By Kevin McKenna
On February 25, 2021, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government hosted a webinar featuring Congressman Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). The event was moderated by former Deputy Director – and twice Acting Director – of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Michael Morell. The webinar also served as a live recording of Intelligence Matters, Morell’s CBS Radio podcast. The evening began with opening remarks from Schar School Dean Mark Rozell, the Hayden Center’s namesake founder General Michael Hayden, and its Director Larry Pfeiffer. For more than an hour, Rep. Schiff fielded questions from Morell, who is also a Hayden Center senior fellow, as well as members of the audience about the dangers of politicizing intelligence, the HPSCI’s role overseeing the Intelligence Community (IC), the myriad challenges facing the IC, and how the next generation of intelligence professionals can prepare themselves for success.
Morell and Schiff opened by acknowledging the damage done to the IC and the HPSCI by the politicization and weaponization of intelligence over the past four years. Schiff noted that, “probably the most serious damage was to the reputation of the community for [providing] nonpartisan analysis.” He found no fault in the vast majority of the professional IC workforce but added that “at some of the very highest levels in the IC, including in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence [ODNI], you had appointed officials who were, I think, unquestionably politicizing the intelligence.” Schiff went on to clarify that damage to the reputation of leadership in the American IC has cascading effects both within the community and beyond. It harms the functioning of the IC if career professionals must question whether their appointed leaders will use intelligence products to serve partisan political objectives rather than national security objectives. Equally important is the injury done to America’s relationships with partners and allies who, as Schiff said, “had concerns whether information they shared would be protected or politicized.”
Schiff believes that the caliber of the Biden administration’s appointees to key leadership positions in the IC – notably DNI Avril Haynes, CIA Director Bill Burns, and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen – can repair the damage done and begin to strengthen the IC. He also likes that their collective decades of experience in diplomacy, counterterrorism, and cyber issues are particularly well-suited to address some of the nation’s most critical challenges in the near future.
Partisan politics within the HPSCI can potentially distract the committee from its key role providing civilian oversight of the IC, which Schiff acknowledges, but he also noted that the committee has been able to put politics aside to perform its necessary function. He mentioned that “even over the last four years, where it was so acrimonious on our committee, we nonetheless got the Intelligence Authorization Acts done every year.” Morell wondered if focusing on China might help HPSCI members of both political parties unite around a common cause. Schiff replied that HPSCI – under Republican Chairman Devin Nunes from 2016-2018, and under his own Democratic leadership since then – provided bipartisan recommendations that the IC needed to reposition itself to be able deal with the challenge of China. There was unanimous agreement that China represents a traditional military threat in all domains, but Schiff is particularly concerned by China’s contributions to the global spread of authoritarianism. He said it’s “every bit as much of a threat to democracy globally as anything the Russians were doing.”
Morell and Schiff also discussed the need for the IC to shift its focus toward non-traditional national security threats like climate change and public health crises. Schiff believes that congress wastes too much time debating whether these issues are threats, when it should be investing in the intelligence capabilities to prevent the next pandemic or curtail the next climate-related catastrophe. Schiff also highlighted the need for the nation – both the public and private sectors – to invest is research and development in order to prepare for future security threats. Maintaining America’s advantage as an innovator is one critical element of ensuring its ability the respond to tomorrow’s national security crises.
Another critical element is ensuring that the next generation of intelligence and national security professionals is prepared for the challenges they may face in the future. To that end, one audience member asked Schiff what advice he would give to his younger self. He recalled that his younger self received sage advice from his father that, “if you’re good at what your do, there will always be a demand for you.” Since the IC needs dedicated specialists in nearly every conceivable field, Schiff offered some apt advice to the students in the audience: “Follow your passion.”
Full video of the event can be found at the Hayden Center’s YouTube channel.
Kevin McKenna is a student in the Master’s in International Security program at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. He is a volunteer at the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security and a Student Fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies.