Paul Pillar lived through the quirks of the Reagan administration, when Soviet bogeymen were thought to lurk behind most Third World uprisings.Yet in nearly 28 years as a CIA uber-analyst, he says he never saw the kind of politicking with raw intelligence as under President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
In the lead-up to war in Iraq, a stream of questions and data requests were coming out of the vice president's office, and out of other offices at the White House and Pentagon, said Pillar.
But they weren't for just the facts, please.
The questions were slanted to cull intelligence to "sell" the idea of war with Iraq, says Pillar, interviewed Thursday at Kent State University after a symposium.
They were not, "Where does al-Qaida get its strength?' " says Pillar, "but rather, What can you tell me about any links between Saddam's regime and al-Qaida?'-- which is a different sort of question."
Pillar first went public with his criticisms early last year, shortly after leaving the agency. He wrote a scathing article for Foreign Affairs magazine, accusing the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" its Iraq intelligence.
Some on the right pilloried him for "cherry-picking" his critique for political reasons. Yet Pillar's allegations parallel similar charges about the Iraq war selling job now being made by ex-CIA Director George Tenet.
After a tour in Vietnam and a doctorate in political science, Pillar spent nearly his whole career at the CIA.
By the time of the Iraq war, he was the U.S. intelligence community's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. In that position, he would have been involved in any major U.S. intelligence assessments concerning a post-Saddam Iraq.
"And there were never any [such] requests by the administration," says Pillar, barking a short, incredulous laugh. "We, on our own initiative, offered exactly such assessments."
In January 2003, two months before the Iraq attack, the U.S. intelligence community produced two still-classified "key intelligence community assessments" on challenges that would face whoever ran Iraq after an overthrow, Pillar says. The grim predictions were ignored.
Parts of those findings have since been leaked, but Pillar says he eagerly awaits the day when the reports become public, "because I think they will be shown to be pretty much on the mark."
He may not have long to wait.
Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Democratic chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, says the declassified reports could be released by month's end. They form an addendum to the committee's next installment in its Phase II examination of possible political interference in pre-Iraq war intelligence efforts, Morigi said. This installment deals with prewar intelligence predictions.
Still to come is the explosive final Phase II report, a dissection of key officials' statements in the run-up to war and how they accorded with the intelligence. In August 2002, for instance, Vice President Cheney said Saddam had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program -- an issue upon which the intelligence community was divided.
Pillar "eschews" the word "lie" to describe such comments, but seems to acknowledge they were purposely tailored to mislead.
"The main dynamic that was occurring here was not so much a specific factual assertion that was knowingly false, which I think most of us, all would agree, is a lie, but rather the construction of bits and pieces of reporting of varying credibility with the express and obvious purpose of creating an impression that was incorrect."
Trying to link Saddam to 9/11 was the most obvious such effort, he said.
It wasn't said right out. Yet, after a plethora of hints, suggestions and a "steady drumbeat of Iraq, 9/11, al-Qaida," the desired conclusion of collusion was successfully implanted in the public's mind, says Pillar.
Through it all, Cheney became the most powerful vice president in U.S. history, according to Pillar, with a staff of advisers and analysts who dwarfed the president's own security advisers, in terms of influence and reach.
Pillar contends Cheney's staff actually "supplanted the regular National Security Council staff in terms of driving policy on these key points of interest, above all, the Iraq war."
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2007 The Plain Dealer