Were it not for the tens of thousands of dead and wounded, the billions wasted, and the hatred and terrorism inspired, the report The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction would be almost funny. After all, did we really need a $10 million, fourteen-month, 600-plus-page investigation to tell us that the country was taken to war on the basis of a nonexistent threat? What might have been helpful would have been a genuine accounting of how the system was gamed in order to produce phony arguments and suppress the counterevidence. After all, for all his hurt feelings on display before the report was released, does anyone think Colin Powell would have given radically different testimony to the world at his famous February 2003 UN speech if the single drunken defector who was his main source had offered another perspective, one Powell and his bosses didn’t want to hear? What if “Curveball” (or as Maureen Dowd aptly termed him, “Goofball”) had echoed what Powell originally knew but conveniently forgot–that, as the Secretary explained in Cairo in February 2001, Saddam Hussein “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” Would anyone in the Administration have cared what this unreliable drunk said? What of the many, many intelligence experts who warned, pre-invasion, that the data were being manipulated by hawks in the Pentagon and the Vice President’s office? Did anyone listen to them?
Bush says today that he would have invaded Iraq even if he knew then what he knows today. This investigation is therefore a farce–designed once again to shift responsibility from the people who demanded corrupt intelligence to serve their ideological obsessions to those who were forced to provide it.
Our political process has become so degraded that the commissioners themselves can admit that they were forbidden from examining the one issue that still matters. As commission co-chair Laurence Silberman explained, “Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policy makers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry.” The New York Times‘s Todd Purdum noted a passage of the report in which its authors come close to admitting that the problem was not with the providers of intelligence but with the consumers: They complain that the President’s Daily Brief was understood to require “attention-grabbing headlines” and that a “drumbeat of repetition,” says Purdum, quoting the report, “left misleading impressions, and no room for shadings. ‘In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be “selling” intelligence,’ the commission found, ‘in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.'”
This passage reinforces two important lessons about contemporary uses of US intelligence. One: The First Customer requires his information to be provided to him with “no room for shadings” as they may exist in, say, the real world. And two: In order to get Bush to pay attention, the intelligence had to be cooked up to agree with his beliefs. Given this, we might as well ditch our entire intelligence system, because unless it simply regurgitates the President’s pre-existing prejudices, the information it contains will be ignored, rewritten or both.
Much of the coverage of the report–which was, perhaps via divine intervention, drowned out by the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II–gesticulated in the direction of this fundamental truth before returning to the agreed-upon story line that Bush was very, very angry about the fact that he received bad intelligence that led him to invade a country that presented no threat whatever and made him out to be a liar to the rest of the world. He was so mad, in fact, that the only person deemed to be responsible for this massive failure, former CIA director George Tenet, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. (Everybody else involved was punished with a promotion and a raise.)
Yet even in the most critical reports of this phony whitewash, one aspect of this shameful episode went by largely forgotten: the media’s willingness to publicize, vouch for and frequently hype the dishonest case the Administration put forth. I am not speaking just of Judith Miller’s willingness to act as unpaid propagandist for the Pentagon, breaking the Times‘s own reporting rules on its front page in order to mislead its millions of readers. Rather, just about every bigfoot in the business signed on for this bad-acid trip across Bushland. I refer again to a devastating study by former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Gilbert Cranberg of the immediate reaction of the press to Powell’s channeling of Goofball at the United Nations, which should serve as a cautionary example to any reporter who ever again takes this Administration at its word. Despite the fact that Powell cited almost no verifiable sources and included more than forty vague references to “human sources,” “an eyewitness,” “detainees,” “an Al Qaeda source,” “a senior defector,” “intelligence sources,” his words were treated as if the reporters present had personally witnessed God handing him the evidence on tablets atop Mount Sinai. Powell offered up, we were told in our finest newspapers: “a massive array of evidence,” “a sober, factual case,” “an overwhelming case,” “a smoking fusillade…a persuasive case for anyone who is still persuadable,” “an accumulation of painstakingly gathered and analyzed evidence,” “an ironclad case…incontrovertible evidence,” “succinct and damning evidence…the case is closed.”
And yes, this is the same press attacked by Bush supporters as too liberal, too cynical and too “elitist” to give a Republican conservative a fair shake. In a more just universe, the right-wingers would stop whining and give reporters the credit they so richly earned. I mean if the guy in charge of providing all this crappy intelligence deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom, don’t the people who parroted it back deserve a little lovin’ too?