As quixotic searches for “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq continue to yield little more than chagrin, the Washington establishment is growing restive. Yet it’s hard to say what’s more bemusing about the burgeoning Sturm und Drang along the Potomac: The pointed questions about WMD-related “intelligence” cited by the Bush Administration to justify its invasion of Iraq or the “shocked, shocked” tones in which some are asking the questions.
Anyone familiar with the intelligence game knows how susceptible any intelligence–raw reports and intercepts, finished analyses, white papers, national intelligence estimates–is to potential manipulation or subversion. You didn’t even need a specially compartmented top-secret clearance to divine what was going on in the case. By simply reading the papers and connecting some slightly arcane open-source dots last year, it was clear that the Rumsfeld/
Cheney axis was having its way with the CIA.
None of this should come as a surprise. It was a well-
documented fact long before 9/11 that the neoconservative clique the Defense Secretary and Vice President hail from has a long history of using force and subterfuge to make intelligence say–implicitly or explicitly–what’s ideologically desired.
To be fair, this isn’t something unique to one strain of the polity, nor does it mean career analysts warm to the task of cooking the books. As the distinguished intelligence writer Thomas Powers noted in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, “Dishonesty in the intelligence business is not personal but institutional,” with the political needs of Washington inevitably leading the CIA to compromise its findings. And to illustrate that point, Powers cited a case study that bears more than a passing resemblance to the current situation:
The CIA can drag its feet for only so long. For example, at the height of the controversy over the SS-9–the Soviet missile, first detected in the mid-1960s, that many suspected to be a first-strike weapon–the CIA was more or less directly ordered by Melvin Laird to remove a paragraph from the Soviet NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] that said that the Russians were almost certainly not planning to build a first-strike capability. Power, not argument, carried the day. Laird was the secretary of defense, and he simply would not accept the offending paragraph. This may not be what scientists call objectivity, but it is the way things work.
There are, of course, other ways to get the CIA imprimatur without being quite so interventionist. On October 7, 2002, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet sent a letter to Congress that many viewed as a rebuke to George W. Bush’s relentless characterization of Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to America. Conventional wisdom held that the President had problems based on the CIA’s assessment that Iraqi WMD operations were not on a hairtrigger but were only likely in the event of a US attack on Iraq.