When Intelligence Contradicts Policy

We in the intelligence business know that we are required to report the truth and nothing but the truth. We are bound to stick to the facts. Our feelings and opinion are of no importance. Back in my day, we even had a standard way of expressing the likelihood that what we were reporting was accurate—A% meant unquestionably true; B% meant probably true; C% meant possible true; D% meant reliability unknown.

Government officials were in a different category. Their job was to make things happen. They often expressed themselves in terms of what was desirable and what they were doing to bring about a happy future. And they created policy: a statement of condition or a description of the current situation or the situation they were trying to create.

Rarely, intelligence contradicts policy statements. If policy makers are describing the current status in insupportably optimistic terms or portraying as real conditions that do not yet exist, intelligence might not support them. But while policy is public and unclassified, intelligence is usually secret. Hence the public is unaware of the conflict.

During the Vietnam war, differing depictions of the truth from intelligence experts and from policy makers occurred so often that I was uncomfortable. The two worst times were before and during the 1968 Tết Offensive and the 1975 fall of Saigon. I was in Vietnam during both events.

More next time.

2 thoughts on “When Intelligence Contradicts Policy”

  1. Tom, I have a slightly different take on this being transcription certainty from COMINT. These are my recollections as a Russian voice intercept operator in transcripts: A% meant as certain as we could be – generally NOT noted in transcripts B% meant high probability; C% meant medium probability; D% often meant the word or phase is unknown; generally rendered as a “phonetic approximation”

    If you were an analyst/reporter in a position to report significant intercept, “weasel words” expressed the degree of certainty – if not as certain as SIGINT can be: • Probably means a slight amount of doubt, less than 100% • Likely is a bit below Probable • Information with less certainty than Likely should not even be reported, but might ultimately go with additional information and become reportable.

    Just my 1-1/2 cents, Tom

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. All good points, Mike, but I think we’re getting into minute distinctions of no interest either to our customers (back in the day) or to my current readers. The main issue is what do you do when intelligence contradicts policy?


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