Iraq Hawks and Deceptive Intelligence

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. But when we’ve practiced for a while, we markedly improve our style.

A time-honored aphorism. And the second-sentence Karl-Rove corollary has been applied with consummate skill — until now. The web is unraveling.

Chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay cut the main strand last month, making it clear that the president and his advisors were wrong to claim that war was necessary to ”disarm” Saddam Hussein of ”weapons of mass destruction.” There were none.

Kay’s refreshing honesty threw a wrench in the works of the White House PR machine, which remains in a state of disrepair. The commission that President Bush handpicked this month to investigate the performance of his own administration and to report after the November election was widely seen as disingenuous.

Perhaps the most telling sign of disarray in the White House was the president’s decision, in effect, to do it to himself. Against the better judgment of his advisors, he insisted on submitting to an unscripted interview on Meet The Press. His nervous, defensive performance proved them right and hastened the unraveling.

The most eerie coincidence was the decision to have CIA Director George Tenet go to Georgetown University on Feb. 5 to give an apologia-without-apology for the intelligence underpinning for the war on Iraq. It was the first anniversary of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s masterful but — we now know — spurious U.N. performance six weeks before the war. Tenet’s rhetoric rivaled Powell’s in what Socrates called “making the worse cause appear the better.”

Like Vice President Dick Cheney last July, Tenet set out to defend the indefensible–the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that got it so wrong about ”weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. I remember thinking last summer, Why would Cheney choose to cite conclusions that had already been thrown into great doubt? Listening to Tenet do the same thing six months later — and after Kay’s findings — added to my puzzlement.

Their focus on last fall’s NIE, ”Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” (the very title got it wrong) seemed at first self-defeating. Then I realized that this focus serves to obscure the fact that the decision for war predated the estimate by several months. That decision was made, at the latest, by spring 2002.

That there was no NIE before that decision speaks volumes. Clearly, those around the president who were bent on war with Iraq did not want an honest assessment of the dubious ”threat” it posed. Indeed, honest intelligence had already infected both Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to the point that they had declared publicly in 2001 that Iraq had been contained and that it posed no threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States.

Sadly, given the well-known proclivities of Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Tenet shied away from serving up an estimate that conveyed how little the intelligence community knew about any residual threat from Iraq.

Tenet managed to keep his head down until September 2002, when the White House asked Congress to give its blessing to war on Iraq. The Senate Intelligence Committee woke up to the bizarre fact that no NIE had been prepared and formally asked Tenet to produce one.

By then, however, Cheney, in a major speech on Aug. 26, had set the terms of reference. Clearly, Tenet was instructed to provide an estimate with retroactive support for Cheney’s alarming claims regarding Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.”

Tenet picked his most trusted — and malleable — aide, Robert Walpole, to chair an NIE that left honest intelligence analysts holding their noses. That NIE became the centerpiece of an incredibly cynical campaign playing on the trauma of 9/11 to deceive our elected representatives into forfeiting to the president their constitutional prerogative to declare war.

One is left wondering: How did they think they could get away with it?

The answer is embarrassingly simple. Don’t you remember? It was to be a cakewalk. The vice president and others assured us that U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators. They would be met with cut flowers, not roadside bombs. The ”evil dictator” would be gone. And then who would care if it were eventually discovered that the case for war was manufactured out of whole cloth?

Yes, I think this is what they really believed. And they were not about to listen to cautions that undercut their “faith-based intelligence.”

Now, bogged down in the sands of Iraq with over 500 troops already killed, the White House is without a clue as to what to do next.

Perhaps worst of all, since the president has condoned big-time politicization of the intelligence community, he now has nowhere to turn for an objective assessment of the challenges ahead.

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:


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: A version of this article first appeared on