Truth. It’s a loaded word. From early in life, most of us learn that there are moments of truth—and that we must face the truth. The truth can be ugly, hidden, or hard. It’s no surprise, then, that the truth sometimes hurts—but it always matters.
We see evidence of this in the back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and his top intelligence officials—and especially in what the Atlantic magazine describes as “Trump’s lingering anger” over the recent congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. Among other things, Coats used his recent congressional testimony to express concerns about the Islamic State (ISIS) “resurging” and “continuing to plot attacks,” cautioned that North Korea is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons,” and concluded that Russia and other hostile foreign actors “will view the 2020 US elections as an opportunity to advance their interests” via disinformation and influence operations akin to 2016.
This candid analysis drew the ire of the president, who has declared victory over ISIS, promised that there is “no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” and dismissed the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the US political system as a “hoax.”
Given Trump’s comments during his press conference with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin last July, Coats likely expected some sort of blowback from the White House. To his credit, he spoke the truth anyway.
We seldom stop to think about it in this context, but the mission of America’s intelligence community, at its core, is to search for and speak the truth. That may sound odd or incongruent given that the intelligence community deals in a world of secrets, shadows, and deception. But the pursuit of truth is a central part of the intelligence community’s work. Rather than taking my word for it, consider the words of the intelligence community.
At the lobby area of the CIA’s original headquarters, visitors are greeted by these words, “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In fact, this passage from the Gospel of John serves as the agency’s motto. People of faith believe that finding the truth—and confessing what is true—can bring freedom. For the CIA’s founders, Christ’s words would serve to underscore the importance of searching for truth in the service of free government.
Similarly, Coats has explained that his charge is “to seek the truth and speak the truth.” Indeed, the Washington Post reports that his decision to produce only one version of the National Intelligence Strategy (rather than classified and declassified versions, as in the past) is part of an effort to make the work and findings of the intelligence community more transparent. “Through transparency, we will strengthen America’s faith that the intelligence community seeks the truth—and speaks the truth,” Coats contends. “This is not a limitation on us. This will make us stronger. It earns trust. It builds faith, and boosts our credibility around the world for our mission.” And most important, “It is the right thing to do.”
Make no mistake: the purpose here is not to connect the work of America’s intelligence community with the Word of God, but rather to highlight the importance of truth—seeking it, speaking it, accepting it, recognizing its existence—in the defense of a free society. Whatever the intelligence community’s shortcomings—and it has many, like all imperfect institutions created by imperfect people—it pays to recall that Americans have always believed freedom and truth are linked.
Consider the Declaration of Independence. In this assertion that America would henceforth be free from the Old World, Thomas Jefferson devoted his most memorable lines to truth and freedom: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But the truth is under attack.
The intelligence community faces two obstacles in carrying out its truth-seeking mission.
The first is obvious: our enemies generally lack the institutions—even the values—that promote truth, pursue truth, and expose falsehood. So, it should come as no surprise that they lie (about what they’re doing and not doing), cheat (on treaties and other international agreements), and steal (intellectual property, secrets, and information). Indeed, it seems the enemies of freedom are always enemies of truth:
- Nazi Germany was built on the lie of racial superiority. Hitler lit the fuse of war by claiming Poland had invaded Germany.
- The Soviet tyranny sustained itself by systematically concealing the truth and enforcing a “universal mendacity.” The manmade famines that killed millions, the purges that disappeared tens of thousands, the promise to hold free elections in Poland, the invasion of Afghanistan, the shootdown of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the Chernobyl disaster—Moscow lied about all of these and much more. True to form (pun intended), Putin, the former KGB officer, is shaking the West with a sophisticated disinformation campaign.
- Not until 2010 did China correct its history books to reflect the fact that North Korea—not the United States—started the Korean War. And although it’s responsible for an unparalleled cyber-siege of American industry and government, Xi Jinping’s China denies it all.
- Tehran’s tyrants have been gaming the international community—while lying about, concealing, and denying the existence of their nuclear program—for a quarter-century. Only persistent and concerted intelligence efforts forced Tehran to admit the truth.
This contempt for truth among our enemies is a key reason we have 17 different intelligence-related agencies, each with its own focus and specialty.
The second obstacle facing the intelligence community as it strives to seek and speak the truth is arguably more pernicious and surely more surprising: we live in a culture devoid of overarching truths and awash in postmodern relativism—a culture characterized by truth in quotation marks. In our civic life, as historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values.” In the classroom (oblivious to the irony), young minds are taught there is no absolute truth except one—the absolute which declares there are no absolutes. And television, movies, and news outlets constantly tell us the only wrong behavior is judging something to be wrong.
As a consequence, it’s increasingly difficult for the intelligence community to convey the truth it discovers to the American people and their elected representatives.
This is highly corrosive for a nation founded on “self-evident” “truths”—objective, absolute truths we all once agreed upon. These have been replaced by subjective, individual versions of truth that, by definition, cannot all be true.
This second obstacle facing the intelligence community represents an enormous challenge. After all, sharing the truth—whether we label it a virtue, a historical fact, or an intelligence finding—with someone who doesn’t know the truth but accepts that it’s out there, somewhere, is far easier than trying to convince someone that the truth exists. And that’s where the intelligence community—and those who recognize there are still absolutes in this world—find themselves.
Related, even those of us who accept that there’s such a thing as objective truth increasingly disagree on where to find it. The common ground that once represented truth to the American people—things like the Ten Commandments, the founding documents, the morning paper, and evening news—have been supplanted by situational ethics, selfie narcissism, and echo-chamber social media. Our enemies know this and are exploiting this to great effect (see here, here, here, and here). And that’s how the erosion of truth impacts the security of the United States: if we cannot agree on what is true and where to find the truth—even on whether there’s such a thing as truth—how can we develop, build support for, and carry out policies that defend our nation and deter our enemies?
This post-truth world may seem new, but perhaps it’s not. Recall that it was a twisting of truth that unraveled the harmony God intended for creation. The assault on truth began with a seemingly harmless question: “Did God really say…?” That was enough to trigger the corrosion of truth. From there, the ancient struggle between truth and falsehood devolved into a struggle over whether there’s even such a thing as truth. Indeed, long before the term postmodernism was coined, Pontius Pilate dismissively asked Jesus, “What is truth?”—the same question today’s post-truth, postmodern America asks.
What’s interesting and telling about Pilate’s exchange with Jesus is that there’s no evidence Jesus persuaded Pilate of anything.
There’s a hard lesson in that for those who strive to seek and speak the truth today: keep seeking it and speaking it—in school and at work, to clients and customers, to supervisors and subordinates, at board meetings and staff meetings, in congressional testimony and memorandums, at home and abroad—and trust that some in our post-truth world might be persuaded by it, guided by it and encouraged by it. As Director Coats reminds it, the truth makes us stronger.
Photo Credit: Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, left, and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr. listen to questions from lawmakers during the Worldwide Threat Assessment on January 29, 2019, on Capitol Hill. Defense Intelligence Agency photo by Brian Murphy.