Oh to be swiped by The New Republic –and to be fortunate enough to have a forum in which to reply.
The lead editorial of the October 28 issue chided various reporters–including The New York Times‘s Michael Gordon and Maureen Dowd and myself–for having “gasped” when CIA director George Tenet declassified the agency’s assessment of the threat from Baghdad.
I was indeed one of several journalists–and members of Congress–who considered it significant that Tenet, in an October 8 letter to the Senate intelligence committee, reported the CIA had concluded that “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States.” The agency eggheads also believed that Saddam Hussein “probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions” and in “assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States,” if Washington were about to strike Iraq. In other words, Saddam is not likely to hit the United States or collaborate with al Qaeda, unless the United States assaults Iraq.
As I noted, this is not the picture George W. Bush and his lieutenants have been presenting the public. (Click here to read the column that peeved TNR.) Days before the release of Tenet’s letter, Bush characterized Saddam as a “threat…that could bring sudden terror and suffering to America,” and he called the Iraqi dictator a “significant” danger to the United States. More recently, Bush has ramped up his anti-Saddam rhetoric and claimed that Saddam hopes to deploy al Qaeda as his own “forward army” against the West and that he “is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda.” None of that squares with the CIA information.
So what’s TNR‘s beef? In its own words: “What the breathless commentators seem not to have noticed is that Tenet’s ‘revelation’ isn’t a revelation at all; CIA dovishness on Iraq is nothing new.” [Sorry, the editorial is not available on the magazine’s website–so no hot link here.]
What Tenet had conveyed could not be trusted, the magazine asserted, because the CIA is soft on Iraq. Exhibit A: “the Agency’s reluctance to confront Saddam dates back to the aftermath of the Gulf war, when the CIA grew opposed to assisting the Kurdish and Shia rebellions against the dictator.” This brief history lesson ignores a key fact: the first President Bush decided not to back the uprisings. It was not the CIA’s call, and Bush and his foreign policy advisers, for better or worse, feared that the rise of a Shiite state in the south and a Kurdish one in the north would destabilize the area. Thus, Iraqis who had been encouraged to rise up against Saddam were sold out. (See the film Three Kings.) But as journalist Mark Perry notes in his book Eclipse, an examination of the CIA during the first Bush presidency, in early April 1991, before the rebellions were quashed, “a specially trained eleven-man CIA paramilitary team was dropped into northern Iraq. There was still a hope that the Kurds might somehow score a major victory and establish a semi-independent Kurdish state.” The CIA team made contact with Kurdish rebel leaders, but it was too late. The revolt was soon put down by Saddam’s murderous henchmen.
Other evidence of CIA mushiness on Iraq? In 2000, Frank Anderson, the CIA’s Near East Division chief in the early 1990s, called the policy of containment “a magnificent success, or at least, certainly, an acceptable success.” But others have said the same–or, at least, agreed with the “acceptable success” evaluation. In fact, the white paper released by Tony Blair on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction noted important accomplishments achieved by the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s and called for further inspections–which certainly can be interpreted to mean the British government believes the containment/inspections policy of the 1990s was no failure and could, if revived and tightened, work again.
The magazine offered other instances of CIA’s “wishful thinking” and errors regarding Iraq, most notably that the Agency did not predict Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. But in his book Perry–no symp for the CIA–details how the CIA and other intelligence services did produce intelligence in July 1990 indicating an invasion was coming. Late that month, CIA analysts, studying satellite photographs, saw Iraqi trucks hauling ammunition, fuel, and water to troops deployed on Kuwait’s northern border. They interpreted the photos to mean Iraq would enter Kuwait within days. But when presented with this and other material, President Bush said he was not convinced an invasion was imminent and did not want to overreact.
This is not to defend the CIA as always correct and always straight-shooting (hardly). But TNR is being conveniently distrustful of the CIA. In a March 12, 2001, article by Lawrence Kaplan, the magazine cited a CIA study to bolster the case for a ballistic missile defense. Likewise, an April 29, 2002, article by Janine Zacharia positively referenced CIA testimony regarding Syria’s development of a long-range ballistic missile. Does hawk-friendly CIA info carry more credibility? Yet an October 14, 2002, editorial took CIA officials at their word when they groused that the White House was mischaracterizing their intelligence regarding the supposed al Qaeda-Iraq connection.
By the way, if I cite the Tenet letter as evidence rebutting Bush’s war rhetoric, I am not agreeing to accept all future and past CIA information. But, obviously, when the CIA releases material at odds with the President–which is not a comfortable act–that may well be a sign the analysts actually believe the conclusions.
But forget whether David Corn or TNR has the right take on the CIA. The bigger question is, when Bush says Saddam “is a man who we know has had connections with al Qaeda,” what is the source of that allegation? If not the CIA and the intelligence community, then what? The CIA says its intelligence does not indicate Saddam poses an immediate threat of terrorism to the United States. Bush says something else. And it’s not as if Bush appears at a campaign rally and remarks, “The CIA doesn’t believe this, but I feel it in my bones.” He states or implies, “we know.” But who is the we–if not the CIA?
In dismissing the CIA’s finding on Iraq, The New Republic notes, “None of this means the CIA doesn’t have the right to its opinion about Iraq. But that opinion isn’t new. And the historical record shows that Langley isn’t intellectually or morally infallible. Who thought the antiwar left would need to be convinced of that?”
How kind of TNR to grant the CIA “the right to its opinion.” But if the CIA produces only opinions, then what’s the point? Let’s save on the $30-plus billion devoted to the intelligence community. Let’s not bother with intelligence briefings on the Hill. And let’s not cite CIA estimates in pursuit of a missile defense system or a hard-line pro-Israel policy. TNR only rushes to question the CIA when its intelligence undermines the argument for war. Is it too much to expect the President’s rhetoric to be in sync with US intelligence assessments? If they are not, then the President ought to explain why. After all, the historical record also shows that Bush isn’t intellectually or morally infallible. Or does TNR need to be convinced of that?