Has Trust in the U.S. Intelligence Community Eroded?

Research Questions

  1. Has trust in intelligence predictions and national estimates been degraded over time? If so, to what degree has trust been degraded?
  2. What internal and external factors have driven perceived or real changes in the relationship between policymakers and the IC?

Over the past several years, media reports and articles by policy and U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) professionals have suggested that the IC is held in increasingly lower regard by some decisionmakers—and also by some in the general public—and that predictions made by IC professionals have had variable success in influencing decisionmakers. The authors of this report explored whether and to what degree trust in intelligence predictions and national estimates has degraded over time and what internal and external factors might be drivers of any perceived or real changes in the relationship between policymakers and the IC.

The degree of perceived bias in intelligence estimates is highly dependent on the presidential administration in power. Also, policymakers most frequently introduce bias in intelligence assessments from a desire to minimize the appearance of dissent, while the IC tends to introduce bias through self-censorship. The research team observed tensions in the relationship between IC professionals and policymakers: The IC has an incentive to elicit positive feedback from policymakers, and there are limited benefits (with regard to both the careers of intelligence professionals and their agencies’ budgets) in receiving negative feedback from policymakers. These tensions could create friction between (1) providing objective information and analysis to policymakers and (2) serving policymakers as customers of intelligence.

Key Findings

The degree of perceived bias in intelligence estimates is highly dependent on the presidential administration in power

  • Some administrations bias and politicize intelligence less, some more. Moreover, each President has a different relationship with the IC.
  • The administration in power is the primary driver of both external and internal bias. The President selects and commands those who seek to introduce external bias. However, it is equally important to note that when the IC self-censors, it is doing so because of how the President governs.

The most common reason for bias from policymakers is the desire to minimize the appearance of dissent

  • Policymakers most commonly seek to introduce bias in intelligence estimates to reduce the appearance of dissent. Administration officials do not want to have to explain to the President, the Congress, or the American people why a part of the executive branch disagrees with a chosen policy.

The most common reason for bias internal to the IC is self-censorship

  • IC analysts and managers have consciously changed or watered down assessments. This self-censorship was largely driven by a desire to stay relevant or an effort to avoid retaliation from policymakers.

There is an inherent tension in the IC-policymaker relationship

  • The IC has an incentive to elicit positive feedback. There are no benefits, either to careers or budgets, for negative feedback. This creates friction between the mission of providing policymakers objective information and serving the policymakers as customers.

Recommendations

  • It is imperative that uniform standards establish what constitutes improper bias and what does not. Although the IC conducts training on the types of bias that can affect analyses, IC analytic standards discuss bias in only the most general way.
  • To adequately investigate claims of improperly biased intelligence, inspectors general should be insulated from the command structure and should have the ability to institute real and enforceable punishments for those who commit offenses.
  • It is the responsibility of the President and the Senate to ensure that the right individuals serve at the highest levels of the IC. The language of U.S. law could be strengthened by laying out what kind of expertise is needed to effectively manage the intelligence agencies of the United States.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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