A Useful Whitewash

"Bush views new report on spy lapses with favor," was the headline on the New York Times story previewing the latest commission that reported several weeks ago on the manifest and manifold U.S. government intelligence failures in detecting "illicit" weapons and weapons programs abroad. As well he might. The 600-plus-page report not only placed almost all of the blame for being "dead wrong" prior to the Iraq war on the intelligence agencies rather than on the politicos in the administration, but it didn’t explore at all the question of whether the administration had pressured or circumvented intelligence agencies to get the intelligence it desire to justify a policy course it had already decided to pursue.

That’s because, as the Washington Post reported it, "the panel that Bush appointed under pressure in February 2004 said it was ‘not authorized’ to explore the question of how the commander-in-chief used the faulty information to make perhaps the most critical decision of his presidency. As he accepted the report yesterday [March 31], Bush offered no thoughts about relying on flawed intelligence to launch a war and took no questions from reporters."

Big surprise.

Missing the Obvious

One could almost understand, given that the commission wasn’t authorized to look into the question of how the politicos used (and you can take that word in about half a dozen ways, all of them adding layers of meaning) intelligence, a reluctance to blame the politicos. But the conclusion that the commission "found no evidence that political pressure from the White House or Pentagon contributed to the mistaken intelligence" makes you wonder whether to laugh or cry.

Now it may be that the New Republic story (and remember that TNR generally supported the war) about political pressure on intelligence agencies doesn’t constitute ironclad proof. But that story talked about how Dick Cheney took several visits to the CIA in the summer of 2002, wondering pointedly if there wasn’t more evidence of WMD and a Saddam-bin Laden connection than the agency was sending to his office.

I doubt we’ll ever find a smoking-gun memo in which Cheney or his staff tells CIA analysts to come up with some information even if it isn’t especially reliable. But if those unusual visits, with an unquestioned agenda, didn’t constitute pressure, I’m not sure what political pressure is. You don’t have to have spent much time in Babylon-on-the-Potomac (I spent only eight years there) to know that the most effective kind of pressure is pressure that is covert rather than overt, that can be denied if necessary, but is perfectly obvious to anybody whose political antennae haven’t atrophied completely. And Dick Cheney is nothing if not a veteran Washington operator.

Now you might argue on a technicality that Dick Cheney is neither the Pentagon nor the White House; he does live on the old Naval Observatory mansion, after all. However, as Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker, there was the Office of Special Plans (OSP) set up in the Pentagon by Douglas Feith as something of a shadow intelligence agency.

What the OSP seems to have done was to take "raw" intelligence, much of it from an obviously interested party, the Iraqi National Congress, headed by professional activist and accused bank-fraud manipulator Ahmed Chalabi, at face value. It then "stovepiped" juicy gems of info, free of pesky analysis or vetting by those wet blankets at the CIA, directly to the White House, the NSC, or Cheney’s office. Most of the information turned out to be false or exaggerated, and the stuff about WMD turned out to be pure fantasyland stuff. Whether the administration actually believed it or not, it certainly sold the American people a bill of goods.

National Non-Intelligence

I‘m not sure what would have constituted "evidence" to the commission headed by former Virginia Democratic senator and governor (and LBJ son-in-law) Charles Robb and conservative appeals-court judge Laurence Silberman. But the strange morphing of the CIA’s official National Intelligence Estimates surely should be of some interest.

As Joseph Cirincione and Dipali Mukhopadhyay wrote in July 2003 for the Carnegie Institute, "These reports themselves underwent a dramatic transformation from 2001 to 2002 after reporting essentially the same data for many years. There is little new evidence in the reports to account for this change."

More specifically, according to the Carnegie analysts, "From 1998 to 2001, Iraq’s nuclear program was addressed in one paragraph, if at all. Until 2000, the intelligence agencies were concerned that Iraq continued to hide nuclear-related documents, and probably some equipment, but made no claim that Iraq was trying to reconstitute the program." However, "The January-June 2002 report … raised alarm at unprecedented levels rhetorically, though it provided little new evidence of increased capability." The one piece of new evidence presented, the effort to acquire aluminum tubes, turned out not to be credibly nuclear-related, as the IAEA and the New York Times later demonstrated in some detail.

By the time of the October 2002 CIA National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA, perhaps inspired by former director George Tenet’s lapdog desire to be of service to the administration, the alarm bells on all sorts of weapons, including chemical, biological, missiles, and drones, were sounding loudly. The contrast to previous intelligence estimates was dramatic. Might the commission possibly have seen this as evidence – even if not ironclad proof – of the possibility of political pressure applied to the vaunted "intelligence community"?

In September 2002, Colin Powell told Fox News [.pdf], which means it was rather public, that "There is no doubt that he has chemical weapons stocks. … With respect to biological weapons, we are confident that he has some stocks of these weapons and he is probably continuing to try to develop more. … With respect to nuclear weapons, we are quite confident that he continues to try to pursue the nuclear technology that would allow him to develop a nuclear weapon. … So there’s no question that he has these weapons, but even more importantly, he is striving to do even more, to get even more."

The comment is artfully worded, so there’s a certain amount of deniability there. But the secretary of state was way out on a limb in September 2002. Was the fact that the CIA offered some ultimately non-credible but politically helpful-at-the-time buttressing to the limb in October 2002 strictly coincidental? Was this "evidence" of political pressure?

Political Usefulness

Now I’m hardly privy to all the inside information. But it seems likely to me that what this latest commission report contributes to is a convenient (for the administration) recasting of perceptions about what happened during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. If I am even close to correct, this exercise in disinformation is profoundly unfair to the CIA and other intelligence agencies, outfits for which I ordinarily have little sympathy.

My best assessment – call it a second draft of history – is that the Bush administration, urged on by the neocon cabal, wanted to invade Iraq even before 9/11, but didn’t really have much of a politically plausible justification. The 9/11 attacks made the possibility very real, but there were complications. The "intelligence community" didn’t have and initially wasn’t willing to provide assessments that tied Saddam to the 9/11 attacks or indicated that he had lots of nasty weapons. Indeed, several of its early public comments specifically denied that Saddam, nasty as he was, was much of a terrorist sponsor beyond paying money to families of Palestinian suicide bombers against Israel, as several Arab regimes did.

The administration didn’t think that simply wanting to take down Saddam because he was a nasty tyrant was sufficient to sell the invasion to the American people. So it made statements (most of them artfully worded so that they weren’t outright lies) that seemed to tie him to al-Qaeda and WMD, stovepiped unreliable intel through the Office of Special Plans and other neocon-friendly agencies, and worked hard to create the impression that Saddam’s regime was on he verge of being a real threat to the United States or its amorphous "interests" in the region.

Part of this process of selling the war to the American people involved bullying intelligence agencies – not that George Tenet had to be bullied, but some lower-level analysts still maintained a foolish fascination with facts rather than wild speculation – into providing intelligence that could at least be spun to constitute a credible threat. The CIA finally did so officially in its October 2002 National Intelligence Assessment.

What we had, then, were not rogue agencies providing unreliable information to the administration, but agencies that were reluctant to do so until they clearly saw the handwriting on the wall and were convinced the Bush administration was going to invade willy-nilly. That’s virtually the opposite of the story the Robb-Silberman commission tells – although I haven’t read the full report, and as often happens the full report might be more accurate than the headlines induced by initial summaries.

The story the administration wants to sell is that it was betrayed by the intelligence community, so it needs to "reform" the agencies. What seems more likely is that, as replete with shortcomings as the intelligence agencies are, they tried for a while to do the right thing by hinting strongly to the administration that the intelligence to justify its pre-decided course of action simply wasn’t there, but they eventually succumbed to political pressure.

So the intelligence agencies served the American people reasonably well for a while and the Bush administration betrayed us? That seems fairly close to the truth, but the latest commission report sells the administration line.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).