Lessons From Israel on the Politics of Intelligence
The extraordinary battle that is currently unfolding between President-elect Donald Trump and the intelligence community is unprecedented in the United States. While undoubtedly presidents and the CIA are not always on the same page – and presidents have certainly come to regret relying on CIA assessments that turned out to be inaccurate – the outright dismissal of intelligence agencies by the soon-to-be commander in chief is a first.
The ideal situation in democratic countries is for intelligence agencies to be divorced from politics so that political considerations do not interfere with intelligence assessments and intelligence agencies are not tempted to wield their significant power in the political sphere. In picking a very public feud with the CIA, Trump is playing a dangerous game, and looking to Israel yields some clues as to where this skirmish may go as Israel has more experience with the fusion of politics and intelligence than the U.S.
The first lesson from the Israeli experience is that intelligence agencies are able to constrain the policies of an elected leader with whom they do not agree. The infamous but not widely remembered Lavon affair of 1954 is a prime example. Prime Minister Moshe Sharett initiated peace talks with Egypt out of a desire to use it as a stepping stone to a wider regional peace, but in doing so he ran afoul not only of his predecessor David Ben Gurion, but also of hardliners within military intelligence.
A large portion of both the military and intelligence establishments were skeptical that any deal could be struck with Egypt and were particularly wary of the surging Egyptian nationalism championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the midst of the negotiations, Israeli military intelligence – possibly at the behest of Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon or possibly at the behest of the head of Israeli military intelligence – planned a false flag operation to set off bombs in Cairo in an attempt to sow chaos and convince the British to remain in Egypt, thereby delivering a blow to Egyptian nationalist aspirations.
The plot was exposed, but the damage was already done; Sharett’s outreach to Nasser was successfully thwarted, his term as prime minister was short lived, and the renewed Israeli hardline policy toward Egypt later contributed in part to the 1956 Suez crisis. In this case, Israeli intelligence actively set a course different from that of the Israeli prime minister and won, which is a lesson that Trump may want to keep in mind as he appears determined to set a more conciliatory policy toward Russia while the intelligence community unanimously views Russia as harmfully meddling in American internal affairs.
The lesson from Israel regarding intelligence agencies thwarting an elected politician’s priorities is sharpened if intelligence officials believe that they are being marginalized or mistreated, which is where the comparison to what Trump is doing is particularly germane. Rather than reaching back into the history of the mid-20th century, there is a contemporary Israeli case upon which to draw.
The debate in Israel during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first term of his current tenure about whether the IDF should attack Iranian nuclear facilities was conducted under the enormous shadow of the well-known and unsettlingly public dispute between Netanyahu and his military and intelligence chiefs. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, and Mossad director Meir Dagan were all vigorously opposed to a strike on Iran while Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argued in favor. That there would be a dispute between the elected political leadership and the appointed security leadership is not an uncommon or unreasonable phenomenon. However, when Dagan felt that Netanyahu was ignoring the Mossad’s conclusions about the prospects of an Iranian bomb – the Mossad believed that it was not imminent while Netanyahu was insisting in speeches that Iran was about to go nuclear – he took his concerns public in a way that was meant to paint Netanyahu into a corner.
On Dagan’s last day on the job, he briefed a group of Israeli senior journalists to hammer home how big of a mistake he believed Netanyahu was making in forcing a confrontation with Iran, and then upon retiring made a series of speeches in which he dubbed a strike on Iran “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard. Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, continued Dagan’s legacy of constraining Netanyahu on Iran, publicly declaring that Iran was not an existential threat and that people used that term too loosely; this was the thinnest of thinly veiled barbs directed at Netanyahu, who was describing Iran in precisely such a way.
But there is a corollary to this, which is that intelligence agencies that try to impose their will on political leaders may find themselves undermined at the first opportunity. This can take the form of micromanaging intelligence officials themselves, but it can also take the form of casting aspersions on the entire intelligence apparatus as biased or suffering from misguided views. Netanyahu and his political allies have done this with regard to the Shin Bet over its alleged blind spot with regard to the Palestinians, disparaging former Shin Bet chiefs who warn of the dangers of a continuing Israeli presence in the West Bank as delusional leftists. In this case, it is not a set of analytical conclusions that have been challenged, but the competence of Shin Bet heads more broadly.
As the current coalition chair David Bitan said this past summer about Dagan and a host of former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs, “Something happens to you over the years in these positions…over the years the heads of Shin Bet and Mossad become leftists.” This quote will sound familiar to those who have been listening to Trump dismiss the CIA wholesale and insist that because it was mistaken about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction it must be mistaken about Russia over a decade later. In addition, as a result of his past clashes with Dagan, Pardo, Diskin, and others, Netanyahu has made sure that the current intelligence chiefs are people with whom he had close ties prior to their appointments and who are less likely to challenge him. This is one of the reasons that the ever-present friction between Netanyahu and the IDF brass no longer seems to invade the intelligence sphere. It is a reminder that intelligence agencies may win battles with their political overseers, but oftentimes the politicians will make those agencies pay for it down the road.
The upshot of all this is that keeping a country and its citizens safe and formulating successful national security policies is far harder when the politicians and the intelligence professionals are waging a war not against a common external enemy but against each other. In Israel’s case, the perception that Netanyahu and the intelligence community are in opposition undermines confidence in both, and will likely lead to greater and potentially disastrous interventions of the political arena in the intelligence arena and vice versa. Let’s hope that Trump and those in his circle realize the dangers associated with confronting the U.S. intelligence apparatus so that the same mistakes born out of the Israeli experience can be avoided.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.