Speaking Truth to Power: The Most Essential Quality for Any Intelligence Professional

Dan Caldwell, in his research paper The Cuban Missile Affair and the American Style of Crisis Management for The RAND Corporation, describes how there are seven styles of American crisis management. They are, “(1) Crises are assumed to be manageable, (2) As soon as crises begin, there is a strong tendency for previous plans and expectations to be ignored, (3) During crises, presidents convene ad hoc decision-making groups with a limited number of members to advise them, (4) During crises, spokesmen with unpopular ideas are often excluded from the group making the important decisions, (5) During crises, presidents assert direct control over the tactical operations of military units, (6) U.S. decision making during crises is characterized by imperfect information and overloaded communication channels, (7) During certain crises, the United States has increased the alert levels of its nuclear forces as means of communicating the seriousness of crises”. 

Looking at which styles appear to be the most effective or ineffective, the first style of “Crises are assumed to be manageable” seems to be the most beneficial while the fourth style, “During crises, spokesmen with unpopular ideas are often excluded from the group making the important decisions” seems to be the most problematic in terms of decision-making.

Crises being assumed to be manageable is one of the best ways to deal with a crisis. Believing that a crisis is not manageable clearly would have a demoralizing effect upon those planning the missions and operations and those engaged in trying to develop solutions. By having a more optimistic mindset when dealing with these types of problems and crises, then there is a higher degree of success in resolving problems and some potentially very severe issues. 

Having spokesmen with unpopular ideas be excluded from the decision making process is obviously problematic. More often than not, intelligence officers and counterintelligence officers from the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) provide information to their commanders that is oftentimes difficult to hear or points out flaws in security or problems with operations and missions that have been planned for quite some time. Frequently, they are often either ignored or not listened to because they are frequently seen as being the “bearer of bad news”. 

Take the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an example. In the lead up to the invasion and throughout the planning stages, many military planners and intelligence professionals who saw flaws in the plan to invade Iraq voiced their concerns, but were largely ignored. Tom Ricks in his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, discusses the source codenamed Curveball (which later did turn out to be a complete fabrication by an Iraqi desperate to attain German citizenship), “a Defense Department employee working at the CIA sent an apprehensive e-mail to the deputy chief of the CIA’s Iraq task force…he was alarmed to see that it leaned heavily on Curveball’s assertions. But the deputy chief of the CIA task force was dismissive of such concerns, because, he responded, he saw war with Iraq as inevitable”. Despite having valid concerns built upon solid, friendly foreign intelligence entity reports, the contractor was briskly ignored as were his concerns by another professional who most likely did not want to deal with Washington or try to stop a war that most likely was inevitable. Having this type of mindset and the belief that opinions or ideas that are contrary to what is believed by higher command is detrimental to effective thought and having an effective battle plan and reconstruction/exit strategy for military units.

As well, I would also argue that having the chief executive of a nation be the overall tactical commander at a theater, combatant command, and individual unit-level is a poor policy as much as it is a poor policy for the president to convene groups with a limited number of advisory staff. As an example, take Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. At the beginning of the conflict, Nazi Germany did had a strong military, complete with intelligent military commanders (like Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein) and superior “armament, training, doctrine, discipline, and fighting spirit” than most other Western nations. 

However, many of the disastrous tactical decisions made by Nazi Germany was due to the decision-making of Adolf Hitler and those who he aligned himself with, his Inner Circle (consisting of Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göering, and Reinhard Heydrich among others). In December of 1941, Hitler proclaimed himself as Commander in Chief of the Germany military due to the fact that Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia Hitler had envisioned, was not going according to plan. 

Hitler’s complete control of the High Commands of both the German Army and the Wehrmacht also aided in his ability of control; his promotions of specific generals who were loyal to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party rather than who would be the best commanders of individual combatant commands and armies is a clear example of this negative executive control. Due to this sense of loyalty within Hitler’s military high command, a circle of “yes men” and sycophants was created which prevented ideas from being shared which ran contrary to what Hitler believed or were what the Führer did not want to hear. Having a chief executive so deeply involved in military affairs (to the point that they are plotting army groups on maps and determining defensive positions in a full-scale war) or surrounding themselves with yes men (like Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Hans Krebs) who do not speak truth to power or say what needs said, is a very poor policy and something that is detrimental to an effective military plan and operation and to the conduct of any foreign policy. Naturally, in the case of the Second World War, it is actually beneficial that Hitler took such a hands on approach to the point he made the German military more ineffective and effectively assisted in so many strategic and tactical blunders which enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis. 

This was, quite clearly, one of the biggest problems in the Trump administration and is a significant threat to the United States as of this moment. What we saw was a president surrounding himself with “yes men”, people who were incredibly loyal, in some cases believe in his policies, and were not telling him that the orders he is giving to subordinates may not be in the best interest for the country’s national security, the conduct of foreign policy, or the improvement of the country’s economic standing. 

What we saw in the Trump administration are subordinates who did not speak up or, those that did, were quickly removed from their posts. 

When the FBI began investigating allegations of Russian intervention in the 2016 election and also were investigating members of the Trump administration who were possibly involved, the president blatantly tried to stop the investigation, going so far as to speak to the newly appointed FBI Director James Comey without the Attorney General being present and demanding loyalty from the director. This is highly unusual and experienced professionals within the legal, intelligence, and law enforcement fields noted this, with Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution saying, “in investigative matters, the FBI director does not, or should not, serve the president by reporting to him. He serves the president by leading law enforcement in an independent and apolitical fashion. And it is fundamentally corrupt for any president to be asking him to do otherwise…The astonishing implication of Trump’s view is that he believes the president may shut down an FBI investigation that displeases him”. 

The FBI director is not subordinate to the president though appointed by him and is instead considered and desired to be wholly independent from the Executive Branch (this most likely stemming from the long reign of J. Edgar Hoover). As well, Trump’s turnover rate was extremely, abnormally, high (when examining the top 65 positions within the Executive Branch), being placed at 78 percent [51 of the 65 positions], with 31 percent of those having been turned over more than twice, in thirty-two months. The study further notes that these positions do not include the Presidential Cabinet, in which the study said that, “nine of the 15 Cabinet positions that are in the presidential line of succession have turned over at least once”. This, in my own view, can be chalked up to removing those advisors and officials who are political or legally tenuous (Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor) or who are disagreeing with the president publicly on matters like the Russia investigation (H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor again) or were purely disliked by the president for the decisions they made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State). 

However, it must also be said that, while there was an astoundingly high turnover, there were those within the executive branch who did speak truth to power. In a New York Times op-ed written by an “anonymous senior official in the White House”, (later revealed to be Miles Taylor, Chief of Staff of the Department of Homeland Security) the author states, “From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief’s comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims…That [duty first to country] is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office”. So, while there was a select group of insiders and officials who were working against the abuses they see and are preserving the essential functions of democracy and policy that are being dismantled by the Trump administration, there are still, albeit limited, speakings of truth to power.

Obviously, speaking truth to power is not easy at all, yet is extremely necessary in any profession or field. It means potentially (and probably most certainly in the White House) that said official who performs such action consistently and publicly will be removed. Despite these risks, ensuring that authorities know what exactly they are suggesting is legal or illegal, ethical or unethical, or what is right for the country as a whole is imperative to the proper functioning of government. Having those personnel who are willing to tell the truth about the effect of operations and policies is essential for any commander and for anyone who is recommending serious changes to a business, organization, or in the conduct of a national government. While the U.S. does not need to worry about this as much in the Biden administration, given his character is far different from that of Trump, this could still be a problem coming in the 2024 U.S. presidential elections. If Trump were to run again, or perhaps another political official who is close to the Trumpism mindset (a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Rick Scott), this could easily turn its head again and result in debilitating turnover or negative domestic and foreign policies being created.

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