A Failure of Intelligence

Intelligence failures, intelligence failures. The United States spends more than $40 billion a year on intelligence, but, gosh darn it, we just can't seem to get it right. The latest fiasco, of course, concerns the now infamous National Intelligence Estimate about Iran which concludes that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program more than four years ago.

Let me suggest, however, that the real problem is not repeated intelligence failures, as conventional wisdom has it. In fact, I believe we have the opposite problem -- namely, intelligence successes. By that I mean successful disinformation operations, black propaganda operations that have promoted falsehoods for decades in an extraordinarily successful series of attempts to mislead the American people and shape U.S. foreign policy to serve neo-conservative ideological ends.

One can trace such operations back to 1976, when a number of young neoconservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, helped assemble a group of hawkish anti-Communist foreign policymakers to put together intelligence showing that that the "liberal" CIA had dangerously underestimated the Soviet threat. Even though U.S.-Soviet relations had thawed considerably thanks to dAf(c)tente, Team B, as the group became known, thought that the Soviets wanted to wipe out America, so it created a report showing a Soviet Union hell bent on world domination. It had no factual evidence to back up its assertion that the Soviets had a top secret non-acoustic antisubmarine system. Nevertheless, it concluded that the Soviets had probably "deployed some operational non-acoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years." The absence of evidence, it reasoned, merely proved how secretive the Soviets were!

Similarly, in the early '80s, neo-con firebrand Michael Ledeen falsely blamed the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on the KGB. In a 1987 article in The Nation, Italian intelligence operative Francesco Pazienza said that Ledeen "was the person responsible for dreaming up the 'Bulgarian connection' behind the plot to kill the Pope." Again, a disinformation scam heated up the Cold War.

More recently, of course, there were the Niger documents, the forgeries that said Saddam agreed to buy 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the Republic of Niger. Astoundingly, as I report in my new book, The Fall of the House of Bush, on at least 13 different occasions Western authorities discredited the information in the Niger documents, yet they still found their way into President Bush's 2003 "State of the Union" address as a casus belli to start a war against Iraq. No fewer than nine former intelligence and military analysts who have served in the C.I.A., the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), and the Pentagon told me on the record that they believed that the Niger documents were part of a covert operation to deliberately mislead the American public and start a war with Iraq.

All of which brings us to U.S. policy with Iran -- and a narrative that by now should be all too familiar, but that somehow still escapes the attention of the mainstream press. In December 2001, secret back channel meetings took place in Rome between Michael Ledeen and Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer and con man. Members of the Mujahideen e-Khalq, or MEK, an urban-guerrilla group of Iranian dissidents that practices a peculiar brand of revolutionary Marxism, reportedly attended, suggesting that a rogue group of neo-cons had notions about trying to implement regime change in Iran. In August 2006, House intelligence committee chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) released a congressional report which overstated both the number and range of Iran's missiles and neglected to mention that the International Atomic Energy Agency found no evidence of weapons production or activity. And, of course, there have been countless reports that an Iranian nuclear weapon was imminent.

Last week, however, with the release of the Iran NIE, intelligence professionals from the CIA and analysts from the State Department finally triumphed over the neo-con ideologues for change. As a result, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a hard-liner if ever there was one, is now screaming that the NIE may be a product of "disinformation" from Iran and that someone "is pursuing a policy agenda."

It is fair to say that many unanswered questions remain about Iran's intentions. But if history is any guide, John Bolton has it exactly backwards.

Craig Unger is the New York Times bestselling author of House of Bush, House of Saud. He has just published his latest book, The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future (Scribner).

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