Fixing the Facts

Title:                      Fixing the Facts

Author:                 Joshua Rovner

Joshua Rovner (2011). Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

LCCN:    2011005003

JK468.I6 R687 2011


Date Updated:  April 6, 2016

This review is by James J. Wirtz.[1]

Although the topic of politicization has been a perennial favorite of scholars interested in intelligence, consideration of the issue surged following the Second Gulf War and the failure of Coalition forces to uncover a significant Iraqi program to manufacture or acquire weapons of mass destruction. Politicization seemed to offer a logical explanation of the happy coincidence that transpired when intelligence estimates supported the White House and Downing Street’s political preferences to topple the Ba’thist regime in Baghdad. The debate over pre-war intelligence remains unsettled, but it does confirm Richard Betts’ observation that the cry of “politicization” often arises when intelligence estimates have an impact on policy or politics.[2] Ironically, when intelligence estimates are timely and compelling enough to influence policy decisions, concerns about politicization are likely to be raised, especially by opponents to the policy that is now “supported” by the Intelligence Community.

In Fixing the Facts, Joshua Rovner takes a step back from this debate by posing fundamental questions about politicization: “If leaders are free to ignore intelligence they do not like, why would they ever pressure intelligence to change its findings? Why would they bother?” Rovner’s point is well taken. Policymakers are free to ignore reports and estimates that contradict their preferences, while intelligence agencies are legally and professionally bound not to pursue a “policy to please” strategy by releasing their estimates to force policymakers’ hands. The fact that encouraging analysts to provide the best estimates and information possible is always in the interest of policymakers makes the issue of politicization even more of a paradox. If policymakers need analysts to give them their best assessments, and if they are free to use this information as they see fit, why would they risk disrupting the flow of information or political acrimony by attempting to shape analysts’ estimates?


Rovner explains this paradox by recalling Theodore Lowi’s famous observation that overselling foreign policy to a U.S. political audience is necessary. In other words, when garnering support for foreign and defense policy there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Thus, if a President publicly commits to a particular position that affects the interests of a key constituency, intelligence makes a critical contribution to political debate because it can validate the decisions and positions staked out by the Executive Branch. Rovner suggests that Presidents and those close to them believe that intelligence is too important and too influential to be left to the Intelligence Community, especially when it has something important to say about pressing policy issues. If analysts are not supportive, they create a political vulnerability for the Chief Executive, and Presidents seem willing to minimize that vulnerability. For Presidents, unsupportive intelligence is little more than a self-inflicted political liability. The fact that the staff that is supposed to support the President actually creates this vulnerability only adds insult to injury.


To test this hypothesis, Rovner explores many events: the way the Lyndon B. Johnson administration did or did not use intelligence during the Vietnam War; a debate over Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities during the Nixon years; the Team B Experiment conducted by the Gerald R. Ford administration; and the history of intelligence-policy interaction in the days leading up to the Second Gulf War. In general, history confirms Rovner’s hypothesis, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the twists and turns of the events he surveyed make for a loose fit between facts and theory.

One issue that emerges immediately is the level of technical detail that characterizes the intelligence debates Rovner surveyed. Arguments about the Viet Cong’s order of battle on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, for instance, turned on arcane disputes about the validity of data and methodology. Analysts understood that this debate threatened the claim of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, that the U.S. war effort might soon wind down. But it is hard to imagine that there were many “votes” tied up with the decision to count some Vietnamese peasant as a member of the Viet Cong Secret Self-Defense Force, or Self-Force, or Assault Youth—or other types of “part-time” units the Viet Cong used to describe their order of battle. Similarly, the Richard M. Nixon administration found itself in a fight over whether or not the Soviet SS-9 was equipped with a multiple re-entry vehicle or a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), and how these re-entry vehicles would alter the effectiveness of different anti-ballistic missile systems and the vulnerability of the U.S. ICBM force to a first strike. To say that the debate turned on a net assessment of the implications of a technical arms race between systems that were not yet deployed or even tested, and required an appreciation of ballistics, physics, the Soviet defense economy, optimization, and nuclear strategy would underestimate the complexity of the issues under discussion. Rovner’s volume confirms conventional wisdom about debates among intelligence analysts—they tend to be over the smallest details, not about the grand issues of foreign or defense policy.


In the cases Rovner reviewed, all concerned had to work hard to make intelligence debates salient to a public audience. The fact that virtually all the details related to these issues were considered highly classified at the time only made it more difficult for government officials or the media to provide real insight into the topics under debate. Thus, politicization might be a wound politicians inflict on themselves by entering or allowing themselves to be dragged into arcane debates that in reality have little political traction. When politicians publicly call out intelligence estimates or opinions, they often politicize the information because their action tends to link debates over details to larger political or policy issues.


Rovner also identifies several issues that complicate the argument he advances. Sometimes the White House champions the correct position in the intelligence debate. For instance, the Nixon administration might have been correct after all in its assertion that the SS-9 was just the first step in the Soviet Union’s adoption of MIRV technology. They might have been wrong in the details, but they were correct in understanding the “big picture.” Sometimes, the White House launches an initiative without knowing its outcome—the Team B experiment is a case in point. As Rovner admits, even with the aid of hindsight it is difficult to demonstrate that the Ford administration could anticipate how the Team B evolution would play out.

Rovner responds to this observation by noting which side is actually correct in debates over estimates that occur between the White House and the Intelligence Community is not important. What does matter is that politicians politicize intelligence by attempting to manipulate estimates to favor their position. For the purposes of theory testing, this is an appropriate response. But from a practical perspective, administrations simply cannot tolerate situations in which the Intelligence Community stakes out positions that are diametrically opposed to their positions or that directly undermine their policies. In the less than ideal real world, even highly classified estimates will leak, usually at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way. Intelligence analysts may harbor no intention to alter the political landscape, but there is no telling when one of the facts they uncover, or the estimates they provide, or the ideas they suggest will destroy a cherished or effective policy. The fact that the Intelligence Community might be championing an incorrect position, or that too much or too little is being inferred from a specific finding, or that a narrow, technical debate has taken on a life of its own, can undermine useful policy. Administrations will not sit on their hands if intelligence debates within the government threaten to spin out of control in front of a public audience.


Administrations thus have two ways to respond to this situation. They can adopt a “policy-to-please”—changing their position to better match intelligence estimates. Or, they can engage the Intelligence Community in an effort to alter existing or emerging analysis. Neither of these options is optimal, especially in terms of contemporary ideas about politicization and the division of labor that is supposed to exist between policymakers and the Intelligence Community. The fact that this situation is structural, produced by the very interaction between policymakers and the Intelligence Community, makes it virtually impossible to prevent in practice. As Betts might say, when intelligence is timely, compelling, and can be linked to current policy, it is political and becomes politicized.

One last irony emerges from Rovner’s analysis: politicization does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful policy or negative outcomes. Today, intellectual faction dictates that the George W. Bush administration was propelled along the path to the Second Gulf War by faulty intelligence that was tainted by politicization, despite the fact that the administration deemed it politically necessary to invade Iraq and that intelligence to derail this decision was not available prior to the invasion. Nevertheless, political intervention in the intelligence process has frequently redirected analysts onto more productive paths. When then-Director of Central Intelligence John McCone sent analysts back to the drawing board in the late summer of 1962, he did so out of a desire to protect President John F. Kennedy’s interests. In this case, the rejection of a relatively benign estimate of Soviet activity in Cuba worked to the benefit of all concerned.

Fixing the Facts is a provocative contribution to the literature on intelligence. By highlighting the fact that one of the actors forming the nexus between intelligence analysts and policymakers is political, Rovner suggests that under certain circumstances, politicization is all but inevitable. When intelligence appears to matter most, politicians will embrace it or reject it, leading to the appearance, if not the reality, of politicization.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[3]

When an intelligence system fails as it did before 9/11 or its judgments are as wrong as they were before the Iraq War, severe consequences result, and the relationships among foreign, military, and homeland security policymakers suffers. In order to prevent such occurrences, it is necessary to examine why they happen and what needs to be done to avoid them in the future. Dr. Joshua Rovner, an MIT political science graduate and currently an associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College, addresses these issues in Fixing the Facts. The facts to be fixed, however, are not errors by intelligence analysts, as a glance at the title of this book would suggest. Rovner takes a different approach. He is concerned with “the connection between intelligence officials and policymakers … a relationship prone to dysfunction.” (pp. 3-4) For purposes of his study, he assumes the intelligence disseminated is as correct as possible, although perhaps not as complete or on point as may be desired by policymakers. Understanding the intricacies of the resulting friction or dysfunction is essential to fixing the problem.

Rovner analyzes the problem from a political science point of view, in which interactions are characterized by three “pathologies of intelligence

-policy relations”: neglect, excessive harmony, and politicization. (p. 5) Neglect occurs when policymakers disregard intelligence that doesn’t conform to their expectations. Excessive harmony causes groupthink. Since these first two pathologies have been studied elsewhere, Rovner chooses to focus much of his discussion on the third, politicization, which he defines in detail and with many examples. After listing criteria to test the impact of the three pathologies, Dr. Rovner applies them to three cases: the Johnson administration and Vietnam, estimates about the Soviet Union in 1969 and 1976 and US and British estimates on Iraq during 1998-2003. In a chapter on each case, he discusses the interaction of the three pathologies:

The concluding chapter summarizes Rovner’s theoretical constructs using examples—the implications of then DCI Richard Helms’s judgment in the Vietnam order-of-battle controversy and George Tenet’s “slam dunk” assessment, to name two. Whether application of the models describing sound intelligence-policymaker relations will reduce friction and dysfunction in the future is impossible to say. That the models identify key issues to be considered and a construct for doing so is evident. Fixing the Facts is a stimulating and challenging contribution.

Reviewed by Joshua Sinai, Ph. D.[4]

An interesting examination of the role of intelligence agencies in the formulation of strategy and policy, how policymakers use such intelligence estimates, and how intelligence-policy relations can be improved. These issues are applied to a series of case studies, including the 9/11 attacks and the United States’ intervention in Iraq. The author finds that in both cases the relationship between intelligence and policy broke down.

[1] James J. Wirtz, “The Politicization Paradox”, in Journal of International Intelligence and Counterintelligence (25, 1, Spring 2012, pp. 205-209). Dr. James J. Wirtz is Dean of the School of International Graduate Studies and former Chairman of the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. A former Chairman of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association, he is a past President of the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association. A graduate of the University of Delaware, with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, New York City, Dr. Wirtz is the author and co-author of several books and articles on intelligence and arms control.

[2] Richard K. Betts, “Politicization of Intelligence: Costs and Benefits,” in Betts, Richard K. (2003) and Thomas Mahnken, eds. Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence, p. 59.

[3] Hayden B. Peake, in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies, 19, 2 (Summer/Fall 2012, pp 116-7)

[4] Sinai, Joshua in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, p. 122). These reviews present books which examine national security issues that need to be considered in terrorism and counterterrorism analysis. Joshua Sinai is a Washington, DC-based consultant on counterterrorism studies. He can be reached at: Joshua.sinai@



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