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Between the Lines

July 13, 2004

Intelligence follies

It's hard to find a hero, or even someone you'd want to have coffee with, in the mucky prologue to the Iraq war. The U.S. intelligence community blew it, overstating the importance of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. An unclassified version of the CIA's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq released publicly drew a far starker picture of the presumed Iraqi threat than did the classifed version that was supposed to help the administration decide what to do. For its part, the Bush administration was determined to go to war regardless of what the intelligence showed anyway. Then there's former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who concluded after a brief investigation that it was unlikely that Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. He now appears to have lied when he said his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, was not involved in any way in promoting his trip to Africa. Regardless of what Wilson, or Plame, said or did, however, it was still ethically wrong – and may have been an indictable crime – for two "senior administration officials" to blow her cover by naming her to columnist Robert Novak, and the investigation into that case continues.

This summary doesn't even cover the (mis)use of prewar intelligence by the administration to bolster its case for war. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, conveniently, won't get to that until after the election.

What a mess.

There are, however, several blog posts and online articles on all this that make interesting, if sometimes discouraging, reading.

A sharp blow

First up, we have former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who with some buddies spent last weekend going over the Senate intelligence report:

"The Senate Committee report is meticulous. Its findings are a sharp blow to those of us who took pride in working in an agency where we could speak truth to power—with career protection from retribution from the powerful, and with leaders who would face down those policymakers who tried to exert undue influence over our analysis," McGovern writes.

"Although it was clear to us that much of the intelligence on Iraq had been cooked to the recipe of policy, not until the Senate report did we know that the skewing included outright lies. We had heard of 'Joe,' the nuclear weapons analyst in CIA’s Center for Weapons Intelligence and Arms Control, and it was abundantly clear that his agenda was to 'prove' that the infamous aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were to be used for developing a nuclear weapon. We did not know that he and his CIA associates deliberately falsified the data …

“ 'Who could have believed that about our intelligence community, that the system could be so dishonest?' wondered the normally soft-spoken David Albright, a widely respected veteran expert on Iraq’s work toward developing a nuclear weapon.

"I share his wonderment. I too am appalled—and angry. …

"Even Republican stalwart Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has conceded that, had Congress known before the vote for war what his committee has now discovered, 'I doubt if the votes would have been there.'

Shades of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which precipitated our plunge into Vietnam.

Why the rush?

Blogger Matt Yglesias notes that the Senate report says the NIE on Iraq's weapons program was compiled in three weeks, rather than the several months these documents usually consume.

"The report states that though this compressed time frame led to the inclusion of some errors, it didn't affect the 'bottom line' judgments. But still, why the rush?

"Well, the report couldn't be started earlier because, as [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card has explained, 'from a marketing standpoint, you don't roll out a new product in August' so the big push for war didn't get kicking until after Labor Day. At the same time, it had to be done soon because Karl Rove [Bush's political adviser] wanted the Congress to vote on a resolution before the election and, as a result, a due date of October 1 was set. The administration, then, was clearly looking for intelligence to bolster a case it had already decided to make (the draft resolution was submitted to Congress almost two weeks before the NIE was finished) rather than basing its case on intelligence. What's more, the NIE was put together during a period when the president was speaking almost every single day about the case for war.

"Under the circumstances," Yglesias argues, "it's not hard to see how CIA leadership could have concluded that only one sort of message would be welcome. It's also hard to see how having the president and his top aides speaking publicly on a daily basis about the urgency of the Iraqi threat doesn't constitute political pressure on the intelligence agencies to conclude that Iraq posed an urgent threat."

So does this mean the administration did pressure intelligence analysts to produce information that supported the war case. The Senate committee says no. But as Yglesias notes, ” Sometimes it's useful to read things for yourself,” and cites these passages from page 284 of the report:

Conclusion 83. The Committee did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or presssure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

[Redacted paragraph]

[Redacted paragraph]

[Redacted paragraph]

[Page break]

[Redacted paragraph]

[Redacted paragraph]

Conclusion 84. The Committee found no evidence that the Vice President's visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure analysts, were perceived as intended to pressure analysts by those who participated in the briefings on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, or did pressure analysts to change their assessments.

[Redacted paragraph]

[Redacted paragraph]

[End of pressure discussion]

"That's good enough for me!" says Matt. Ditto.

Joe Wilson blows it

After President Bush asserted in his January 2003 state of the union address that Saddam had tried to buy uranium ore from Niger, Joe Wilson, who had been there a year earlier, triggered a storm of controversy with an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he said he had found little to support that conclusion.
Now, however, Administration supporters are pointing to this Washington Post story, which says that what Wilson found in Africa reinforced rather than undermined the case that Saddam was trying to buy uranium and, further, flatly contradicts Wilson's oft-stated claim that wife Valerie Plame played no role in his mission.

I think the uranium question is going to require yet more time and reporting before we know for sure what happened. As the Post story notes, "Yesterday's report said that whether Iraq sought to buy lightly enriched "yellowcake" uranium from Niger is one of the few bits of prewar intelligence that remains an open question. Much of the rest of the intelligence suggesting a buildup of weapons of mass destruction was unfounded, the report said."

There seems to be less question that Wilson lied when he said his wife played no role in his trip to Niger.

"The report states that a CIA official told the Senate committee that Plame 'offered up' Wilson's name for the Niger trip, then on Feb. 12, 2002, sent a memo to a deputy chief in the CIA's Directorate of Operations saying her husband 'has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity.' The next day, the operations official cabled an overseas officer seeking concurrence with the idea of sending Wilson, the report said."

Wilson was not paid for his Niger trip, so if Plame's action involved any conflict of interest it would seem to have been minor. However, Wilson's public denial that she played any role in the trip has been an important facet of the political flap over the administration disclosing her identity, and Wilson's credibility is taking a big hit. As it should.

I think I'll hit the espresso stand by myself.

Posted by tbrown at 12:30 PM




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