When the State Department abruptly cancelled an analytic panel on Cuba last week, the decision hardly merited notice in Washington. With so much going on in the world, who cares about a navel-gazing academic exercise on Cuba where the audience would consist mostly of anonymous national security bureaucrats? Even in Cuba, attention shifted sharply towards the crash of Cubana Flight 972, which tragically claimed over 100 lives. Yet before the ill-fated seminar on “Cuba Under President Diaz Canel” vanishes from memory, it is worth reviewing what happened and what it means for U.S. policy towards Cuba.
The facts are at this point well-established. Indeed, the recent Miami Herald headline, “State Department Postpones Event on Cuba After Senator Rubio Protests,” pretty much says it all. The State Department’s Bureau for Intelligence and Research organized the panel for Friday, May 18, as part of its regular seminar series featuring outside experts discussing different countries and world events. The purpose was to examine possible changes under Cuban President Miguel Diaz Canel, who took power on April 19. However, when some conservative members of Congress were tipped off that the speaker line-up featured Cuba experts critical of Trump administration policies, they alerted the White House, which forced the State Department to scuttle the event.
On one hand, this is just another iteration of the long-running version of Kabuki theatre featuring the Cuban exile community, its most vocal representatives in Congress, and the State Department. The storyline is immediately recognizable to anyone with even glancing familiarity with Cuba policy. The State Department (or occasionally another unwitting government agency) plans an event, visit or policy decision that could be interpreted as taking a moderate approach to the Cuban government; once it becomes public, opponents on Capitol Hill quickly engage the political czars at the White House and State Department; before long, the officials in charge of the original event are forced into a humiliating and unexpected retreat, usually by the same bosses who approved the exercise in the first place; an unnamed official spokesperson then pops up to confirm that “the event in question has been postponed,” before declining to give details and vanishing back into the shadows.
This dynamic has played out—in bipartisan fashion involving both Republican and Democratic administrations and members of Congress from both parties—for as long as anyone currently alive and serving in the U.S. government can remember. In this case, the offense was inviting a set of experts and academics—including Phil Peters of the Cuba Research Center, Marguerite Jimenez of the Washington Office on Latin America, William Leogrande of American University, and Carlos Saladrigas of the Miami-based Cuba Study Group—who have favored a policy of openness towards Cuba. Someone important complained, and the event was axed. It’s the oldest story in the book of Cuba policy (Editor’s note: and if you don’t believe it, just read Dan’s 2009 book on Cuba policy: The Cuba Wars.)
However, this most recent episode has one significant difference. The event’s chief sponsor, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (known as INR), organizes roughly 100 such seminars a year on a variety of topics of keen interest to the U.S. national security community. These conferences serve as an important convening mechanism, a clearinghouse for information, and a source of new perspectives. Outside panelists are invited precisely because they hold specialized expertise or contrasting views that differ with U.S. policy. Applying a political or policy litmus test to these discussions would stick a dagger in the heart of the mission of INR, the lead agency for analytic outreach in the U.S. intelligence community—a role that it was unceremoniously stripped of last week, at least when it comes to Cuba.
Therefore, this was not just another meaningless flare up over Cuba policy. Instead, it represents a potentially dangerous breach in the firewall between domestic politics and the intelligence community, resulting from a broader set of system failures across the highest levels of the U.S. government. Elected members of Congress crossed the line from advocating for a set of policies to micromanaging and bullying the intelligence community as it conducted legitimate outreach activities. In response, the White House scrapped the seminar without regard for the broader institutional considerations. Just weeks after vowing to help the State Department “get our swagger back”, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—a former CIA director himself—allowed its lead intelligence bureau to get hamstrung by political concerns. Career leadership at the State Department missed an opportunity to defend the parameters of its mission.
There is a short but clear path from politicizing academic outreach events to politicizing intelligence itself. The Trump Administration now finds itself on that slippery slope with regard to Cuba. At a minimum, it has made it abundantly clear to the national security community engaged with Cuba that analysis that runs counter to the official stance of the administration will not be welcome.
Fortunately, there is still time to correct course. The first step should be for the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to establish voluntary codes of conduct to minimize the instinct to tamper with legitimate outreach activities by government agencies. The National Security Council should convene a meeting to better define lines of authority on future seminars that may occur on other hot button issues, such as Venezuela, Iran and North Korea. Finally, Secretary Pompeo should convene a town hall meeting with the entire Bureau of Intelligence and Research to clear the air and ensure that its mission is understood and respected, with clearly defined guidelines.
If handled correctly, the aftermath of the doomed panel on Cuba offers a teachable moment for the U.S. government. The Trump Administration should seize this opportunity to re-establish appropriate boundaries between politics, policy, and intelligence. In doing so, it would be better prepared to navigate the frictions that will inevitably emerge when more than just opinions are at stake.
Daniel P. Erikson, a managing director at Blue Star Strategies, is a former White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama Administration.