In November, the US Senate erupted into rancor over a Democratic tactic to force the body into a secret, closed door session. Despite bitter complaints from Republicans, the stratagem worked, and now a long deferred investigation of White House influence on the U.S. intelligence community will commence.
This event and the furor earlier over the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby for leaking a CIA agent’s name to columnist Robert Novak have a common theme: the damage to the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to gather and report accurately information on threats to the nation.
Reports of these events have thus far ignored the source of the problem: an intelligence establishment made dysfunctional by efforts to cow and politicize it from the White House. This is, to borrow from Sherlock Holmes, the dog that didn’t bark.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in 2003 when it became clear that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, there were investigations into how U.S. intelligence got it so wrong. In 2004, two of them, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former UN inspector David Kay’s Iraq Survey Group, issued their reports. Both contained scathing criticism but also carefully avoided any examination of political interference. The Senate committee chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would look into it after the 2004 elections but later decided it wasn’t worth the bother. More recently, under duress and in the spotlight, he changed his mind again.
The new inquiry should not have been necessary; it could have been resolved by the bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, known as the Silberman-Robb Commission. The Commission’s report initially looked promising. It unmistakably laid out that the United States has a dysfunctional and inadequate intelligence-gathering and analysis system. It noted:
“We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure. Its principal causes were the Intelligence Community’s inability to collect good information about Iraq’s WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than good evidence.”
However, the Commission chose to overlook the painfully obvious political influence. It did not address the climate of policy-level expectations that indirectly demanded one type of answer when, for example, a secretary of defense declared one piece of dubious evidence “bullet proof,” and the impact of repeated searches for analysis when someone of the Vice President’s stature repeatedly went to intelligence facilities to ask the same question, again and again. And, the Commission chose not to examine what was done with intelligence products in response.
Perhaps one of the report’s most extraordinary omissions was the failure to acknowledge the existence of the highly political Office of Special Plans within the Pentagon that sought to discredit any intelligence that did not support a neo-conservative agenda.
Put another way, the crux of the issue is the relationship between the producer and consumer. While the precise dimensions of the relationship vary from one administration to another, one thing is clear. For it to work properly there must be a clear division between production and consumption.
Sadly, that is not the case today. Currently, the intelligence community appears to suffer from a specific form of ‘group-think:’ analysis characterized by uncritical acceptance of a prevailing point of view imposed from above. Contradictory evidence is discarded; policies are rationalized collectively, and dissenters and those seeking more inquiry are to be attacked.
Judging by George Tenet’s famous remark to President Bush that “it’s a slam dunk case” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, group think is at its worst at the very top. However, it is not as apparent whether yet another inquiry, even one demanded by political opponents, will awaken a sleeping dog that no politician from any party will want to be too alert.
DAVID ISENBERG is a senior research analyst at the British American Security Information Council and is an Adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is the author of “See, Speak, and Hear No Incompetence: An Analysis of the Findings of The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction” from BASIC.