On February 14 Thomas Fingar, chief analyst of the eighteen-agency US intelligence community, gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Not the most public of public servants, Fingar, a longtime intelligence analyst, stepped out of the shadows before a respectful audience to defend his much-maligned colleagues. “You want it real bad, you sometimes get it real bad. And the Iraq WMD estimate falls in that category,” Fingar said. He was referring to the dismal measure by which CIA analysis is now judged: the calamitous ninety-three-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that the intelligence community produced in October 2002. “It was requested. We were given a two-week period in which to produce it. And it was bad. It was really bad…. The percentage of analysts who participated in the production of that hurry-up, get-it-out-the-door-in-two-weeks product was tiny compared to the larger set, all of whom were tarred with the same brush of incompetence.”
More notable than the aggrieved tone of Fingar’s address was its extremely selective account of the events leading up to the creation of that infamous NIE. In mid-2002, Bob Graham, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, received classified briefings on Iraq from then-CIA Director George Tenet. Behind closed doors, Tenet presented a much less alarming picture of Iraq than the one George W. Bush gave the public. But Graham, concerned about an impending push from the White House to authorize war, soon learned the Bush Administration had not ordered the CIA to prepare an NIE on Iraq, indicating to him that the Administration’s position on Iraq was not guided by the intelligence. Invoking rarely used senatorial authority, Graham formally requested an NIE–before the war vote. If Graham was guilty of anything, it was not hostility to CIA analysts, as Fingar insinuated, but suspicion of White House manipulation of intelligence, and CIA complicity. As Graham explained several years later in a Washington Post op-ed, “Particular skepticism was raised” by the NIE “about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to [Saddam] Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.” What’s more, “Most of the alleged intelligence came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States’ removing Hussein, by force if necessary.” To save the intelligence community from public embarrassment in the face of such revelations, lies like Fingar’s have been, since the creation of the modern intelligence apparatus, a cost of doing business.
Fingar, incidentally, is one of the intelligence community’s brightest analytical lights. He has a sterling reputation for integrity. During the NIE process in 2002, he was second-in-command of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, known as INR. A relative backwater with a laughably small slice of the $50 billion annual intelligence budget, INR is the subject of consistent disrespect from the CIA. Yet INR has perhaps the best analytic record of any component of the community. Fingar did not need to say in San Francisco what intelligence observers have known for years: his old shop was the only agency that dissented from the 2002 NIE’s consensus that Saddam was building a nuclear bomb.
Indeed, INR is a story of what might have been. Harry Truman, who presided over the creation of the modern US intelligence apparatus, famously said that what he sought was a secret newspaper, something that would divine the hidden agendas and developments of mysterious foreign actors in the dawning cold war. This is what, essentially, INR produces. But what Truman got was something more suited to what his cold war policies required: a sprawling apparatus devoted to covert action, subterfuge, disinformation and lawlessness. Once upon a time, the agency was candid about what it needed to be. “Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply,” wrote Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in a secret 1954 report for Dwight D. Eisenhower about revamping the CIA’s covert actions. “We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.”