When the Israel lobby launched its frantic campaign to obstruct the appointment of Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), it was as though a notorious anti-Zionist was just about to torpedo US-Israeli relations. The idea that Ambassador Freeman could have played an important role in improving America’s national security and its position in the world apparently didn’t enter the minds of those who saw him as a threat.
Now that the furor has died down, Freeman has given an interview with Jim Lobe from the Inter Press Service and he outlines the approach that he had hoped to bring to the handling of intelligence and its role in government. What Freeman touches upon actually reaches far beyond the issue of intelligence and points to fundamental questions about how information is viewed and how its use shapes our lives.
This is how the issues were laid out in the interview:
Jim Lobe: Because much of the talk around Washington after your appointment – before, during and after your withdrawal – has so narrowly focused on a few issues, there was never much public debate about what you hoped to accomplish in the job of NIC chairman.
Chas Freeman: I was, frankly, approaching this with a fairly well thought out but still hypothetical focus on process with some additional questions of substance that I wanted to explore. I say hypothetical, because you never know until you encounter bureaucratic or other realities whether your notion of what needs to be done is in fact realistic or feasible.
But my sense was there have been several problems with the intelligence community and its output in recent years. Obviously, there’s been a problem of quality, illustrated along with the other problem – credibility – very nicely in the run-up to the Iraq War and the credulity with which the intelligence community responded to assertions by exile and special interest groups and others, and its willingness to slice and dice its conclusions to suit the political taste of its principal consumers.
Jim Lobe: What sorts of procedural changes were you thinking about implementing?
Chas Freeman: In general, I would’ve tried very hard to encourage members of the intelligence community to use classified information as a form of corroboration for information that is not classified, or is not terribly sensitive even if it is classified. In other words, I would urge analysts to write down rather than write up terms of levels of classification.
The theory here is that, whereas many people in the (NIC) have tended to see the value of intelligence as directly proportional to its level of classification, this, in fact, misunderstands the nature of intelligence. Intelligence is simply information that is relevant to statecraft or decision-making. If it’s on the front page of the Financial Times or Inter Press or has been stolen out of the Kremlin safe, the key question is what is its reliability and how much can you rely upon it in understanding the situation you confront and in forming policies to deal with that situation.
I must say much of the criticism of my appointment focused on the apparently horrifying possibility that I might actually produce intelligence that might not conform to political convenience or correctness but reached some other conclusion – intelligence that wouldn’t fit the preconceptions or policy preferences of its consumers. And that would be unacceptable.
The tendency to tie the value of intelligence to its level of classification is the product of a philosophical view of information that has profound implications.
The crucial issue is whether information is viewed as a repository of truth or power.
Is information valued because it illuminates understanding or because it can serve as a means to an end?
Information as a repository of power needs to be guarded and channeled in the most effective way. Its value becomes diluted through loss of ownership.
Information as a repository of truth acquires value if it can be tied to other information through a process of exchange. Its value is enhanced through the relinquishment of ownership.
Democracy rises or falls on its ability to sustain the free flow of information. As a practical necessity that flow needs to be managed yet if this is treated as an exercise in the control of power, democratic governance itself will be undermined.
Those who saw Freeman as a threat were looking through the prism of information-as-power. They thought he would be a gatekeeper who held back information that would serve their agenda while promoting the flow of information whose dissemination would act against their interests. What they failed to see was that Freeman never shared their presuppositions about the nature of information.