Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Bush Administration's Misuse of Intelligence

Paul R. Pillar is an intelligence expert who worked for many years at the C.I.A. and who now is a professor in Georgetown University's Security Studies Department. The current issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by Pillar, which Steve Clemons rightly calls a "devastating critique of the Bush administration's manufactured war."

Pillar turns on its head the Bush administration's claim that Congress, previous U.S. administrations, and our allies in Europe and the Pacific, all saw the same intelligence and agreed that Saddam Hussein was a threat. He says maybe so, but the point is that Bush ignored that intelligence when he invaded Iraq.

Public discussion of prewar intelligence on Iraq has focused on the errors made in assessing Saddam Hussein's unconventional weapons programs. A commission chaired by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Senator Charles Robb usefully documented the intelligence community's mistakes in a solid and comprehensive report released in March 2005. Corrections were indeed in order, and the intelligence community has begun to make them.

At the same time, an acrimonious and highly partisan debate broke out over whether the Bush administration manipulated and misused intelligence in making its case for war. The administration defended itself by pointing out that it was not alone in its view that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and active weapons programs, however mistaken that view may have been.

In this regard, the Bush administration was quite right: its perception of Saddam's weapons capacities was shared by the Clinton administration, congressional Democrats, and most other Western governments and intelligence services. But in making this defense, the White House also inadvertently pointed out the real problem: intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs did not drive its decision to go to war. A view broadly held in the United States and even more so overseas was that deterrence of Iraq was working, that Saddam was being kept "in his box," and that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place. That the administration arrived at so different a policy solution indicates that its decision to topple Saddam was driven by other factors -- namely, the desire to shake up the sclerotic power structures of the Middle East and hasten the spread of more liberal politics and economics in the region.

If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war -- or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath. What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in recent decades.

That, of course, did not stop Bush, Cheney, and Rice from perverting the intelligence community's findings to favor their war policy. They cherry-picked, distorted the significance of information by taking it out of context (for example, pointing to the C.I.A.'s documentation of Saddam's weapons program but ignoring all the intelligence that indicated how unlikely it was that he would use them), and used intelligence that the C.I.A. had judged to be unreliable or unconfirmed in public speeches to drum up support for the war (like the Niger uranium connection).

Pillar saves his most damning critique of the Bush cabal's motives for their use of the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection as a justification for regime change. Here is where the full cynicism of Bush's manipulation of Americans' post-9/11 fears becomes most glaring:

The reexamination of prewar public statements is a necessary part of understanding the process that led to the Iraq war. But a narrow focus on rhetorical details tends to overlook more fundamental problems in the intelligence-policy relationship. Any time policymakers, rather than intelligence agencies, take the lead in selecting which bits of raw intelligence to present, there is -- regardless of the issue -- a bias. The resulting public statements ostensibly reflect intelligence, but they do not reflect intelligence analysis, which is an essential part of determining what the pieces of raw reporting mean. The policymaker acts with an eye not to what is indicative of a larger pattern or underlying truth, but to what supports his case.

Another problem is that on Iraq, the intelligence community was pulled over the line into policy advocacy -- not so much by what it said as by its conspicuous role in the administration's public case for war. This was especially true when the intelligence community was made highly visible (with the director of central intelligence literally in the camera frame) in an intelligence-laden presentation by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the UN Security Council a month before the war began. It was also true in the fall of 2002, when, at the administration's behest, the intelligence community published a white paper on Iraq's WMD programs -- but without including any of the community's judgments about the likelihood of those weapons' being used.

But the greatest discrepancy between the administration's public statements and the intelligence community's judgments concerned not WMD (there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed), but the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the "alliance" the administration said existed. The reason the connection got so much attention was that the administration wanted to hitch the Iraq expedition to the "war on terror" and the threat the American public feared most, thereby capitalizing on the country's militant post-9/11 mood.

The issue of possible ties between Saddam and al Qaeda was especially prone to the selective use of raw intelligence to make a public case for war. In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be "linked" to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a "relationship," ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

The intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion of an alliance between Saddam and al Qaeda. Yet it was drawn into a public effort to support that notion. To be fair, Secretary Powell's presentation at the UN never explicitly asserted that there was a cooperative relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. But the presentation was clearly meant to create the impression that one existed. To the extent that the intelligence community was a party to such efforts, it crossed the line into policy advocacy -- and did so in a way that fostered public misconceptions contrary to the intelligence community's own judgments.

None of this is truly new, of course. But I agree with Steve Clemons that Americans seem to need these regular reminders. The continuing revelations of malfeasance create a momentary buzz, but don't seem to generate any lasting or continuing energy or movement for change. How much more confirmation do we need that this administration has done more damage to national security and constitutional democracy than any previous in U.S. history?

No comments: