FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

"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

More articles by:

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.  

July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science – Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
Gary Leupp
When Did Russia Become an Adversary?
Uri Avnery
“Not Enough!”
Dave Lindorff
Undermining Trump-Putin Summit Means Promoting War
Manuel E. Yepe
World Trade War Has Begun
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Stomps Britain
Wim Laven
The Best Deals are the Deals that Develop Peace
Kary Love
Can We Learn from Heinrich Himmler’s Daughter? Should We?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Franklin Lamb, Requiescat in Pace
Weekend Edition
July 13, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Brian Cloughley
Lessons That Should Have Been Learned From NATO’s Destruction of Libya
Paul Street
Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: In the Land of Formula and Honey
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s Intellectuals Bow to the Queen of Chaos 
Michael Collins
The Affirmative Action Silo
Andrew Levine
Tipping Points
Geoff Dutton
Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times
Ajamu Baraka
Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: a Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez
David Rosen
The New McCarthyism: Is the Electric Chair Next for the Left?
Ken Levy
The McConnell Rule: Nasty, Brutish, and Unconstitutional
George Wuerthner
The Awful Truth About the Hammonds
Robert Fisk
Will Those Killed by NATO 19 Years Ago in Serbia Ever Get Justice?
Robert Hunziker
Three Climatic Monsters with Asteroid Impact
Ramzy Baroud
Europe’s Iron Curtain: The Refugee Crisis is about to Worsen
Nick Pemberton
A Letter For Scarlett JoManDaughter
Marilyn Garson
Netanyahu’s War on Transcendence 
Patrick Cockburn
Is ISIS About to Lose Its Last Stronghold in Syria?
Joseph Grosso
The Invisible Class: Workers in America
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail