Blame the CIA. That’s a political agenda that has found bipartisan support in Congress. Both the right and the left saw the departure of CIA chief George Tenet as a first step toward improving U.S. intelligence capabilities.
This month two bipartisan committees the independent 9/11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee reviewing U.S. counterterrorism policy and the administration’s response to 9/11 have fingered the CIA as having led the U.S. government astray. This assessment conflicts with the mounting evidence that right-wing politics and ideology have driven all decisions by the Bush administration, including the war on Iraq. But rather than blaming the politicization of intelligence, the congressional bodies scapegoated the CIA.
One of the most vocal critics of the CIA’s performance has been John F. Lehman Jr., former Navy secretary under President Reagan and member of the independent 9/11 commission, which will release its final report later this month. Lehman is also a leading candidate to replace Tenet as director of central intelligence.
Common Knowledge about Iraq
Although the two congressional committees on the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. response concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies got their facts wrong, Lehman himself persists in supporting the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots.
Lehman told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on June 20 that the commission had documents captured in Iraq that “indicate that there is at least one officer of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a lieutenant colonel, who was a very prominent member of al Qaeda.” Lehman succeeded in giving new life to the administration’s claims, although the CIA quickly dismissed the assertion, saying that the documents did not support Lehman’s allegation. In fact, the CIA had investigated this alleged link “a long time ago” and concluded that one officer in Hussein’s militia merely had a name that was similar to that of an al Qaeda operative. However, Lehman claimed on national television that it was new information, as yet unexamined by the commission or other government entities.
Lehman has long charged that the CIA has dismissed dissenting points of views. He has faulted the CIA for not giving adequate attention to theories that Iraq was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 9/11 attacks, and even the anthrax attacks of the fall of 2001. And Lehman continues to parrot the arguments of the neoconservatives, regularly appearing in the Weekly Standard, that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were close collaborators.
That John Lehman has even been considered as capable of directing the overhaul of the badly flawed U.S. intelligence system underscores the degree to which right-wing ideologues and agendas continue to shape U.S. national security strategy. The main lesson for intelligence reform that should be drawn from recent U.S. foreign policy misadventures is that politicized intelligence is bad intelligence.
Certainly the CIA fell short in providing fact-based intelligence about the al Qaeda threat and the alleged Iraqi threat. But, as it has done in the past, notably under pressure from Team B and the Committee on the Present Danger in the late 1970s, the CIA reworked its own intelligence estimates to reflect the ideological convictions of the administration. But John Lehman along with the neoconservatives, the trigger-happy militarists like Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the liberal hawks in the Democratic Party also got it very wrong. Conveniently, they all join together again in blaming the CIA for its faulty fact-checking.