure Hollywood bullshit.
The ability of any analyst to do good, solid, objective work is totally a function of leadership at the top of the organization. If the Director of the CIA is going to shade the truth, that message is communicated down the food chain and anyone in that chain who desires to get a promotion will happily go along with shading the truth as well. There is no law or procedure that you can create to fix this. It is truly a matter of having people in management positions blessed with courage, integrity and a commitment to telling the truth no matter what the price. I have a news flash — the current leadership in the IC is lacking on all counts.