Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Joshua Rovner's "Fixing the Facts"

Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence, and reported the following:
The Nixon administration spent the better part of 1969 trying to secure funding for a new missile defense system. It claimed that the Soviet Union had made a major technical breakthrough by successfully attaching multiple independently targeted warheads to a gargantuan new missile. If this was true, then Moscow might be able to launch a knockout blow against U.S. missile silos and bomber bases before Washington could respond. Deterrence might be impossible if the Soviets could destroy the American deterrent force in one swift strike.

But the Senate wasn’t crazy about missile defense, and many Senators were skeptical about the president’s dire warnings. To overcome this opposition, “Nixon also cited ‘new intelligence’ that appeared to support his own conclusions about Soviet capabilities and intentions” (p. 99). The president was no fan of the CIA, believing it to be a bastion of northeastern liberals who were out to undermine him. Nonetheless he knew that citing intelligence was a good way to sell policies, because intelligence agencies carried the aura of secrecy. Persuading Congress to invest in missile defense would be much easier if he could attach the imprimatur of intelligence to his claims about the Soviet threat.

“Despite repeated references to new intelligence,” however, “the president’s primary sources of analysis were not from the intelligence community” (p. 99). In fact, the White House relied heavily on analyses of Soviet missile tests performed by the TRW Corporation. Many intelligence officials disagreed with their conclusions, and the “CIA continued to dispute administration claims during the spring of 1969” (p. 99). This created a real problem for the president. Not only did he risk losing the support of the intelligence community, but he faced the very real possibility that opposition Senators would use the same intelligence to embarrass the administration and demolish one of its first major national security policy initiatives.

The White House acted swiftly, putting pressure on intelligence leaders to stifle their opposition and ensure that official estimates were consistent with administration statements on the Soviet Union. “Look,” Henry Kissinger told them, “the president of the United States and the secretary of defense have said the following. Now, are you telling me that you’re going to argue with them?” Under the weight of sustained pressure from the administration, the intelligence community ultimately reversed its conclusions about Soviet capabilities and intentions. The White House had successfully politicized intelligence, and used it win a narrow vote to begin funding missile defense.

Replace “President Nixon” with “President Bush” and change the dates, and you’ll get an idea about what happened to intelligence before the war in Iraq in 2003. Both administrations were dubious of the intelligence community. Both faced intelligence estimates that challenged their assumptions and beliefs. Both manipulated those estimates so they lined up with their own public statements about national security threats. And both relied on the peculiar qualities of secret intelligence to win domestic political battles. Page 99 provides a glimpse of some of the major themes in Fixing the Facts, and it also offers some disturbing historical foreshadowing.

(Chapter 7 of the book tells the story of intelligence and Iraq for interested readers. They can decide if I pass the Page 137-184 test.)
Learn more about Fixing the Facts at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue