Earlier this week, McClatchy’s D.C. bureau published a story relaying the concerns of “more than 15 senior and mid-level U.S. intelligence, military and diplomatic officials”—all of whom requested anonymity—that top Obama administration officials are downplaying the threat that Taliban control in portions of Afghanistan would pose to the U.S. The article is full of some pretty heated stuff; here’s a taste (emphasis added):
Recent U.S. intelligence assessments have found that the Taliban and other Pakistan-based groups that are fighting U.S.-led forces have much closer ties to al Qaida now than they did before 9/11, would allow the terrorist network to re-establish bases in Afghanistan and would help Osama bin Laden export his radical brand of Islam to Afghanistan’s neighbors and beyond, the officials said…
“It is our belief that the primary focus of the Taliban is regional, that is Afghanistan and Pakistan,” one senior U.S. intelligence official said. “At the same time, there is no reason to believe that the Taliban are abandoning their connections to al Qaida, which has its sights set beyond the region”…
This official said that the White House has been “spoon-feeding distorted information” to a few news organizations in an effort to build public and congressional support for a policy that another U.S. official said “rests on the nonsensical notion that you can separate some of the Taliban from other Taliban, al Qaida and other groups, when in reality those groups are more closely allied today than they’ve ever been.”
“I read in the paper that there are only 100 al Qaida fighters in Afghanistan,” said another U.S. intelligence official, referring to an Oct. 4 CNN interview with National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired Marine general. “That might be true at a particular point in time, but an hour later there might be 200 or 250. The distinction between Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan is meaningless because as a practical matter, the border between them doesn’t exist, and all the groups share sources of financing, training and weapons.”
Seems pretty clear, right? Now consider this passage from a Rajiv Chandrasekaran article published last week in The Washington Post (again, emphasis added):
Although the Taliban welcomed Osama bin Laden when it ruled Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officials say they believe there are few, if any, links between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan today and senior al-Qaeda members
The disparity is all the more striking because both stories are about disagreements among top civilian decision-makers and others with a hand in shaping policy, and neither paints the Obama administration in a particularly flattering light. But on one of the central questions of the debate—how big a threat the Taliban poses to America’s interests—the two articles have “intelligence sources” coming to diametrically opposed conclusions.
So what’s a reader to do? It’s hard to see how to make sense of the discrepancy, given the information provided in these accounts. How are we to assess the credibility of a claim if all we know is that it comes from an unnamed “intelligence official”?
There are a number of things reporters can do to provide a more complete picture, and to give readers tools to sort out competing claims. Here are a few:
1. Provide more detail about sources. One of the big lessons of the Iraq debate was that the “intelligence” world is not a monolith—in addition to the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department have their own intelligence divisions, which use different approaches and sometimes come to different conclusions. Institutional affiliations matter, and noting them wouldn’t involve blowing a source’s identity.
2. Explain a source’s bureaucratic or parochial interests. The McClatchy story does not do this nearly as explicitly as it could. Here’s the story’s lead:
As the Obama administration reconsiders its Afghanistan policy, White House officials are minimizing warnings from the intelligence community, the military and the State Department about the risks of adopting a limited strategy focused on al Qaida, U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officials told McClatchy.
To put that another way: “intelligence, diplomatic and military officials” saw themselves losing the internal debate, so they took their concerns to the press. That’s doesn’t necessarily disqualify their perspectives—it’s essentially what whistleblowers do—but the possibility that bureaucratic turf fights are affecting the analysis has to be taken into account.
3. Explain a source’s track record. When a source in a McClatchy story compares Obama now to Bush during the run-up to the Iraq war, it carries some extra weight, because McClatchy famously got that story right by listening to the right (anonymous) people. But are the sources on the Obama story the same sources? And if so, is there good reason to believe that, having been right the first time, they’re right again? The answer to both questions may be yes, but it’s not clear from the story.