Representative Walter Jones was out of place when he sat down at the dais in a committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday. He had come to participate in an unofficial hearing being held by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. And Jones is neither a Senator nor a Democrat. He is a hawkish Republican from North Carolina. But he asked one of the most poignant questions of the afternoon.
Before him were a panel of veterans of the intelligence wars that had raged before the invasion of Iraq: retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell; Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia; Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; and Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Each man had offered an explanation of what had gone wrong with the prewar intelligence, and generally they excoriated the Bush administration. Wilkerson noted that “our national leaders had used intelligence in a careless manner and that there should be “some kind of accountability” for that. Pillar accused the Bush White House of having turned the “textbook model of intelligence-policy relations…upside down.” He explained: “Instead of intelligence being used to inform policy, it was used primarily to justify a decision already made.” Ford blasted the entire intelligence community for turning out lousy analysis. He maintained that “we” got the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD “wrong because we aren’t very good at analysis….Unfortunately it represents one of our better analytical efforts.” And White said that policymakers–including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice–routinely “turned a blind eye to intelligence inconsistent with their Middle East agenda.”
The witnesses went over many of the known horror stories of the prewar intelligence battles: the aluminum tubes cited by the White House as proof Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons (which actually were for rocket launchers); the mobile biological weapons labs (which actually were for producing hydrogen for weather balloons); Saddam’s alleged training of al Qaeda in biological and chemical weapons (which was sourced to an al Qaeda commander who recanted his story).
So after all this, Representative Jones, who had voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq, had a question. He noted that “my heart has ached ever since I found out that the intelligence…was flawed and possibly manipulated.” He said that he had written letters to relatives of every American soldier who has died in Iraq–8000 letters so far. “What perplexes me,” he said, “is how in the world could [intelligence] professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?”
It was an important question. Within the intelligence community, there were professionals who knew that critical parts of the Bush administration’s case for war–which relied primarily on the argument that Saddam posed a direct WMD threat to the United States–had serious holes. Those who dissented internally did not go public–they worked within the system. But the system did not work. The White House made certain not to pay attention to any of the dissents, and it did not share the disputes with the voters. Why had the entire intelligence community allowed Bush and his aides to get away with this?
The panelists did not get a chance to respond to Jones, for he kept on talking–right over that query–and he segued to another subject, asking how it could be that the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration gained so much power and had more influence than “you, the professionals.”
Wilkerson fielded the question, first noting that as a Republican he was “embarrassed” that Jones was the only GOPer to attend the hearing (which was open to legislators of both parties). Then Wilkerson replied, “I’ll answer you with three words: the vice president.” That seemed to satisfy Jones. Neither he nor Wilkerson mentioned the two-word answer: the president.
The hearing–chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan–was the Senate Democrats’ effort to examine an issue that the Republican-controlled Congress has so far ignored: how the White House handled and represented the prewar intelligence. The House and Senate intelligence committees did investigate the quality of the prewar intelligence and slammed the intelligence community for botching much of it. But they have not yet confronted how Bush officials characterized the intelligence and used it to promote a war. The Senate intelligence committee was supposed to probe this topic and release a report, but it has dragged its heels and watered down its investigation by tacking on an examination of statements made by Democrats about Iraq and WMDs going back to the early 1990s. The Republicans’ obvious gotcha goal is to show that Democrats, just like Bush and his advisers, had, at various times, said that they believed that Iraq had WMDs. But no Democrat launched a war on such assertions.
The Bush administration overstated the overstated intelligence–on Iraq’s WMDs and its supposed ties to al Qaeda. Yet every investigation to date has ducked the issue. The Senate Democrats cannot conduct a full-fledged investigation on their own. For instance, they could not compel administration officials to attend this hearing. They could not subpoena records. The most they could do is invite those willing to appear and make a point.
The points were sharply made. Wilkerson called Powell’s now-infamous presentation to the UN Security Council–in which practically everything Powell asserted was wrong–“the lowest point of my professional life.” Pillar noted that the intelligence community “never judged that there was anything close to an alliance” between Iraq and al Qaeda. Ford bemoaned that his own analysts at the State Department failed to persuade Powell not to use the aluminum tubes charge in his UN speech.
There were revealing moments at the event. But the press attendance was not great. After all, the session could be dismissed as not a real hearing. Only three Democratic senators were there for most of it (Dorgan, Jeff Bingaman, and Dianne Feinstein). And it is three years too late. The war happened. And now the White House and its allies dismiss talk of how the war started as unproductive given the present-day challenges. But as Wilkerson noted, accountability still awaits those who called it wrong–and those who misused the intelligence.