The stonewall continues.
On Thursday, President Bush’s commission on weapons of mass destruction intelligence released a 692-page report that harshly criticizes the US intelligence establishment. It notes that “the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of it pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure.” That’s no news flash. The Senate intelligence committee issued a report last July that said the same. But like the Senate committee, Bush’s commission–cochaired by Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Senator Chuck Robb, a Democrat–ignored a key issue: whether Bush and his aides overstated and misrepresented the flawed intelligence they received from the intelligence agencies. As I wrote about days ago, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised last summer that his committee would investigate the administration’s prewar use (or abuse) of the WMD intelligence after the 2004 election, but more recently Roberts backed away from that vow, claiming such an inquiry would now be pointless. The commission, which claimed it found no evidence that Bush officials pressured intelligence analysts to rig their reports, notes in a footnote,
Our review has been limited by our charter to the question of alleged policymaker pressure on the Intelligence Community to shape its conclusions to conform to the policy preferences of the Administration. There is a separate issue of how policymakers used the intelligence they were given and how they reflected it in their presentations to Congress and the public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it.
So two years after Bush launched the invasion of Iraq, there still has been no official inquiry into how he and his lieutenants handled the prewar intelligence. The question is whether Bush and other administration officials exaggerated the intelligence community’s overstatements. And the evidence suggests they did. Bush claimed Saddam Hussein was “dealing with” al Qaeda before the war, but the CIA had not reported that. Bush said Hussein had amassed a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons, yet the intelligence community had only reported (errantly) that Iraq had an active research and development program for biological weapons. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress have so far succeeded in keeping his role in the WMD scandal out of the picture. (Democrats, where are you?)
The presidential WMD commission found numerous problems within the intelligence community. It says, “we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries.” (This is bad news for anyone who wants to bomb Iran or North Korea.) The report is mostly depressing, as it describes severe dysfunctions within the intelligence establishment. But the commission casts little, if any, blame toward the person ultimately responsible for the intelligence community: the president of the United States. And the current president even bestowed upon former CIA director George Tenet, who was at the helm during this period of screw-ups, the presidential Medal of Freedom. (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz received one, too. And yesterday the Rand Corporation released a report concluding that his Pentagon failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The Rand study says that stabilization and reconstruction issues “were addressed only very generally” and “no planning was undertaken to ensure the security of the Iraqi people.”)
The WMD commission took only a few modest steps toward addressing–in the most general terms–the role played by Bush and the policymakers in the Iraq WMD intelligence failure. For instance, the commission notes,
The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers-sometimes to the point of discomfort. Analysts must be pressed to explain how much they don’t know; the collection agencies must be pressed to explain why they don’t have better information on key topics. While policymakers must be prepared to credit intelligence that doesn’t fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true.
It’s obvious that Bush did not push the intelligence services in this fashion. As the White House has conceded, Bush did not even read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002. This was the intelligence community’s ultimate summary of its intelligence on Iraq. A close reading of the document could have led Bush or national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (who also did not read the 90-page paper) to raise the sort of questions the commission suggests. But that did not happen. When Silberman was asked at a press conference if Bush had been inquisitive enough, he referred to a passage in Bob Woodward’s latest book in which Bush is depicted asking Tenet if the intelligence is sound and Tenet maintains it is a “slam-dunk.” That clearly was not good enough.
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The commission also observes,
The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments. That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.
The commission suggests that it is partly the responsibility of the president to guarantee that conventional wisdom is questioned. But Bush did no such thing. With this report, the CIA is again cast as the fall guy. And Bush escapes merrily.
A government nonproliferation expert with experience dealing with intelligence analysts, who has read the report, sent me his/her assessment. This source asked to go unnamed, fearing retribution at the workplace for publicly blasting the report. Below is an excerpt of his/her analysis:
[The commission] focuses on how and why the dogs barked [and got it wrong]. The real point, however, is: why didn’t someone look out the window? And why have no policymakers taken responsibility, anywhere, for drastically wrong assessments on Iraq?
The Commission’s report is a good read and thorough. The recommendations — to collect better intelligence, do better analysis, and communicate better — however, reflect the absurdity of having intelligence experts tell each other how to do their job better. The users of intelligence should be involved. The Commission had 60 staff members, but only three have identifiable expertise in nonproliferation and none have nonproliferation policy experience. Why didn’t the Commission include more nonproliferation experts?
There are lots of reasons….The Commission was appointed by the president and it is politically easier for this administration to focus on intelligence rather than policy failures, for obvious reasons. Nonproliferation experts might point out that even though the intelligence was flawed, someone with enough nonproliferation experience would have asked more questions. Despite the fascinating details of how and why the intelligence on uranium from Niger was faulty, an expert would point out that there were tons of natural and low-enriched uranium already in Iraq: even if Iraq got uranium from Niger, it wouldn’t make a discernible difference in the quantity it could enrich. Iraq’s first choice would be to take the safeguarded material (just as it planned to do before the 1991 war) and use that. Faster and less complicated. A nonproliferation expert would also know that the CIA’s arguments that Iraq was reconstituting its cadre of nuclear weapons personnel were an old, tired mantra repeated since the early 1990s. In interagency meetings ten years ago, I used to ask them, what evidence do you have? “Well,” the analysts would say, “we think he’s doing it.” Apparently their evidence never got any better.
For Bush–or the commission–to say he was misled by the intelligence community is not a sufficient explanation or defense. First, Bush didn’t ensure the intelligence he received was solid. Then he and his lieutenants repeatedly said in public that the intelligence was beyond doubt, and they made dramatic assertions about the supposed threat presented by Hussein’s WMDs that went far beyond what the intelligence (wrongly) claimed. In keeping the spotlight exclusively on the intelligence gang and not turning it also on the policymakers at the White House, the WMD commission has served Bush well, but not the public.
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