It’s become evident that our problems in Iraq are based not only on poor intelligence but deliberately distorted and dishonest intelligence. This is compounded, to make things worse, by the fact that those who are using (or misusing) the intelligence lack the common sense to put that intelligence to work.
Recall that in May of 2002 Jimmy Carter visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. A week before his visit, a Bush appointee, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, asserted that Cuba possessed biological weapons of mass destruction and supplied bio-war technology to “other rogue nations.” There was, we now know, no evidence to back this up. Bolton was making that charge simply to undermine Carter in his discussions with Castro and to provoke fear in the American people. Indeed, the accusation was quickly dropped as soon as Carter’s visit was over. What’s important is that it serves as a perfect example of the way the Bush administration uses and misuses intelligence for political purposes.
Proper intelligence is supposed to describe reality, what crises, threats, circumstances and events face our country. Intelligence gathering is not a science and is often wrong. But the bottom line is that it has to be honest. A government needs an objective understanding of what’s going on in the world. But what the Bush administration wants, and demands from its intelligence agencies, is justification for its policies. The administration hears what it wants to hear, no matter whether the information is fact or fiction, right or wrong.
In the October 27th issue of The New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh gives a shocking description of the way the Bush administration distorts intelligence for its own ends. One example Hersh describes, is Bolton’s dismissing the services of the State Department’s intelligence expert because he, the expert, challenged the veracity of the raw intelligence data that Bolton wanted to believe.
Similarly, the Iraqi adventure is based on the administration’s insistence that intelligence data justify its plans for a pre-emptive Iraqi war. Intelligence experts that challenged assumptions or raised questions were not listened to. The administration’s chief source of information was the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group headed by Ahmad Chalabi that wanted U.S. backing for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. This may have been a worthy goal but many intelligence experts questioned whether this group of exiles had enough backing in Iraq to do it.
Stories of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, including Saddam’s determination to obtain nuclear weapons came mostly from these exiles. So did the assurance that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. troops as “liberators.” According to Hersh, many CIA intelligence officers were properly wary. The Chalabi group had a motive to distort the evidence to win the administration’s support. And there was no hard evidence to substantiate their provocative claims.
In the months and days leading up to the Iraqi war, the Bush administration asserted a number of falsehoods. One was that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were working together. Another was that Saddam was building nuclear weapons and had to be taken out before he was capable of using them on America.
Hersh cites numerous instances of administration officials promoting this theme. On August 7, 2002 Vice President Cheney told an audience in California that Saddam “continues to pursue a nuclear weapon.” And he’s a threat, said Cheney, three weeks later, “to anyone he chooses in his own region or beyond.” A month later, Cheney, on television, insisted “with absolute certainty” that Saddam is acquiring the materials “to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” On September 14, George W. Bush said, “Saddam has the scientists and infrastructure for a nuclear weapons program, and has illicitly sought to purchase the equipment needed to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon.” In a speech a few weeks later he went so far as to raise the threat of a nuclear bomb dropping on America. “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” he told the American people.
But there was no threat. There was no evidence of Saddam pursuing nuclear weapons, and even back then the administration knew it. One alleged piece of evidence, used by Bush in his State of the Union Address, was a document claiming that Saddam had bought uranium from the African country of Niger. The CIA was suspicious of the document and sent a veteran diplomat, Joseph Wilson, to Niger to check it out. Wilson found that the document was an obvious forgery and that there was no evidence that Iraq had bought the uranium. Knowing the evidence was fraudulent, the administration continued to promote the assertion. Secretary of State Powell even raised the issue in the U.N. despite the fact that its weapons experts had also found the document a forgery.
Obtaining accurate intelligence is difficult in the best of circumstances; more so when our intelligence officers, like our soldiers, don’t speak the language and know absolutely nothing about the history, religion, customs, and culture of the people whose hearts and minds they are supposed to be mining and winning.
Poor intelligence is one thing, willful lying is far more serious, especially when lives are at stake. But that’s not all of it. When President Bush describes Iraqi attacks on American strongholds in Baghdad as proof that our occupation is succeeding because the Iraqi opposition is weak and desperate, then one must wonder about the cognitive intelligence of the man who ordered the war and is running the country.