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"We Cook Estimates to Go"

I could scarcely believe my ears listening to Vice President Dick Cheney on July 24 defending the decision to go to war in Iraq. In light of what is now known, it was hard for me at first to tell whether he was applauding or blaming the intelligence adduced to support that fateful decision.

The centerpiece of Cheney’s speech was a ”mis-overestimate” — the National Intelligence Estimate issued on Oct. 1, 2002. Reciting some of its main judgments, Cheney charged that it would have been ”irresponsible” to shy away from using force to deal with the threat they depicted.

But wait. Has no one told the vice president that the NIE’s conclusions, though described as ”high confidence” judgments, have been thrown into serious doubt by more than four months of experience in Iraq? Where is the nuclear weapons program Iraq was said to be ”reconstituting”? Where are the chemical and biological weapons Iraq was purported to have?

On the very day Cheney spoke, former CIA director John Deutch branded the failure to find such weapons ”an intelligence failure of massive proportions.” How can such a thing be possible?

The National Intelligence Estimate is the most authoritative genre of intelligence analysis provided to the president and his senior advisors. CIA Director George Tenet signs them in his capacity as director of Central Intelligence — that is, head of all the intelligence agencies, which are involved in its preparation. Having chaired a number of NIEs during my 27-year career at the CIA, I am familiar with the intense care and effort that used to go into working one up.

My dismay over how the NIE on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq could have gotten it so wrong prompted a hunt for the reasons. Start with the fact that there was no NIE before the decision for war last summer. Such decisions are supposed to be based on the conclusions of NIE’s, not the other way around. This time the process was reversed.

It does not speak well for a Director of Central Intelligence to shy away from serving up the intelligence community’s best estimate anyway (”without fear or favor,” the way we used to operate). But better no NIE, I suppose, than one served up to suit the preconceived notions of policymakers. But the pressure became intense late last summer after the Bush administration decided to make war.

The marketing rollout for the war was keynoted by the vice president, who in a shrill speech on Aug. 26 charged, ”Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” An NIE was then ordered up, essentially to support the extreme judgments voiced by Cheney, and its various drafts were used effectively to frighten members of Congress into voting to authorize war.

Adding insult to injury, the cockamamie story about Iraq seeking uranium in Niger was accorded three paragraphs in the estimate, prompting State Department intelligence analysts to insist on a footnote branding the story “highly dubious.”

More important, State went on to insist that the evidence that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program was ”inadequate.” As for when Iraq might have a nuclear weapon, State explained that it was “unwilling to project a timeline for completion of activities it does not now see happening.”

So courage, intelligence analysts! It is possible to stand up to pressure to manipulate and market intelligence to justify prior decisions by policymakers, and it’s a lot easier to look in the mirror the next morning.

Many of my former colleagues at the CIA are still holding their noses. One suggested, not wholly in jest, that the biblical verse at the entrance to CIA headquarters — ”You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” — be sent on rotation to the State Department, to be replaced by “We cook estimates to go.”

Ray McGovern chaired NIEs and briefed the President’s Daily Brief during his 27-year career at CIA. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity and co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: rmcgovern@slschool.org

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Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com. A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.  

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