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The 'Intelligence' Game | The Nation

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The 'Intelligence' Game

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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.

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Jason Vest
Jason Vest writes on national security affairs for The Nation.

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The neocon think tank's recent call for an increase in troop strength is myopic.

In Washington, it's hardly without precedent for a presidential appointee to swear one thing before a Senate confirmation committee and then, once ensconced in the sought-after post, do another.

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.

However, almost every current or retired intelligence officer I spoke with that week had a radically different view: Tenet's letter was, in fact, a masterpiece of equivocation, a piece of politicized intelligence whose genius lay in a judicious use of language allowing for either pro- or antiwar forces to cite it with approval. While it did indeed say, "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [weapons] against the United States," the presence of the words "for now" between "Baghdad" and the somewhat opaque "appears" gave the assessment an urgent, ominous quality easy for any hawk to seize on.

Tenet's comments on WMD ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda--most recently called into question by a June 9 New York Times story quoting two top Al Qaeda officials now in US custody as saying no such ties exist--also cut both ways. "This is the price George, who's a Democrat, pays if he wants to keep his job in this Administration, especially post-9/11," a veteran intelligence officer opined to me. "It's language ready-made for a stump speech: 'We have credible reporting that Al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to Al Qaeda members in areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.'" As the officer noted, "credible isn't the same as true. Can it be corroborated? What's the context for it? Does this automatically mean Saddam's in cahoots with Al Qaeda for WMD attacks, or could it be that Saddam's keeping friends close and enemies closer? And if there's 'credible information indicating Iraq and Al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression,' things like 'safe haven' and 'nonaggression' sound pretty different than active cooperation. Which is it?"

Also worth noting, the same spooks told me, were fishy shifts in ongoing CIA reporting on Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile capabilities. I haven't plowed through all the unclassified reports, but National Security Archive fellow John Prados has, and his 5,000-word report in the May/June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (www.thebulletin.org/issues/2003/mj03/mj03prados.html) makes for a highly interesting and informative read. Titled "A necessary war? Not according to UN monitors--or to US intelligence, which has watched the situation even more carefully," Prados ultimately concludes: "It is fair to suspect that CIA analysts did not approve of the cast being given to their reporting. Conversely, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had little real need to create his own in-house intelligence staff to furnish threat information on Iraq--George Tenet's CIA had already been hounded into doing just that. The Iraqi threat was nothing like the Soviet one, but intelligence had been manipulated just the same." The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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