Clapper, who has been working on intelligence issues for a half-century, is well aware of how jittery many Americans feel about the spy community. The internal debates, he believes, should bolster their confidence that intelligence officials have thoroughly weighed all aspects of some of the world's most difficult security issues before deciding how high a threat they pose.
"I think it'd be very unhealthy - and I get a lot of pushback from people - if I tried to insist that you will have one uniform view and this is what I think, and that's what goes. That just wouldn't work," he said. "There is the fundamental tenet of truth to power, presenting inconvenient truths at inconvenient times. That's part of our system."
Much of the focus of this article is on man hunting and intelligence to support drone strikes or in the case of north Korea, enemy capabilities. While that is hard and important work, what is the real challenge is intelligence analysis anticipating actions and most importantly to be able to assess the intent of others whether they be hostile state or non-state actors.
But I absolutely agree with the thrust of the article in that dissension and disagreement within the intelligence community is not a bad thing. It illustrates that there are people thinking critically out there and that intelligence is not subject to politicalization (at least among the analysts – but the politicalization can still occur after the assessments and analysis are provided to policy and decision makers).
US intelligence embraces debate in security issues
FILE - In this May 1, 2011, image released by the White House and digitally altered by the source to obscure the details of a document in front of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right with hand covering mouth, President Barack Obama, second from left, Vice President Joe Biden, left, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, right, and members of the national security team watch an update of the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room in Washington. As the world now knows well Obama ultimately decided to launch the raid on the Abbottabad compound that killed bin Laden, though faced with a level of widespread skepticism from a veteran intelligence analyst, shared with other top-level officials, which nearly scuttled the raid. That process reflected a sea change within the U.S. spy community, one that embraces debate to avoid “slam-dunk” intelligence in tough national security decisions. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) - In the months leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, veteran intelligence analyst Robert Cardillo was given the nickname "Debbie Downer." With each new tidbit of information that tracked bin Laden to a high-walled compound in northern Pakistan - phone records, satellite imaging, clues from other suspects - Cardillo cast doubt that the terror network leader and mastermind was actually there.
As the world now knows well, President Barack Obama ultimately decided to launch a May 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound that killed bin Laden. But the level of widespread skepticism that Cardillo shared with other top-level officials - which nearly scuttled the raid - reflected a sea change within the U.S. spy community, one that embraces debate to avoid "slam-dunk" intelligence in tough national security decisions.
The same sort of high-stakes dissent was on public display recently as intelligence officials grappled with conflicting opinions about threats in North Korea and Syria. And it is a vital part of ongoing discussions over whether to send deadly drone strikes against terror suspects abroad - including U.S. citizens.
The three cases provide a rare look inside the secretive 16 intelligence agencies as they try to piece together security threats from bits of vague information from around the world. But they also raise concerns about whether officials who make decisions based on their assessments can get clear guidance from a divided intelligence community.
At the helm of what he calls a healthy discord is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who has spent more than two-thirds of his 72 years collecting, analyzing and reviewing spy data from war zones and rogue nations. Clapper, the nation's fourth top intelligence chief, says disputes are uncommon but absolutely necessary to get as much input as possible in far-flung places where it's hard for the U.S. to extract - or fully understand - ground-level realities.
"What's bad about dissension? Is it a good thing to have uniformity of view where everyone agrees all the time? I don't think so," Clapper told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. "...People lust for uniform clairvoyance. We're not going to do that."
"We are never dealing with a perfect set of facts," Clapper said. "You know the old saw about the difference between mysteries and secrets? Of course, we're held equally responsible for divining both. And so those imponderables like that just have to be factored."
Looking in from the outside, the dissension can seem awkward, if not uneasy - especially when the risks are so high.
At a congressional hearing last month, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., read from a Defense Intelligence Agency report suggesting North Korea is able to arm long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. The April 11 disclosure, which had been mistakenly declassified, came at the height of Kim Jong Un's sabre-rattling rhetoric and raised fears that U.S. territory or Asian nations could be targeted for an attack.
Within hours, Clapper announced that the DIA report did not reflect the opinions of the rest of the intelligence community, and that North Korea was not yet fully capable of launching a nuclear-armed missile.
Two weeks later, the White House announced that U.S. intelligence concluded that Syrian President Bashar Assad has probably used deadly chemical weapons at least twice in his country's fierce civil war. But White House officials said the intelligence wasn't strong enough to justify sending significant U.S. military support to Syrian rebels who are fighting Assad's regime.
Because the U.S. has few sources to provide first-hand information in Syria, the intelligence agencies split on how confident they were that Assad had deployed chemical weapons. The best they could do was conclude that the Syrian regime, at least, probably had undertaken such an effort. This put Obama in the awkward political position of having said the use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and have "enormous consequences," but not moving on the news of chemical weapons use, when the occasion arose, because the intelligence was murky.
Lamborn said he welcomes an internal intelligence community debate but is concerned that the North Korean threat was cavalierly brushed aside.
"If they want to argue among themselves, that's fine," said Lamborn, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. However, he also said, "We should be cautious when evaluating different opinions, and certainly give credence to the more sobering possibilities. ... When it comes to national security, I don't think we want to have rose-colored glasses on, and sweep threats under the rug."
Clapper said that, in fact, U.S. intelligence officials today are more accustomed to predicting gloom and doom. "We rain on parades a lot," he said.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say the vigorous internal debate was spawn from a single mistake about a threat - and an overly aggressive response.
Congress demanded widespread intelligence reform after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, to fix a system where agencies hoarded threat information instead of routinely sharing it. Turf wars between the CIA and the FBI, in particular, were common. The CIA generally was considered the nation's top intelligence agency, and its director was the president's principal intelligence adviser.
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