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Between the Lines

October 21, 2003

Incompetence and self-delusion

Seymour Hersh’s story in the current New Yorker about U.S. intelligence failures and the Bush administration’s egregious misuse of intelligence to justify the war in Iraq is illuminating and appalling. It is today’s must read.

A few of Hersh’s key points:

-- The UN agencies the Bush administration spent so much effort ridiculing before the war produced better intelligence on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction than did the CIA.

-- Two rump intelligence offices established by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “stovepiped” raw, unevaluated and often inaccurate intelligence directly to the top levels of the administration, where it was “cherry-picked” to fit the prejudices and objectives of the war hawks in the administration, then passed on to the President’s office.

-- “By early March, 2002, a former White House official told me, it was understood by many in the White House that the President had decided, in his own mind, to go to war. The undeclared decision had a devastating impact on the continuing struggle against terrorism. The Bush Administration took many intelligence operations that had been aimed at Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world and redirected them to the Persian Gulf. Linguists and special operatives were abruptly reassigned, and several ongoing anti-terrorism intelligence programs were curtailed.”

-- At the CIA, in particular, the spooks became so angry with administration brow-beating and misuse of information that rogue agents there may have been the ones who fabricated the documents that purported to show that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy partially refined uranium ore from the African country of Niger. The objective would have been to catch the administration lying, then blow the whistle.

“Like all large institutions, CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, is full of water-cooler gossip, and a retired clandestine officer told me this summer that the story about a former operations officer faking the documents is making the rounds,” Hersh writes. “ ‘What’s telling,’ he added, ‘is that the story, whether it’s true or not, is believed’ —an extraordinary commentary on the level of mistrust, bitterness, and demoralization within the CIA under the Bush Administration.”

-- The faked Niger documents – whatever their provenance -- led directly to the uproar over this assertion in Bush’s State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

-- In July, former diplomat Joseph Wilson wrote a piece for the op-ed page of the New York Times about his own mission to Niger, at the CIA’s request, to investigate reports that Saddam was trying to buy uranium ore there. He found no evidence to support the idea, forcing the White House to concede for the first time that “this information should not have risen to the level of a Presidential speech.” White House officials retaliated by fingering Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent, which, in turn led to the current FBI investigation.

Former UN inspector David Kay's report earlier this month on Iraq's weapons programs -- no WMDs found and, more specifically, “ ... to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material” -- led Bush to conclude that, “Saddam Hussein was a threat, a serious danger.”

Hersh wonders what, if anything, the administration has learned from these failures.

It’s a disgraceful tale of incompetence, bureaucratic bickering and self-delusion. Read it all; it’s worth the time.

Posted by tbrown at 01:54 PM




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