Intelligence Community Wake Up Call: Will They Listen?

  • by:
  • Source: UncoverDC
  • 09/19/2023

America's safety and security greatly depend upon the objectivity and integrity of the Intelligence Community. Unelected operatives within that community who purposely infuse politics in their tradecraft run the risk of greatly compromising our country's security. It is of paramount importance that the research, analysis, and reporting of external and internal threats produced by individuals in the community remain as timely, ethical, unbiased, and objective as humanly possible. Trust in the community is essential, and "even the perception that intelligence is being politicized can undermine the trust that the American people have placed in the work of the Intelligence Community."

Dr. Barry A.Zulauf, Intelligence Community (IC) Analytic Ombudsman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, at the behest of DNI John Ratcliffe, conducted an independent review of the Intelligence Community. Its focus was on the "possible instances of politicization of intelligence" by those working in the various agencies concerning 2020 election interference.


To provide context, it is widely known that for four years President Trump wrestled with unprecedented resistance from almost every quarter, both within his administration and external to it—namely in the legacy media and social media platforms. The seemingly incestuous relationship between actors in the federal government and the media naturally lends itself to a loss of integrity in both, which has profound ramifications on how well the American public can trust the work product from either.

Not everyone in the federal government or the legacy media has allowed their work to be patently influenced by their bias. And not all bias is necessarily personal. Some of the bias is due to long-standing intelligence practices and policies that emphasize the threats from Russia.

However, there are enough examples of purposeful resistance and political bias that seem to have migrated deep within the many agencies and departments in the Federal government. The bias and resistance can and have materially tainted the work product of those in critical agencies, like the FBI. Bias and corruption are now well documented in both the Flynn and Russia investigations. Recently declassified documents confirm a plethora of purposeful actions to undermine the integrity of the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation. The declassified transcripts and depositions were accompanied by a scathing letter from the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). An excerpt from his letter can be found below.

“I believe that Crossfire Hurricane was one of the most incompetent and corrupt investigations in the history of the FBI and DOJ. The FISA court was lied to. Exculpatory information was withheld on those being investigated. The investigators, with some notable exceptions, were incredibly biased and used the powers of law enforcement for political purposes. The subjects of the investigation had their lives turned upside down. It is my hope that counterintelligence investigations will be reined in and this never happens again in America. The leadership of the FBI under Comey and McCabe was either grossly incompetent or they knowingly allowed tremendous misdeeds. There was a blind eye turned toward any explanation other than the Trump campaign was colluding with foreign powers. At every turn, the FBI and DOJ ran stop signs that were in abundance regarding exculpatory information."

Therefore, it makes sense that such bias may have sufficiently proliferated within these communities to taint other important investigations. Zulauf's focus was to investigate IC complaints concerning the "election threat issue." Election security is led by DHS and the FBI. His review "surfaced a number of examples of altered tradecraft and misapplied or inconsistent definitions" and terms that were "applied inconsistently across the analytic community," specifically regarding the differences between how intelligence tradecraft and operational procedures were applied to Russia and China.

The Trump administration rightfully focused many of its policies and initiatives on China's growing threats in the economic, political, and information warfare domains. There seems to have been a perception both in the media and the intelligence communities that Trump was singularly focused on China's threats at the sacrifice of addressing those from Russia. Objectively, it seems to be more nuanced than that.

Both the media and the Intelligence Community seemed to be almost exclusively focused on investigating and confirming Russia's involvement at the time. They also often contended that Trump was somehow Putin's puppet. There was a myriad of headlines and press conferences that confirm that bias at the time of the election interference investigation. President Trump was insistent at the time that Russia should not be the only actor investigated for election interference, most certainly, in part, because he continued to be implicated in some kind of collusion with the Russians.

Historical Context

There are also historical forces that influence how the intelligence community investigates and reports on foreign threats—specifically Russian threats. Post WWl, the entire intelligence and policy apparatus was designed to deter and stop the rise of communism and Russia. Entire industries were carved out to the tune of billions of dollars to wage the fight. Analysts grew up in that environment, and even when those threats abated, they continued, as did the industries and bureaucratic workings associated with them. Over time, Russia, while still a threat, was a well-quantified and understood threat. Still, China was on the rise and very few resources were devoted to its potentially nefarious impact on the U.S.

China saw how the U.S. treated Russia and, while Russia declined influentially, ideologically, and economically, China stepped in with an approach that served to run their imminent threat under the proverbial radar. The Chinese smartly branded themselves as "competitors" and co-opted the U.S. in that more advantageous perception. They worked very hard never to be perceived or labeled as an "enemy." They also worked behind the scenes to continue the perception of Russia as a threat. No one in the U.S. government wanted to say that the Chinese were stealing military secrets, our patents, or our technology. And few in the intelligence community wanted to play second fiddle to the Russia threat narrative by learning or participating in Tradecraft pertaining to China's growing threat—especially since that was where all the assets both economically and philosophically, have had been invested.

Remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, during a media round table on Mar. 7, 2007, confirm the historic position on China by leaders in the U.S. While he recognizes  China's propensity for opaque communication about its intentions on the world stage, he demonstrates a fundamental hesitation to promote the country as an enemy—despite knowing at the time, that China began to "boost defense spending by 17.8 percent this year, which follows a 14.7 percent increase in 2006 and is the biggest recorded rise in the past decade."

"I do not see China, at this point, as a strategic adversary of the United States," he said. "It's a partner in some respects, it's a competitor in other respects, and so we are simply watching to see what they're doing." He continued, "I think it's very important for us to engage the Chinese on all facets of our relationship as a way of building mutual confidence." At the time, Gates' statement was in direct conflict with the primary concerns voiced by Vice President, Dick Cheney who was concerned by the military build-up.

Dr. Barry A. Zulauf/Report for the Select Committee on Intelligence

Intelligence Community Election Security Analysis

In this report, Dr. Zulauf found that the intelligence community did, indeed, "[politicize] or attempted to politicize intelligence, exercised or attempted to exercise undue influence on the analysis, production, or dissemination process of ODNI—published intelligence products related to election security" in some impactful areas. He also found that the community "altered, misapplied, or applied definitions or analytic tradecraft" and "did NOT follow standard procedure for the drafting, editing, approval, and dissemination of analytic products related to election interference" in all cases. Thus, he concludes that the intelligence community "did not meet their responsibilities for objective intelligence."

One of the most significant transgressions or missteps was the inconsistent application of definitions and terms across the intelligence community. Whereas the Russian analysts had established practices and definitions in a formal definition document called, Lexicon for Russian Influence Efforts, there is no parallel reference lexicon or document for Chinese analysts. "Due to the varying collection and insight into hostile state actors' leadership intentions and domestic election influence campaigns, the definitional use of the terms "influence" and "interference" and associated confidence levels are applied differently by the China and Russia analytic communities."

Terms and definitions in intelligence are important building blocks for the lexicon that potentially set the stage for critical guidance on foreign policy in an administration. Mislabeling or misattributing terms may create perceptions and actions that could lead to misguided or even dangerous foreign policy decisions, especially those whose experience with a specific country's tactics is limited.

The report details accounts of China analysts "who appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference. These analysts appeared reluctant to have their analysis on China brought forward because they tended to disagree with the Administration's policies, saying in effect, I don't want our intelligence used to support those policies." And, on the other hand, "Russia analysts assessed that there was clear and credible evidence of Russian election influence activities. They said IC management slowing down or not wanting to take their analysis to customers, claiming that it was not well received, frustrated them." The ODNI leadership was attempting to provide intelligence as  "story arc" to make the information more easily consumed by its "customers" (the President, the press, congress, etc.)—rather than presenting the material individually. Analysts saw this as "suppression and politicization of intelligence from above." Zulauf maintains, that "incongruity between leaders' and analysts' perceptions might not have occurred if there had been more consistent and transparent communication about analytic differences."

Also highlighted were the differences in the "volume, frequency, and confidence levels of the intelligence coming from the China and Russia analytic communities on activities that, from their perspective, were very similar in their potential effects."

While not intentional, these disparities made a difference in how their customers perceive the information. "Collection and analysis rhythms and interpretations by analysts that do not cross-pollinate between regional issues cause inconsistencies and, therefore, the work product is harder to interpret for the average consumer of intelligence." Again, the potential negative impact of these inconsistencies cannot be overstated.

A handout of talking points related to foreign influence in U.S. elections presented on March 10, 2020, to congress by the head of national counterintelligence, William Evanina, seems to clarify that election security risks are not limited to Russia's efforts. The handout seems to give a balanced representation of the documented threats by foreign actors to the upcoming election:

"This is not a Russia-only problem. China, Iran, other countries like North Korea and Cuba, and non-state actors all have the opportunity, means, and potential motive to interfere in the 2020 elections as a way to achieve their goals. Some are trying to influence the public debate largely on social media in order to stoke discord in the United States, with the hope of swaying U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process."

However, Zulauf concludes from interviews with the IC community that the talking points "were an attempt to politicize intelligence." The IC community maintains that the points on the congressional handout referenced above were not written by analysts and were a "gross misrepresentation of established IC views."

"Emails show that those who drew up the talking points did partially coordinate them and were informed of analysts' concerns with them, but did not completely consider the concerns in the final version." Moreover, the fact that there was "widespread reluctance to deliver them" served as a "red flag," according to Zulauf. The documents containing the basis for those misrepresentations are still classified, so it is difficult to assess exactly what was misrepresented.

The 14-page report seems to thoughtfully analyze the approach and methodology that the IC employed in its assessment of the threats from Russia and China. There is "documentation of attempts to alter a range of analytic products for reasons that do not follow good tradecraft" and "perceived problems with politicization."

The review herewith is by no means a comprehensive discussion of the fine points. However, DNI John Ratcliffe offers a poignant takeaway from his vantage point as someone "who consumes all of the U.S. government's most sensitive intelligence on the People's Republic of China."

He says, "I do not believe the majority view expressed by Intelligence Community analysts fully and accurately reflects the scope of the Chinese governments' efforts to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections." Importantly, he emphasizes a key finding from the report concerning the "culture" within the community that discourages "dissenting views that are supported by the intelligence." (author's highlighting). He continues, saying that "alternative viewpoints on China's influence efforts have not been appropriately tolerated, much less encouraged." 

He also reiterates from the report that the "CIA Management took actions pressuring [analysts] to withdraw their support from an alternative viewpoint on China in an attempt to suppress it." Ratcliffe emphasizes that the "highly compartmented nature of some of the relevant intelligence" lends itself to inaccurate reporting because sometimes the "majority view" did not reflect the full body of intelligence reporting.

Photo/Gabriella Demczuk/AP/DNI John Ratcliffe

He concludes with an analysis of the impact of inconsistent terms and definitions between the two communities and the impact of those differences on policymakers' perceptions.

"Terms were applied inconsistently across the analytic community...Given analytic differences in the way that Russia and China analysts examined their targets, China analysts appeared hesitant to assess Chinese actions as undue influence or interference. As a result, similar actions by Russia and China are assessed and communicated to policymakers differently, potentially leading to the false impression that Russia sought to influence the election but China did not."

Ratcliffe unequivocally states that "based on all available sources of intelligence, with definitions consistently applied, and reached independent of political considerations or undue pressure—that the People's Republic of China sought to influence the 2020 U.S. federal elections" and that based on the Ombudsman's report, the intelligence community must address the underlying issues that prevent the integrity and objectivity of intelligence reporting.

China has shown itself, certainly with the pandemic of 2020 and its nefarious inroads into cyber warfare and U.S. trade and commerce, to be a formidable actor on the world stage. The intelligence community would do well to make the necessary changes to its tradecraft and take seriously the future potential threats from a country whose communication and intentions are, at best, dangerously unfamiliar to the Western cultural mindset.

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