Top Mideast Analyst Accuses Bush of Politicizing Iraq Intel

The U.S. intelligence community’s top Middle East analyst from 2000 to 2005 has accused the George W. Bush administration of distorting and politicizing intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

In an article published Friday in Foreign Affairs magazine, analyst Paul Pillar, who resigned from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year, also charges that the Bush administration ignored much of the analysis that had been prepared by the intelligence community, including its predictions of the chaos and conflict that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

He argues that the administration not only ignored the traditional model for separating the functions of policymakers – who are to make decisions based on facts and analyses developed by independent intelligence specialists – from those of the intelligence analysts themselves, but “turned the entire model upside down.”

“The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made,” he wrote. “It went to war without requesting – and evidently without being influenced by – any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq.”

Indeed, says Pillar, as the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, the first request he received from the administration for such an assessment was not until a year after the March 2003 invasion.

Pillar’s charges that the administration “cherry-picked” and otherwise manipulated the intelligence process in order to take the country to war are the most serious since the leak of the so-called “Downing Street Memo” to the London Sunday Times last May.

The memo, the minutes of a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s war cabinet in July 2002, quotes intelligence chief Alastair Campbell, who had just returned from a trip to Washington, as reporting that Bush “wanted to remove Saddam, through military action…” and, to that end, “…the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The memo’s contents – which bolstered charges by a number of retired U.S. intelligence officers who had spoken out against the war – put the administration and its Republican backers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on the defensive.

The Republicans on the committee have stalled Democratic demands for an investigation of the administration’s use of the pre-war intelligence.

That Pillar, an eyewitness – and a high-ranking one at that – has now publicly joined the chorus of critics with his own bill of particulars, marks a serious setback to Bush’s Republican administration and one that the Democrats are certain to seize on.

Senate Minority leader Harry Reid called for investigation Friday. “Evidence that the Bush White House manipulated and selectively declassified intelligence to wage a public relations campaign before, during and after the invasion of Iraq grows every day,” he said.

Pillar’s charges are also likely to be more difficult for the administration to refute in light of new disclosures Thursday that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby – the former chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney who is now under indictment for lying to federal authorities about his role in “outing” a CIA operative – has since testified that he had been “authorized” by Cheney and other White House officials to leak classified information to reporters in the run-up to the war.

The purpose of those leaks, which continued after the war, according to The National Journal, which broke the story, was to “build public support” for going to war.

According to previously published reports, Libby acted as the liaison between the White House and special units in the Pentagon’s policy office under former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Those units reviewed “raw intelligence,” particularly related to alleged links between then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and sent it directly to Cheney’s office and the White House without submitting it to vetting by professional intelligence analysts.

In his article, which generally avoids naming specific individuals responsible for politicizing the intelligence process, Pillar explicitly identifies Feith’s Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group as responsible for distorting the normal intelligence process in a number of ways – by supposedly discovering alleged links between al-Qaeda and Hussein reported in the raw intelligence and by presenting “briefings (that) accused the intelligence community of faulty analysis for failing to see the supposed alliance (between the two).”

While Pillar admits the intelligence community made serious mistakes in gauging the status of Hussein’s alleged weapons programs, he charges that the Bush administration deliberately ignored the larger strategic judgments by the intelligence community – that “deterrence of Iraq was working, that Saddam was being kept ‘in his box,’ and that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place.”

“That the administration arrived at so different a policy solution indicates that its decision to topple Saddam was driven by other factors – namely, the desire to shake up the sclerotic power structures of the Middle East and hasten the spread of more liberal politics and economics in the region.”

“If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication,” according to Pillar, “it was to avoid war – or if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath. What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in recent decades,” he writes.

Before the war, according to Pillar, the intelligence community also considered the main challenges that would be faced by any post-invasion authority in Iraq and forecast “a deeply divided Iraqi society” that could erupt into “violent conflict” unless the occupying power “established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam.”

It also predicted that war and occupation would “boost political Islam and increase sympathy for terrorists’ objectives – and Iraq would become a magnet for extremists from elsewhere in the Middle East.”

But this assessment was undertaken only on the intelligence community’s own initiative. The administration never requested such an analysis, according to Pillar.

As the administration marched to war in 2002 and 2003, according to Pillar, intelligence officers registered “varying degrees of private protest,” particularly when the administration’s public statements went “beyond what analysts deemed credible or reasonable,” especially regarding the alleged existence of an al-Qaeda-Hussein alliance and Bush’s assertion in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had tried to buy uranium ore in Africa.

The intelligence community never backed up the al-Qaeda-Hussein connection, according to Pillar. “The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the ‘alliance’ the administration said existed,” he writes.

“The reason the connection got so much attention was that the administration wanted to hitch the Iraq expedition to the ‘war on terror’ and the threat the American public fear most, thereby capitalizing on the country’s militant post-9/11 mood.”

“Feeding the administration’s voracious appetite for material on the Saddam-al-Qaeda link consumed an enormous amount of time and attention at multiple levels, from rank-and-file counterterrorism analysts to the most senior intelligence officials. It is fair to ask how much other counterterrorism work was left undone as a result,” he notes.

Pressure exerted by administration officials on intelligence analysts was seldom crude or direct, according to Pillar, who says they made their preferences known more subtly.

“It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. Intelligence analysts – for whom attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success – felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious.”

The fact that Pillar published his article in Foreign Affairs, whose publisher, the Council on Foreign Relations, is headed by Richard Haass, a top adviser to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, is also likely to bolster the critics who have charged the administration with politicizing intelligence.

Not only is the magazine the most influential foreign policy publication of its kind, but Haass, who resigned as head of Powell’s policy office shortly after the war began, has repeatedly expressed bewilderment as to when the administration decided to go to war and why it did so.

Powell’s chief of staff at the time, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has also publicly charged that Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Feith’s superior, formed a “cabal” that deliberately circumvented or manipulated the normal policy-making process, including the intelligence community, in order to take the country to war.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.