Rehashing the Intelligence

I still maintain that President Bush made a serious tactical mistake, from his perspective, in criticizing congressional Democrats for "rewriting history" about the use of intelligence (and the quality thereof) during the run-up to the Iraq war. The basic mistake is in focusing on the past when what really seems to worry an increasing number of Americans is that there is no real plan to figure out how to improve conditions in Iraq sufficiently to start reducing the number of U.S. troops.

There are other reasons it looks like a blunder. "I was wrong, but you were too." That’s the sound bite contained in the tactic. Saying as much is hardly the best way to restore confidence in your own judgment, which recent polls suggest an increasing number of Americans now doubt, and which some doubt Bush can now regain, even as LBJ never recovered the people’s confidence. (Not that "that clever George Dubya fooled me, but trust me now," which is the implicit message Democrats other than Russ Feingold are sending, is much more confidence-building.)

The real danger, however, is that if a reasonably sober assessment of the use of that intelligence is ever done, the Bushies are extremely vulnerable. Bush himself was usually careful enough not to utter outright lies, which suggests that he (or his speechwriters) has more on the ball than many Americans think. But the administration did consistently cherry-pick the intelligence and present the worst-case scenarios (often quite different from the intelligence consensus) as what the "intelligence community" believed was established and unassailable fact.

We might even be seeing this presidential caution now. I haven’t heard Bush refer to the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate [.pdf] himself recently. But plenty of administration flacks (official and unofficial) have referenced that document as offering the kind of threat assessment that the administration was pushing. If that official assessment from the intelligence community was as alarmist as it was, Bush couldn’t have been lying, is the message. He was simply saying what everyone else agreed seemed to be the best estimate of the threat constituted by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A Marked Difference

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has long had on its Web site some analyses of that document, showing that it was markedly more alarmist than other intelligence assessments in recent years – even though there was little evidence of recent activity in Iraq to accelerate weapons development. It is not hard to infer that the 2002 assessment, while not utterly dishonest, reflected a certain amount of the "intelligence community" giving the administration what it wanted to hear. This was done not so much by making up facts as by reinterpreting information that had been available previously and accepting some intelligence as reliable, such as that from Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, that had previously been downgraded.

Carnegie offers a chart [.pdf] comparing what the pre-2002 intelligence assessments showed and what the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate suggested or stated – along with what the 2002-03 UN assessments showed, the statements the administration made, what the evidence since the invasion shows, and what the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report [.pdf] stated was probably the case given the best evidence they had at the time. The 2002 assessment and administration statements were at odds with all the others – and according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, consistently wrong. I’ll offer a few illustrative examples:

As to whether Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program after 1998, for example, the pre-2002 intelligence "consensus," according to Carnegie’s brief summary (given more elaborate treatment in their book, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications) "was that Iraq ‘probably continued low-level theoretical R&D.’" The 2002 assessment was: "Iraq restarted its nuclear program after UNSCOM left in 1998; ‘will probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade.’ Department of State disagreed."

On Iraqi attempts to buy uranium abroad, according to Carnegie, "None of the pre-2002 reports mention any attempts to purchase uranium, although most noted that ‘a sufficient source of fissile material remains Iraq’s most significant obstacle to being able to produce a nuclear weapon.’" The 2002 assessment was hardly so measured: "Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake," though it noted that the State Department rejected reports about Iraq buying it in Africa.

Concerning stockpiles of chemical weapons, "Pre-2002 reports did not report the existence of chemical weapon stockpiles. Discrepancies in Iraqi accounting suggested that ‘Iraq may have hidden an additional 6,000 CW munitions.’" The 2002 report expressed "’High confidence’ that Iraq had chemical weapons, probably between 100 and 500 metric tons."

Similarly, when it came to biological weapon stockpiles, the pre-2002 reports said, "We are concerned that Iraq may again be producing BW agents," while the 2002 report showed "high confidence" that Iraq had biological weapons. President Bush, of course, said Iraq had "a massive stockpiling of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, capable of killing millions."

Accounting for the Changes

Remember that not only was there was no new reliable intelligence that surfaced prior to the 2002 report, but that the U.S. intelligence "community’s" ability to get reliable information from Iraq was minimal at best. U.S. intelligence had relied upon (almost to the point of subverting their mission) the UN inspectors before 1998, since they had very few sources of their own in Iraq. Iraq was a tough place for American agents or sources to operate, and the Americans hadn’t made much progress in improving on-the-ground intelligence since the UN left in 1998. So why the marked differences in threat assessments?

One of the better, rather evenhanded discussions of how the intelligence about Iraq was so wrong was done by Kenneth M. Pollack in the January/February 2004 issue of The Atlantic magazine. Pollack, you’ll remember, was a Clinton national security official who favored the invasion of Iraq and actually wrote the 2002 book, Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Unlike most Bush administration officials, he was publicly troubled that the threat assessments on which he had based his case had turned out to be almost all incorrect, and tried to explore how that could have happened.

Pollack notes,

"The context for the 2002 NIE assessment of Iraq’s WMD programs began to take shape before the Gulf War. Prior to 1991 the intelligence communities in the United States and elsewhere believed that Iraq was at least five, and probably closer to ten, years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Of course, after the war we learned that in 1991 Iraq had been only six to twenty-four months away from having a workable nuclear weapon."

The lesson taken from that miscalculation was that it might be prudent to err on the alarmist side when considering Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was reinforced by years of evasion and concealment by the Iraqis who dealt with the UN inspectors. Other factors also played a role during the time the 2002 assessment was being prepared. Later in the article, Pollack writes about "how the Bush administration handled the intelligence."

Pressure or Persuasion?

"Throughout the spring and fall of 2002 and well into 2003 I received numerous complaints from friends and colleagues in the intelligence community, and from people in the policy community, about precisely that. According to them, many administration officials reacted strongly, negatively, and aggressively when presented with information or analysis that contradicted what they already believed about Iraq. Many of these officials believed that Saddam Hussein was the source of virtually all the problems in the Middle East and was an imminent danger to the United States because of his perceived possession of weapons of mass destruction and support of terrorism. Many also believed that CIA analysts tended to be left-leaning cultural relativists who consistently downplayed threats to the United States. They believed that the Agency, not the administration, was biased, and that they were acting simply to correct that bias.

"Intelligence officers who presented analyses that were at odds with the preexisting views of senior administration officials were subjected to barrages of questions and requests for additional information. They were asked to justify their work sentence by sentence: ‘Why did you rely on this source and not some other piece of information?’ ‘How does this conclusion square with this other point?’ ‘Please explain the history of Iraq’s association with the organization you mention in this sentence.’ Reportedly, the worst fights were over sources. The administration gave greatest credence to accounts that presented the most lurid picture of Iraqi activities. In many cases intelligence analysts were distrustful of those sources, or knew unequivocally that they were wrong. But when they said so, they were not heeded; instead they were beset with further questions about their own sources."

It was also during this period that the Pentagon set up the Office of Special Plans, which cherry-picked intelligence and routinely "stove-piped" raw intelligence from the likes of Chalabi and the INC directly to the vice president’s office and other places in the White House. Eventually, as Pollack puts it, "the OSP’s view – that Saddam’s regime simultaneously was very threatening and could easily be replaced by a new government – prevailed."

Verbal discussions and confrontations don’t leave a lot of fingerprints in writing that a later commission, investigator, or reporter would be able to cite as evidence of political pressure to "cook" the intelligence. In addition, of course, neither the 9/11 commission nor the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the question of pressure from the administration, noting, in the case of the 9/11 commission, that such issues were beyond its specific mandate. But there’s little question there was such pressure. How much that pressure contributed to making the October 2002 assessment so much more alarmist about the imminence of dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime might never be known for sure. But it is hardly unreasonable to hypothesize that it played an important role.

The more closely people examine the period leading up to the creation of the 2002 National Intelligence Assessment and the beginning of the war itself – those few willing to go beyond the sound bites that support their own views – the worse the Bush administration will look. It may well be that most of these people had convinced themselves and believed their own propaganda, so they weren’t lying in the sense of purposely saying something they knew to be untrue. But there is little question that they discussed only the intelligence that seemed to justify their own policy preference (which had been in place in many parts of the administration since well before 9/11) and exaggerated the overall impact to the point of serious distortion.

As the Carnegie Endowment’s Joseph Cirincione put it in the title of a subsequent piece, "Not One Claim Was True." The administration clearly distorted the available intelligence to fit their preconceived policy plans. They may have fooled themselves in the process, but they also fooled many of the American people.


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).