As Conflict with Iran Intensifies, the U.S. Intelligence Community Is Still Leaderless

Two months ago, in an article for Just Security, I issued a warning: that the Trump administration’s decision to leave the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) leaderless for an extended period of time was “reckless and dangerous.” “Should an actual foreign policy or national security crisis emerge,” I explained, “we need leadership at the helm of the Intelligence Community.”

Precisely such a crisis is now upon us after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. As we face that crisis, the absence of leadership atop the Intelligence Community (IC) looms large. At a time when policy decisions that should be based on intelligence assessments are being made that bring us ever-closer to full-blown war, it’s critical that we have leadership in the Office of the DNI able to speak truth to power and to resist any efforts by policymakers to spin intelligence assessments to advance policy objectives.

Indeed, recent statements by administration officials regarding the IC’s assessment of the imminence of the threat posed by Soleimani raise questions about whether the IC’s analysis of the threat has been characterized accurately to the American people. As a general matter, if the plot Soleimani was directing against U.S. interests was in fact imminent, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior administration officials have insisted, it would’ve been routine for the Departments of State or Defense to issue a travel or threat warning to American citizens or U.S. military personnel in the region cautioning them about an imminent threat of attack.

While the U.S. Embassy in Iraq issued a general travel advisory on Jan. 1 in response to the Dec. 31 attack on the embassy compound, neither that travel advisory nor a related security alert for Iraq mentions an imminent threat against U.S. personnel or interests in Iraq (or Syria or Lebanon) prior to the operation against General Soleimani. An imminent threat of attack should have triggered the Intelligence Community’s Duty to Warn obligations or the State Department’s No Double Standard Policy and resulted in some type of public alert.

The lack of a public warning suggests that the duty-to-warn processes broke down—or that the nature of the threat has been subsequently mischaracterized. Neither explanation is comforting. Adding to questions over the reliability of the administration’s characterization of the IC assessments are reports of disputes among senior Trump national security officials over the significance of recent intelligence warning of threats against U.S. interests in the region. These disputes suggest at a minimum that, even if the administration is accurately conveying the IC’s view of the threat posed by Soleimani, the administration is nonetheless failing to communicate clearly the confidence levels that existed in that view—also a serious problem.

It’s precisely crises like the current one where Senate-confirmed leaders of the DNI—including, most notably, a Senate-confirmed Director of National Intelligence himself or herself—are likely to be more willing and to feel more empowered to carry out their unwritten but vitally important duty of ensuring the accuracy of intelligence information presented to the Congress and the public. We’ve seen acts of public truth-setting from IC officials in the past, including from former DNI Dan Coats, who in 2018 publicly dismissed President Donald Trump’s questions over Russian meddling in the 2016 election—an important and courageous step in defending the IC’s analytic objectivity and informing the American people. To the extent the intelligence preceding the strike on Soleimani has been misrepresented publicly, the Office of the DNI has an opportunity to correct the record. That might be politically and bureaucratically easier to do with a Senate-confirmed DNI or deputy DNI in place, as there should be; but it remains essential regardless.

In the weeks and months ahead, policymakers will place increasing demands on the IC to generate a range of important assessments on Iran to inform policy decisions about what comes next. These assessments are likely to include, among other things, assessing Iran’s plans and intentions to retaliate for the strike on Soleimani and evaluating the implications of widespread war with Iran. Given the enormous stakes, traditionally the leadership of the Office of the DNI would step in to shepherd IC-wide assessments or reconcile competing analytic judgements before those are provided to the president and senior officials, either in the form of daily intelligence briefings or as part of a larger National Intelligence Estimate. While the acting leadership of the Office of the DNI is perfectly capable, they lack the authority and influence that come with Senate confirmation.

At a time when the role of intelligence will be central to informing decisions about potential future hostilities with Iran, the administration’s continued reluctance to staff the leadership of the Office of the DNI is deeply concerning.

Image: Members of the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force chant anti-US slogans during a protest over the killings of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, on January 6 in central Baghdad. Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Brett Holmgren

Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Intelligence Programs on the National Security Council; previously served as Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and a CIA counterterrorism analyst.