WASHINGTON — In ancient days, kings hanged messengers who brought them bad news. In more recent times, the differences have been between intelligence analysts (those who interpret the meaning of raw intelligence) and policymakers for whom the analysis is made.
Trouble arises when a policymaker is committed to a policy that is unsupported by intelligence.
Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara explains how this happens in "The Fog of War," the Academy Award-winning documentary film about his life. Believing something, he says in paraphrase, does not make it true.
The context was the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964. The Navy reported attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on two American destroyers patrolling international waters.
The entire policymaking apparatus of the Johnson administration - President Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow - passionately believed, and wanted the American people and the world to believe, that these reports were gospel truth. President Johnson submitted, and Congress passed, a resolution authorizing the president to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam. This enabled Johnson to fight the wider war that he publicly said he was not seeking.
As the truth came out in bits and pieces over the following months, it developed that:
• One destroyer was not attacked at all, and the attack on the other was doubtful.
• The US vessels were not on innocent patrol, but on a secret mission designed to provoke the North Vietnamese to turn on their coastal radar so that the Americans could learn its operating frequencies.
There is a striking parallel between this incident and the current dispute over intelligence from Iraq.
The Bush administration built its justification for war on the premise that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) made the government of Saddam Hussein a clear and present danger to the US. By Bush's reasoning, this made the overthrow of Hussein's government an imperative of American national security.
The basis of that policy collapsed when the CIA reported that the feared WMD did not exist. In the Tonkin case, policy required mistaken intelligence to be believed. In the Iraq case, policy required what appears to be correct intelligence to be disbelieved. In both cases, the error was more psychological than duplicitous. Policymakers had determined the policy before they saw the intelligence. When the intelligence did not support the policy, policymakers twisted the intelligence to make it conform. This practice is not limited to Vietnam and Iraq. Sometimes the distortion is subconscious, sometimes deliberate.
Recent American foreign policy provides other examples of resistance to unwelcome facts. Johnson let his fear of a communist takeover in the Dominican Republic override intelligence minimizing that danger. He was so desirous of confirming what he believed that he sent the FBI to find evidence that the CIA said did not exist. (The FBI couldn't find it either.)
In Iran, President Carter was so committed to supporting the shah that he ignored warnings of the shah's impending overthrow. Aside from the closed minds of policymakers, the CIA in Iran was handicapped by an ill-considered agreement not to gather intelligence independently but to rely on SAVAK, the Iranian intelligence agency.
Better reporting was being done by American newspapers, which were under no such constraint. But the press's credibility was handicapped by a tendency on the part of government officials not to take seriously any report that was not classified TOP SECRET. The consequence was a radical Islamic revolution that held American diplomats hostage in their own embassy for 14 months.
President Reagan was so committed to fighting an anticommunist war in Central America, where radical liberals outnumbered communists, that he allowed his National Security Council staff to ignore legal restrictions about aid programs.
The consequence was the Iran-contra scandal.
The lesson that runs through these and other mishaps of US foreign policy is that policy ought to be built on intelligence and not the other way around. If intelligence is shaped or distorted to support predetermined policy, trouble is sure to follow.
Intelligence analysts can be, and sometimes are, mistaken. They sometimes have their own axes to grind. There is no simple solution to the conflict between policymaker and intelligence analyst. It would help to have a more alert Congress, more willing to do battle with the White House or the intelligence community.
It would help even more to have a president more willing to admit the possibility of error. But that is perhaps asking too much.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.