Let’s review now. It was bad intelligence that made President George W. Bush invade Iraq, right? No, you say, and you are correct; that is just White House spin. The “intelligence” was conjured up many months after President George W. Bush’s decision to attack.
Now, two years and tens of thousands of lives later, I marvel at the ease with which the White House has succeeded in getting Congress to scapegoat the intelligence community. All it takes is “a few good men”—like Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and former Marine Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), living out the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi—always faithful.
But faithful to what? Faithful, first and foremost, to the party, in what—let us be frank—has become for all intents and purposes a one-party state. That pejorative label, you may recall, is what we used to pin on the dictatorship in the U.S.S.R., where there were no meaningful checks and balances. It is getting scary.
Roberts to the Rescue
Chairman Roberts is still faithfully marching to the drum of the commander in chief, as he did last year in deflecting blame onto the intelligence agencies prior to the presidential election. The White House can count on the senator from Dodge City to salute. And fortunately for him, he and his staff have abundant instances of malfeasance and misfeasance by the CIA and other agencies from which to draw. That his Democrat colleagues usually acquiesce makes it still easier.
The hapless Democrats on Roberts’ committee let themselves be snookered last summer into agreeing to postpone until after the election “phase two” of the panel’s investigation into the performance of intelligence on Iraq. In return for their acquiescence in an incomplete report that, in effect, exonerated the White House, Roberts promised phase two would deal later with the question of White House misuse of intelligence and pressure on intelligence analysts. (CIA’s ombudsman had told the committee that never in his 32-year career with the agency had he encountered such “hammering” on CIA analysts to review and reconsider their judgments.)
Roberts also agreed to look into the role played by the controversial Pentagon Office of Special Plans, conduit of much of the spurious intelligence on Iraq. Most important, he conceded that public statements by top White House officials had been “very aggressive, very declarative” in asserting the existence of “weapons of mass destruction,” and may have gone beyond the evidence. On July 9, 2004 he assured reporters that the committee would proceed with phase two after the election: “It is a priority. I made my commitment and it will get done.”
Bait and Switch?
Marines respond instinctively when upper echelons change their orders. Thus, it should have come as no surprise when Roberts told reporters last week that the phase-two probe was no longer a priority for his committee. Roberts explained:
“If you ask any member of the administration, ‘Why did you make that declarative statement?’...basically, the bottom line is they believed the intelligence and the intelligence was wrong.”
This, however, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Take the ubiquitous mushroom clouds about which the president and his top advisers warned on October 7, 8, and 9, 2002 just before Congress voted on October 10 and 11 to authorize war. It was Vice President Dick Cheney, not Saddam Hussein, who “reconstituted” Iraq’s nuclear weapons development program, and he did it out of thin air.
Cheney Frames the Issue
There was no intelligence to support Cheney’s remark in his major speech of August 26, 2002, which set the tone for all that followed. And yet, in the month that followed, the CIA dutifully conjured up evidence to support Cheney’s assertion, in a successful effort to deceive Congress into voting for war. The vice president claimed:
“...we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we’ve gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors—including Saddam’s own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam’s direction. Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.”
That statement was highly misleading. Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, had been in charge of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile programs before he defected in 1995. But what Kamel told us was that all that weaponry had been destroyed at his command in the summer of 1991. Evidently, everything else he told us checked out, including particularly valuable information on Iraq’s earlier biological weapons programs.
Many in the intelligence community knew of Cheney’s playing fast and loose with the evidence and the subsequent campaign to deceive Congress. Sadly, no one spoke out.
Cheney’s selective quoting of Kamel calls to mind the unbridled chutzpah in vogue at the time in the march to war. Even if the vice president’s staff neglected to show him the debriefing report on Kamel, the full story became public well before the invasion of Iraq. A veteran reporter for Newsweek obtained the transcript of the debriefing in which Kamel said bluntly, “All weapons—biological, chemical, missile, nuclear, were destroyed.” Newsweek broke the story on February 24, 2003, more than three weeks before the war began. But this news did not jibe with the cheerleading for war, and the mainstream media suppressed it. Even now that Kamel’s assertion has been proven correct, the press has not corrected the record.
This would provide good grist for the promised phase-two study; and there is a lot more. It will be interesting to see whether Chairman Roberts’ Democrat colleagues will acquiesce in the bait and switch.
Roberts’ allergy to pursuing issues potentially embarrassing to the administration has become his hallmark. In 2003 he refused to ask the FBI to investigate the famous forgery alleging an Iraqi attempt to acquire uranium in Niger. More recently he parried requests to investigate reports of prisoner abuse, improper detention, and illegal rendition of prisoners abroad by CIA officials.
Roberts’ attitude showed forth in bas-relief during the questioning of CIA Director Porter Goss at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Senator Roberts is a member of that committee as well, but he does not chair it.) He grew increasingly impatient with his colleague senators, who kept raising the issues of rendition, interrogation, and prisoner abuse. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example, who knows torture only too well from his long years of captivity in Vietnam, could not abide Goss’ attempts to sidestep questions regarding what Goss insisted on calling “professional interrogation techniques.” Sounding more defensive than Goss himself, Roberts complained:
“I am losing a little patience with what appears to me to be an almost pathological obsession with calling into question the actions of men and women who are on the front lines of the war on terror.”
No Adult Supervision
What about intelligence on Iraq, where the war’s still on. Army Special Forces Col. Patrick Lang (ret.) told me last fall, “The sad thing is that US combat intelligence in Iraq does not seem to know who the insurgents are, where they are, how many they are, or what they plan to do.” That this state of affairs persists was made painfully clear at the February 3 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fumbled questions regarding the size of the resistance.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) expressed puzzlement at a recent remark by Gen. George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, that in the past year 15,000 suspected insurgents had been killed or captured, while US military authorities had earlier said that only 6,000 to 9,000 hard-core fighters existed. (Adding to the confusion, the director of the Iraqi intelligence service claimed in January that there are 200,000 insurgents, of whom 40,000 are hard-core fighters.)
Myers lamented that coming up “with accurate estimates is just very, very difficult.” This drew an irritated response from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): “I don’t know how you defeat an insurgency unless you have some handle on the number of people that you are facing.” Indeed. His observation is a painful reminder to those of us who were around for Vietnam.
But Senator Roberts saw no evil. The day after the February 3 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Roberts told reporters that he thought there had been quality reports on the insurgency: “We get, I think, pretty good briefings on who people are, how many, where they are, and where they’re going.”
Iran: Replay of Iraq?
With Senator Roberts as head watchdog, it should come as no surprise that there has been no national intelligence estimate (NIE) on Iran since 2001. As was the case with Iraq, the White House seems to be afraid that an honest estimate would reflect the flimsiness of intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program. But it is high time to update that 2001 NIE—particularly in view of the heated rhetoric from Washington and Tehran on this very subject, and an update is reported to be in progress. Better late than never, I suppose, assuming that this update will yield a more objective estimate than the infamous, “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction” of October 1, 2002. That shameful exercise yielded the most corrupt and inept NIE ever written.
Meanwhile, the presidential panel led by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Senator Charles Robb is reported to have found the state of intelligence on Iran “particularly worrisome.” One source privy to the panel’s deliberations characterized US intelligence on Iran as “scandalous,” particularly in view of the importance and relative openness of the country. And former US arms inspector David Kay has warned that the Bush administration is again choosing to rely on “evidence” from dissidents, as it did regarding pre-war Iraq.
Bemoaning the absence of an NIE on Iran, Kay noted, “We are talking about military action against Iran and we don’t have a national intelligence estimate that shows what we do know, what we don’t know, and the basis for what we think we know.” Plus ça change.
It may not matter. In the past President Bush has dismissed NIEs as mere guesswork, when they did not jibe with the agenda of his “neoconservative” advisers and that of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And, in any case, the president has made no secret that he prefers to be briefed rather than to read. Today’s report that Sharon will again visit the Texas ranch in mid-April suggests an intention on Bush’s part to seek Sharon’s counsel on Iran as well as on other issues. General Brent Scowcroft, who was recently let go as chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, claims that the president has been “mesmerized” by Sharon, and that the Israeli Prime Minister has Bush “wound around his little finger.”
The Bush-Sharon discussions could facilitate a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as early as this year. If the pre-Iraq-war experience is any guide, intelligence analysts are likely to be asked to cook up intelligence to “justify” such an attack. There are, no doubt, honest analysts left in the intelligence community. Will they simply choose to keep their heads down, as before? Is there a better option?
Chiseled into the marble wall at the entrance to CIA Headquarters is a verse from John’s gospel: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This was the ethos of the intelligence analysis directorate during the 27 years I spent there.
Intelligence analysts with integrity may have to move quickly before that inscription is sandblasted away. Many of us alumni remain stunned that, of the hundreds of analysts who knew in 2002 and 2003 that Iraq posed no threat to the US, not one had the courage to blow the whistle and warn about what was about to happen.
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 to mount their own preemptive strike against the kind of corrupted intelligence that greased the skids for war on Iraq. Sadly, the normal channel for such redress, the inspector generals of the various agencies, is a sad joke. And, clearly, appealing to subservient congressional intelligence “watchdog” committees would be a feckless exercise.
Truth-Telling Coalition Appeal
On September 9, 2004 the newly formed Truth-Telling Coalition issued an call http://www.tompaine.com/articles/appeal_for_truth_telling.php to current government officials, that included suggestions regarding why and how to expose dishonesty to the light of day in time to derail plans for reckless, unnecessary war. In recognition of the various disincentives to speaking out, and the courage required, we finished with this appeal:
“We know how misplaced loyalty to bosses, agencies, and careers can obscure the higher allegiance all government officials owe the Constitution, the sovereign public, and the young men and women put in harm’s way. We urge you to act on those higher loyalties....Truth-telling is a patriotic and effective way to serve the nation.”
We were encouraged that shortly after our appeal came a spurt of what the Truth-Telling Coalition calls “patriotic leaks.” For example, the New York Times was given the essence of a national intelligence estimate that gave the lie to administration PR on the “improving” situation in Iraq. (And—surprise, surprise—the Times chose to run the story—even in that delicate pre-election period!) Perhaps still more serving officials will recognize their patriotic duty in the coming months, if and when the situation demands it of them.
Ray McGovern works at Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. During his 27-years at CIA his duties included chairing national intelligence estimates. A speculative piece by Ray on the implications of an attack on Iran is posted at http://tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2230
This article, “Intelligence Made Me Do It,” first appeared in a shorter version on TomPaine.com.