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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Head Spies Should Try to Fend Off Politicians

Intelligence gathering is more art than science, a craft in which information about potential enemies' intentions and abilities is nearly always iffy. Analysts looking at the same facts can reach different conclusions. The answers can prompt presidents to send soldiers to fight and die.

Hearings in Washington last week on the proposed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and the nominee for the country's first director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, illustrate the difficulty of controlling battles for influence among intelligence agencies.

The State Department's former intelligence chief, Carl Ford Jr., last week described Bolton as a "bully" who kicked those beneath him on the organizational chart. Still more damning was Ford's description of Bolton's treatment of an analyst who felt Bolton's language about an alleged Cuban biological weapons program was not supported by facts. Bolton reacted by screaming at the man and throwing him out of his office. He has denied charges that he tried to get the analyst fired, saying he merely wanted to have him reassigned. That still sounds like attempted punishment for not shaping facts to the desired conclusions.

Negroponte, who was the U.S. ambassador to the UN when Iraq's dangers were debated before the invasion, has his own experience with uncertain intelligence presented as certainty. He saw former Secretary of State Colin Powell make the United States' most persuasive case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Powell confidently used photographs and eavesdropped conversations to bolster his argument, yet it turned out the weapons were not there.

The latest investigation of the state of U.S. intelligence found no evidence of pressure to shape intelligence on Iraq's capabilities. Even Bolton aside, the definition of pressure must be changing. CIA analysts had periodically complained in the months prior to war that they were being pressured by superiors.

Negroponte, a career diplomat whose role as ambassador to Honduras during the Iran-Contra scandal continues to trouble many, was vague about his plans for the intelligence agencies. Negroponte's appointment, depending on his authority and skill, could help quell the agencies' dogfight for power, money and access. But those efforts would be undercut by Bolton-like behavior, which feeds the impression that politically acceptable intelligence gets access and the rest gets exile. Negroponte will need strong support from President George W. Bush. It is Bush, not Negroponte, who can ensure that his Cabinet officials do not demand political tidiness from spies.

This comment originally appeared as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.