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It was a quite a show at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s worldwide threat assessment briefing on Tuesday, Feb. 24. Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., outdid himself as damage control officer for fallout from failed intelligence.
Sen. Roberts captured the spirit when he told reporters that, although "everybody would have some second thoughts" about the reasons for the war, he believes that Saddam Hussein posed a threat "in some ways more dangerous [than weapons of mass destruction]," because his leadership had deteriorated (sic). Small wonder that Roberts took pains to ensure there would be none who might snicker at the formal briefing.
The casting was a dead giveaway. For the first time since annual threat assessment briefings by the heads of key intelligence agencies began a decade ago, the director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) was disinvited.
Roberts and his Republican colleagues decided to preclude the possibility that some recalcitrant senator might ask why INR was able to get it right on Iraq when everyone else was wrong. Recall that the CIA and other intelligence agencies signed on to the worst National Intelligence Estimate in 40 years–the one issued in October 2002 with the loaded title "Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction." (The only near rival in infamy is the NIE of September 1962, which said that the Soviet Union would not risk trying to put missiles in Cuba. The missiles were already en route.)
Punished For Honesty
INR has been forced to sit with its face to the wall ever since it resisted White House pressure to cook intelligence to the recipe of high policy. CIA Director George Tenet and other malleable intelligence managers acquiesced in that pressure and became accomplices in the Bush administration’s successful effort in the fall of 2002 to deceive Congress into forfeiting to the president its constitutional prerogative to declare war.
INR was the skunk at that picnic. It dissented loudly from some of the most important key judgments of the NIE of October 2002. For example, the canard about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger–impossible on its face and based on a forgery–found its way into the estimate, but INR’s footnote dismissed the story as "highly dubious."
This was no small matter. As Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., noted in an irate letter to the president on March 17, 2002, the Iraq/Niger canard had been "a central part of the U.S. case against Iraq" –a key piece of "evidence" used to sway Congress to give its approval for war.
INR analysts also debunked the fable about aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment for Iraq. Although the tubes had been advertised by National Security Adviser Condolleeza Rice as useful only in a nuclear application, State Department intelligence analysts joined counterparts in the Department of Energy and U.N. specialists in pointing out, correctly, that the tubes were for conventional artillery.
Most obstreperous of all, on the highly neuralgic nuclear issue, INR was unwilling to predict when Iraq’s "nuclear weapons program" was likely to yield a nuclear device. Why? It saw no compelling evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney was correct in claiming that the previous nuclear weapons program had been "reconstituted."
And if that were not enough, State Department intelligence committed several sins not directly connected with the NIE. INR’s most experienced Middle East specialists prepared a study exposing as a chimera the notion that democracy could be brought to the area at the point of a gun. INR also provided invaluable support to the interagency team that worked so hard to prepare sensibly for post-war Iraq. Its analysis and recommendations were trashed by Pentagon neophytes who knew the invasion would be a "cakewalk"–and by Vice President Dick Cheney, who knew that our troops would be seen as liberators.
Who Needs Context?
A bad lot, those State Department intelligence types! Always trying to "put things in context;" unable to see the overriding need to "get with the program."
Last year, INR’s director, Carl Ford, harped on the need for putting the country’s best analysts to work providing policymakers with the context in which threats arise. Ford has retired, but the current acting director, Thomas Fingar, is cut of the same cloth–the kind of straight shooter likely to say things that would embarrass the CIA, the administration and maybe even the committee itself.
Who needs context? Better to let them talk about how many terrorists they can kill than the conditions that breed terrorism. Let them continue to use the paradigm of combating malaria: Surely it’s easier to try to shoot down the mosquitoes as they leave the swamp than to drain the swamp.
And tell Tenet, too, to lay off this context business. The administration is still smarting from that memorandum he sent up two years ago warning that "the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist." That CIA report cited a Gallup poll of almost 10,000 Muslims in nine countries in which respondents described the United States as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased."
Rubbish! They just hate our democracy.
When senators ask–as they undoubtedly will–if the United States is safer now than after the 9/11 attacks, we want to have folks who know the correct answer. Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lowell Jacoby know it has to be "yes." As for the State Department, although Secretary Colin Powell has now been brought into line, you can never be sure his intelligence specialists will see the light and "get with the program."
Better to keep them away.
RAY McGOVERN is a 27-year veteran CIA analyst whose duties included chairing National Intelligence Estimates. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org