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There is a lot of talk and pearl-clutching, at the moment, about possible politicization of intelligence services. It usually involves current of former intelligence or counter-intelligence officials making statements about domestic political events. This is usually seen as a problem.

I would like to understand better whether it really is a problem. The simplest argument that I have heard is that it's not a big problem because it's simply government employees (or former employees) exercising their 1st Amendment rights.

On the balance, this actually seems plausible. Even if people have personal biases, when it comes to professional work, one would expect that people dedicated to their jobs would go through the extra effort to ensure the quality of their work is not influenced by their personal preferences.

Let me make an analogy from the coding world (since this is where most users of this site probably spend their time). If I find out that there is a hot new language that solves a number of my problems in how I do work on the daily basis, I maybe enamored to learn more about it. I might even tell some of the people with whom I work about this language and describe it with a degree of passion. But it doesn't mean that I would abandon my daily work of writing in the language in which my employer's projects are already developed.

What is the difference between this scenario and the way things would be in the intelligence world if the intelligence operatives were open about their political preferences?

  1. Do they have any extraordinary domestic powers which can be easily abused if they are "Republican" intelligence agents vs "Democratic" intelligence agents?

  2. Are they not expected to be severely punished if they withhold information from Democratic vs Republican (or vice versa) politicians?

  3. Anything else I can't think of?

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    "Politicization" usually means something else, namely appointing people deep within the ranks on political basis and making the intelligence apparatus [thus] subservient to the current party in power... something like in Turkey. – Fizz Dec 15 '19 at 20:29
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    So there are sub-questions; should intelligence personnel be counted as civil servants or military staff, and if civil servants are they at the level of white house staff who are expected to be political appointments. And the history of intelligence services being anti-left. – pjc50 Dec 15 '19 at 22:45
  • (also the distinction between political tendencies and actual parties; it's not impossible for police to be Democrats, but a lot of people would argue that it's structurally impossible for police to be left wing) – pjc50 Dec 15 '19 at 22:47
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    @Fizz I think the Turkey situation is more accurately described as a police state rather than a democratic country with politicized security forces. Turkey is now a few steps closer to Egypt in that respect. But that's a different argument... or is it? Maybe the distinction is between security forces and the intelligence services. I can see how politicization of security forces could be a short road to a 1-party state. – grovkin Dec 16 '19 at 1:16
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    I'm on board with Fizz on this. People being human and having their own political views is generally not considered politicization of intelligence services. – PoloHoleSet Dec 16 '19 at 16:58
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What do you mean by 'politicization'?

The flipside to your question (Why are intelligence agents allowed to have views on political matters) is intertwined, and I attempt to address it along the way.


If someone in the FBI knows that a local mayor is accepting large bribes, then what surprise is it if the agent doesn't like the mayor, and supports their opponent? It'd be an abuse of the term 'politicization' to label the agent's views as 'political' merely because it involves a politician - as if it were a failing, to let facts influence one's judgement.

On the other hand, it is necessary that beyond merely being impartial, you also appear impartial, else you risk half the country ignoring the facts that you work so hard to determine. Many loud voices currently equate "opinion" with "bias". This is a fully and dangerously false equivalence, but must be taken into account when trying to get things done.

Intelligence services are expected to serve the country, and the country alone. Such public servants are permitted to have opinions, and express them (generally), but are expected to perform their job justly, regardless of their personal preferences. That is to say, they are already allowed to have political positions, are already expected to follow the law even if they disagree with it, and are already expected to respond equally to government officials who share their beliefs as those who do not.

Creating or allowing actual, visible, 'republican' and 'democrat' labels/camps within those services, puts them (in appearance, and potentially in practice) under the authority of the respective political parties, and wholly invalidates their impartiality. It would codify a dynamic that shouldn't exist. Furthermore, I have extreme doubt that there are many people in those institutions with views that align fully with the R or D side, and so supporting the labeling of agents/institutions with one letter or the other would be inaccurate, in addition to being harmful.


See edit, depending on how you define "politicization".

TLDR; Politicization is something done to a group, by someone else, and in this case, would consist purely of applying broad, unhelpful, discrediting, labels to individuals and institutions which should not be so confined. Anything which supports that politicization is harmful to the institution's impartiality, or at least the the public's opinion of their impartiality, and therefore the institution's ability to act and/or persuade other people/institutions to act. The weaker a truly impartial institution is, the more easily a strong, biased, group will be able to take its place.


As a follow-up, in case any of that reads to someone else (probably not OP) like "Agents can have biases, they just have to hide them" - Bias only comes into play if facts and truth are ignored in pursuit of a conclusion; it doesn't matter if a conclusion was desired from the start or not, if the facts end up leading there.


Edit for definitional issues - "Politicizing something" has two definitions - the main one I'm used to is about applying a particular political flavor or filter or label to an otherwise non-political event or group. Essentially, talking as if something were merely political, when it isn't, or potentially seeing only the political, party vs. party, side of an issue.

The other definition is more straight-forward and less abused, but I simply haven't seen it very much - the process of a person/group/institution actually becoming more political over time.

I believe OP means the latter sense, but I believe the answer boils down to the same thing stated above.

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    Politicization would be if a spy knows that the mayor of his town has a mistress and the spy keeps it to himself because the guy running against the mayor wants to cut the school budget and the spy has a kid in that school. It's not illegal to have a mistress. Also it's not illegal to keep that info private nor to reveal it to the papers. So the spy can use his politics as a guide for his actions. – grovkin Dec 16 '19 at 21:25
  • If the agent learned that information solely through their job, it may well be illegal to reveal it to the papers. I assume that's not exactly what you're getting at, but I'm not sure what is. Employees personally and privately exercising their political rights, based on everything they know is enerally already allowed. Creating/allowing known, public, political factions within an agency, or letting an agency become known as supporting party X at the expense of justice (even if it isn't actually doing that) is always going to be extremely unhealthy for the org. – HammerN'Songs Dec 19 '19 at 21:24
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Question 1

The absolutely do. You're talking about the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and a host of other intelligence agencies you probably never even heard of, all of which include large workforce with the ability to handle classified information that, if improperly released will get good people killed. You can look at every history book to find that in almost every military defeat, the cause of the defeat was do to a failure of intelligence, be it an accidental leak (The Union forces stumbled on Confederate Battle plans that fell out of a general's pockets... Gettysburg.), a cracked code (Breaking the Japanese Navel Code resulted in the decimation of the Japanese Navy Air Wings at Midway) to outright sabatoge of the intelligence apparatus (one man, Codenamed GARBO, single handedly saved all the allied Forces in D-Day by giving his German Intelligence Contacts information that convinced them the Normandy landing was a feint... convincing Hitler to prepair for an invasion that was not coming from an army that never existed instead of redeploying to the real problem). Every soldier for your nation is counting on the intelligence agencies of their government to come home after the war in something other than a flag draped box.

And that's the only reward intelligence agents truly get for their work. You cannot go home to the wife or kids and answer "Honey how was your day today?" when your response has to be "I can neither confirm nor deny how my day was today" at best or "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you at worst." Either way makes for an unpleasant dinner conversation.

And what's worse, sometimes there are spies... and they tend to be the people who are supposed to have your back. And you have to spy on them as well. Contrary to popular belief, most spies aren't natives of a foreign country... but your fellow citizens who for one reason or another felt it was better that your nation doesn't have the edge. So there are tools in place to watch people who could be inside threats... not because of a suspicion of anyone... but because most intelligent officers figure the other sides are doing the exact same thing to them as they did. So there does exist tools to find bad actors at home... and you have to have a very damn good reason to get to use them because those same tools can be used on the very people the intelligence community silently protects.

Question 2

Actually, it's expected that you can be punished for not serving the duly elected President regardless of how you voted for him to the best of your abilities and you will get punished for it. For starters, you will be fired at best and fined or jailed at worse... and this isn't an espionage charge... this is a violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts executive employees from taking part in certain political actions. Firstly, you cannot be political while on duty or use any government equipment to send out political statements in favor or against elected officials and candidates from office. There are certainly watercooler debates and policies, but at the end of the day, if your politics affects your job performance, which is to get the information the President Needs to have to effectively Command the Military, then you will get fired.

At home it's a different matter and you are allowed to speak your mind or protest any cause or associate with political parties so long as you aren't actively campaigning for a partisan politician (hint all of them) while making money for working for an elected official, because it gets awkward when the guy you called an idiot has victory and is now the man who signs your paycheck.

And the reason for this is Presidents come and go... at most they'll be your boss for 8 years... but if you stay in the intelligence services for your entire career, you'll be serving under 4, 5, or even 6 different presidents before you retire and at the end of the day, politics aside, not President wants to right the letter of condolence to the next of kin when there isn't a fault in intelligence... let alone writing them because someone was subverting the President.

Ultimately, whether the intel agent likes the President or not does not matter so long as they do their job. They were never asked by the voters to make a tough choice... that's what the President is supposed to do... Intelligence only makes sure that the President has the best information they can get to him to make the call. The lowly agent might disagree with his commander and chief on any number of policies... but their job is to make sure the guy who has to give the orders does so knowing the risks... because neither the President nor the Intelligence community are in the business of getting soldiers killed for no good reason.

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In 65 I believe, there was quite a bit of rumor and scandal about the Renseignements Generaux (FBI/MI5 equivalent) having spied on Francois Mitterand, then candidate of the French Socialist Parti. De Gaulle ended up not using the spied-upon infidelity in his campaign.

It is obviously very unhealthy when members of intelligence services start to get too chummy with, or too opposed to, current politicians. This case, btw, is also why I take excessive and/or non-warrant-driven telecommunication interception capabilities by the secret services to be a problem - sure they protect the public against plots by terrorists. And, sure, most of don't have that much to worry about. But besides the risk of a full-blown police state, there is the intermediate stage where the security services are used for political leverage - a la Watergate, except that they are less likely to get caught.

Don't confuse this for the better known story of Mitterand using the RG to pressure people not to release info about his illegitimate daughter by a(same?) mistress.

1965, when Francois Mitterand and his mistress were being listened to (in French)

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  • I almost downvoted. The RG were ripe with scandals but they were not the FBI/MI5 equivalent. The FBI is a very different beast but to the extent that an analogy is possible at all the MI5 equivalent was the DST. – Relaxed Dec 29 '19 at 8:28

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