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Interview: Sam Adams Award-Winner Thomas Fingar
On the morning of a controversial event at the Oxford Union, Professor Thomas Fingar already knew that a certain speech made by video-link from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London was going to overshadow his own address.
Fingar, a Stanford academic, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, is the 2012 recipient of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. The accolade acknowledges his part in the 2007 Nation- al Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which found that the country had halted key parts of its nuclear weapons programme. The estimate reached a different judgment than the 2005 report, which had concluded that Iran was going ahead with “building the bomb”. A US led war on Iran seemed to be looming, but thanks to Fingar’s new intelligence work, the calls for military action died down.
Wednesday night saw the Sam Adams Award ceremony take place at the Oxford Union. Several former recipients were due to speak, amongst them WikiLeaks founder and ‘political asylee’, Julian Assange.
Fingar said he was “pleased to be recognised” by the Sam Associates. However, Fingar added that “the televised address (by Julian Assange) is a juxtaposition that I had not anticipated.” As an intelligence professional and, crucially, as one who is considered to have shown integrity within that system, Fingar is critical of the robbery of US government documents, which were then posted on WikiLeaks. “Is it harmful? Unquestionably.” Fingar particularly pointed to the revelation of sources as “damaging to the entirety of the [intelligence] profession,” and considers the theft to be a criminal offence. “You’ve got a crime that was committed here. A theft, hundreds of thousands of documents, and a break-down in procedure that didn’t catch it earlier.”
According to Fingar, the effect will be “a degradation of information available. Where people provide the information they’ll provide it with more restraints.” “I suspect for a time there will be less detailed information supplied to diplomats (and others working with the government).” He stresses the impact this will have on intelligence analysis. “Those attempting to act with full understanding will be worse off than before. So it’ll be harder to do the job that I used to do.” It was no surprise that when asked by an undergraduate at the Union whether he had “warm words” for Assange, Fingar replied, “Good luck.”
Fingar stands in contrast to many of the whistle-blowers and campaigners with whom he shared the stage on Wednesday. He does not “equate integrity with whistle-blowing,” and firmly believes that his highly praised work on the NIE was nothing out of the ordinary. In his acceptance speech, he also sought to persuade his audience that integrity in intelligence is far from unusual.
“The quality of the work – the objectivity – is not rare, it is the norm, by design and reasons of pro- fessionalism,” he had asserted ear- lier in the day. “I didn’t depart from normal procedures in doing this.”
Fingar faces down the skepticism of many who argue that intelligence analysis is influenced by policy-makers. He says that intelligence has come a long way from the infamous 2002 report made on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Damningly, he describes it as being “cobbled together in extreme haste, and reading like a legal briefing, trying to “prove the guy’s guilty. It’s a different purpose than asking, where do the facts go?”
Indeed, Fingar believes that the task “should have been redefined by George Tenet,” who was then Director of Central Intelligence. They were being asked to “tell me everything you know, not assess reliability.” It was a “data dump”, which “subordinated the role of analysis.” Despite dissenting voices on the “key nuclear information,” the “Iraq WMD paper had zero effect on policy.” And as he stresses, the point of intelligence is to supply policy-makers with the truth. “The understanding in policy circles is that an intelligence community that doesn’t tell you the truth is completely pointless.”
He views the position of the intelligence community as “in-house experts. We’re not an opposition party, or an op-ed writer, or an out- side scholar who thinks they’re smarter than all these dumb politicians. It’s the way the system is supposed to work.” Following the debacle of the Iraq WMD paper, Fingar and others set about making sure it could not happen again. Analysts were to be specifically trained in the importance of objectivity. Draft pieces of analysis work had to undergo peer review by other analysts before being submitted to policy makers. The existence of different analytical judgments must be conveyed to policymakers, and public versions of classified documents must accurately reflect the original text. All that would be redacted was sensitive information about sources and methods of gaining information, and diplomatic process.
These procedures were firmly established by the time all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies began to compile the Iran NIE. And when it became apparent that new intelligence persuaded the Intelligence Community that it would be necessary to change a key judgment on Iran, Fingar was unconcerned about what the reaction might be. “It’s not something that we ever talked about or ever worried about. We’re not in the popularity business. Our obligation was to call it as we see it.”
Were there any negative reactions from policy staff? “No, to the contrary... Even from the president...I got a very very positive message from the president.” But Fingar was subjected to harsh attacks by certain sections of the press. Labelled as ‘hyperpartisan’ and ‘anti-Bush’, commentators called his political allegiances into question, and slandered his objectivity. Fingar dismisses this as “silly,” and points out the “comical aspect”: why would President Bush have appointed him if he was indeed anti-Bush? “Why did he put him in charge of the briefing that he gets every day? There was a factual nonsense in this. I felt no need to respond.”
The estimate had concluded that Iran had ended its weaponisation programme as early as 2003, because of pressure and scrutiny from the international community. “Diplomacy had worked. That was the conclusion that the critics clearly didn’t like.” Their attitude was, “Don’t deal with the judgement, deal with these evil miscreants in the state department. I knew that was going to have no effect on me. I did worry about the NIO (National Intelligence Officer, Vann Van Diepen), because he was younger. It probably prevented him from being nominated for a confirmable position in the State Department.”
Sitting in his Stanford House office (Fingar is teaching at Oxford this term), with snow falling outside and classical music coming from his computer, Fingar sounds his first note of regret. But his overall optimistic assessment of intelligence practices serves as a balance to the pessimistic experiences of British whistle-blowers like Annie Machon, forced to go into hiding after revealing wrong-doings by intelligence agents. The consensus amongst these former award winners? We need more Tom Fingars to help keep integrity central to intelligence.