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The Use and Misuse of Intelligence in Going to War


Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been challenged by the role of intelligence in making the case for war against Iraq and Syria, respectively.  President Bush had a bad case to make because he wanted to go to war preemptively, which requires excellent intelligence.  The Bush administration didn’t have such intelligence so the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency conspired to create a case virtually out of whole cloth.  Don’t ever forget CIA director George Tenet’s statement that it would be a “slam dunk” to provide intelligence not to convince the White House but the American people.  Lying about intelligence allowed President Bush and Vice President Cheney to go to the American people and the Congress to make a case for an immoral war.

President Bush used a phony National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) engineered by a National Intelligence Officer, Robert Walpole, to provide the intelligence community’s endorsement of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which were non-existent.  Several days later, another National Intelligence Officer, Paul Pillar, managed an unclassified White Paper for the Congress and the American people that repeated the false allegations of the NIE and even omitted the dissents to the estimate from the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  In January 2003, the President used a forged document to argue that Iraq was seeking enriched uranium from Niger, and CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin lied to Secretary of State Colin Powell about the credibility of intelligence for the secretary’s speech to the United Nations.  Powell’s speech was a staged farce with CIA director Tenet and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte sitting side-by-side to witness one of the low points in U.S. diplomacy.  And never forget “slam dunk.”

Meanwhile, President Obama has argued his case so poorly and presented his evidence so ineffectively that the House of Representatives will probably deny the President the ability to use military force.  The misuse of intelligence by the White House and the CIA in 2002-2003 has clearly weakened the instrument of intelligence to support the use of force against Syria.

The distortion of evidence of Iraqi WMD a decade ago has made it difficult to convince the American public, let alone a skeptical international audience, of the need to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.  As a result, the Obama administration must ignore the usual safeguards regarding intelligence sources and methods, and provide the intelligence that is not only convincing but beyond any reasonable doubt. We need to know more about the intercepted communications that allowed the United States to track three days of activity by chemical weapons personnel near an area used to mix chemical weapons.  We have identified the area publicly so there is no reason to withhold information that would be dispositive.

Multiple streams of intelligence, including communications intelligence and satellite photography, not only tracked the rocket and artillery attack, but did so about 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.  This information is so convincing that the administration should be accused of failing to provide warning to the innocent people in the Damascus suburb and should not be accused of politicizing intelligence.  An excellent humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, has confirmed the arrival of several thousand patients at three hospitals in the Damascus area.  The epidemiology is consistent with mass exposure to a nerve agent.  Moreover, we know that the Syrian government has sanctioned the use of chemical weapons “multiple times” in the past year.

At the very least, President Obama could use some of the one hundred videos of the attack, which show hundreds of bodies exhibiting physical signs consistent with exposure to nerve agents.  Since no one, not even Russian President Putin, believes that the Syrian opposition has the capability to fabricate these videos or other information associated with the attack, let alone conduct such operations, the so-called debate over the provenance of the attack would be laughable if the events were not so horrific.

Finally, since the Obama administration has an intercept “involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive,” according to the U.S. assessment, that confirms the use of chemical weapons and his concern with UN discovery of evidence, the tape itself should be played.  Surely, in view of what we have just learned about the intercept capabilities of the National Security Agency, no one in Syria (or anywhere else for that matter) will be shocked to learn that the United States monitors high-level communications in a zone of interest.

The Obama administration should be able to convince the American people that Iraq, where there were no chemical weapons, is not Syria, where chemical weapons have been used against civilians.  There is nearly a century’s worth of international agreements and treaties that prevent the use and even stockpiling of chemical weapons.  If the United States cannot protect the integrity of important conventions on weapons of mass destruction and non-proliferation, then the integrity of the United States in the international arena is also at risk.

Melvin A. Goodmana senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.  He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower” (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of “Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA,” “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism,” and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: A Whistleblower at CIA” (City Lights Publishers, 2015).  Goodman is the national security columnist for

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