Paying the Price for Getting It Right

Many have asked how it could be that a comparatively small group of intelligence analysts in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) was able to get it right on several key Iraq-related issues, while larger agencies like CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency – with, literally, a cast of thousands – got it so wrong. The answer is simple: INR had the guts to be the skunk at the picnic. That’s how. State Department analysts showed backbone in resisting White House pressure, as well as in-house prodding from the likes of Undersecretary of State John Bolton, to cook intelligence to the White House recipe.

INR stood firm, while former CIA director George Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and other malleable intelligence community managers caved in to administration pressure. (I note with some amusement that the euphemism now in vogue is “leaning forward,” as if that is not politicization.) In caving in, they became accomplices in the successful attempt to deceive Congress into voting for an unprovoked war. INR analysts dissented loudly from some of the most important key judgments of the infamous National Intelligence Estimate, “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” of Oct. 1, 2002.

For example:

  • When the canard about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger insinuated its way into the estimate, INR inserted a strong footnote, dismissing the story as “highly dubious.”

  • INR analysts also debunked the fable about aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment for Iraq. Although then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice portrayed the tubes as useful only in a nuclear application, State Department intelligence analysts joined the experts in the Department of Energy and UN engineers in pointing out, correctly, that the tubes were for conventional artillery.

  • Most obstreperous of all, on the highly neuralgic nuclear issue, INR flat-out refused to predict when Iraq’s “nuclear weapons program” was likely to yield a nuclear device. Why? Because it saw no compelling evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney was correct in claiming that the previous nuclear weapons program had been “reconstituted.” In the best diplomatic language it could summon, INR said it was just too difficult to predict the culmination of any such program without having a start (or restart) date.

If that were not provocation enough, State Department intelligence analysts committed several other transgressions not directly connected to the NIE. INR’s most experienced Middle East specialists prepared a study exposing as a chimera the notion that democracy could be brought to the area at the point of a gun. INR also provided invaluable support to the interagency team that worked hard to prepare sensibly for postwar Iraq. Its analysis and recommendations were trashed by Pentagon neophytes who knew the invasion would be a “cakewalk” – and by Vice President Dick Cheney, who knew that our troops would be seen as liberators. INR’s director at the time was the widely respected Assistant Secretary of State Carl Ford, a man not for sale.

For 10 years, it had been de rigueur for the head of INR, the CIA director and FBI directors, and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency to present together the annual worldwide threat assessment briefing to the Senate intelligence committee. But in February 2004, INR experienced the supreme penalty for having been right – ostracism. Senator Roberts did not invite the INR director to participate in the threat assessment. Roberts apparently wanted to preclude the possibility that some over-curious senator might ask why INR was able to get it mostly right on Iraq when everyone else was almost all wrong.

Well, now we know. For who should show up at yesterday’s Senate hearing on John Bolton’s nomination for the post of UN representative but Carl Ford. He had not volunteered to testify and said he found it very awkward to do so – the more so, since he is a self-described conservative, a loyal Republican, an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush and his policies, and a “huge fan” of Vice President Dick Cheney. Nonetheless, Ford saw it as his duty to comment on the fitness of Bolton for the UN post, because of its importance and his profound misgivings regarding Bolton.

No Weasels, Please

Ford emphasized that politicization is the main danger to intelligence analysis. He described politicization as a “team sport” since at least two are needed – the one exerting political pressure and the “weasel.” He described in some detail Bolton’s attempt to bully an INR analyst into changing his conclusions to fit Bolton’s extreme views on Cuba’s biological warfare capability. The analyst, who is several grade levels lower than Undersecretary Bolton but no weasel, stood firm and was treated to a torrent of verbal abuse. Later, when Bolton made it clear to Ford that the analyst should be removed, Ford said, in effect, over his dead body.

In the end, the analyst’s firmness prevented Bolton from representing his extreme opinions on Cuba as the views of the U.S. intelligence community. (Pity that this INR analyst apparently had no soulmate in courage among intelligence analysts of Iraq elsewhere in the community.) To his credit, Ford gave his analyst strong support. Nonetheless, this crass attempt at politicization threw such a fright into INR analysts that Ford decided to use the incident as an important teaching moment for staff and instituted defense-against-politicization training.

The former INR chief made it clear that he considered Bolton’s behavior beyond the pale and told his analysts that, were they to encounter such pressure, they had just two requirements: (1) do not bend to it; and (2) report it to the director of INR immediately. Ford reported Bolton’s behavior to then-Secretary Powell, and later Powell went over to INR to address the staff and give a highly visible attaboy to the analyst who had stood his ground.

What’s Broken?

At director of national intelligence-nominee John Negroponte’s confirmation hearing yesterday, Senator Pat Roberts, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, repeated the mantra, “We have a broken system.” But a “system” can be no better than its people. It is, rather, the professionalism and integrity of many of the system’s leaders that is broken. General William Odom, a highly respected senior intelligence official now retired, wrote an op-ed during the unseemly rush to wholesale intelligence reform last summer, in which he stressed that “No organizational design will compensate for incompetent incumbents.” In my experience in intelligence analysis, lack of integrity goes hand in hand with incompetence. The people who float up to the top in such an environment do not tend to be the real professionals.

The wonder is not that INR got it right, but that there should be surprise that the larger intelligence agencies, marching in virtual lockstep to the drums of the White House, Pentagon and their own malleable leaders, got it wrong. Perhaps most depressing is the fact that not one of the analysts who knew what was going on could summon the courage to speak out to try to head off an unnecessary war. Apparently, fear runs very deep.

Many of us former intelligence professionals are astonished that, of the hundreds of analysts who knew in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq posed no threat to the United States and were aware of Dick Cheney’s frequent visits to CIA headquarters to argue otherwise, no one had the courage to blow the whistle on such pressure tactics and warn about the coming war. Even former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former terrorism czar Richard Clarke, who are to be commended for eventually speaking out, put it off until it was too late to stop the war.

Silence Is Betrayal

This is by no means a water-over-the-dam issue. If plans go forward for an attack on Iran, it may become necessary for those intelligence professionals with the requisite courage – if any are left – to mount their own preemptive strike against the kind of corrupted intelligence that greased the skids for war on Iraq. That they would be forced to go to the press, preferably with documentation, is a sad commentary. But no alternatives with any promise are available. (The only good news is that help is at hand: see the Truth-Telling Coalition Appeal.) The normal channel for such redress – the inspectors general of the various agencies – is a sad joke. And the prospect for successful appeal to the lapdog/watchdog intelligence committees of Congress is equally sad – and even more feckless.

Reprint courtesy of

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).