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As you prepare to make the case against Iraq in your State of the Union address Tuesday, beware the consequences of favoring ideologues and spin-doctors over the professional intelligence officers paid to serve you.
Until last week many Americans were inclined to take your top aides at their word that the looming war with Iraq is not about oil or vengeance but rather about Iraq's "continuing pursuit of "weapons of mass destruction." Now all but the most unquestioning loyalists are having serious second thoughts.
Doubt grew exponentially as France and Germany, with whom we have extensive intelligence sharing arrangements, took strong issue with your administration's claims about Iraq. Those two major allies and others have concluded that the evidence that Iraq is continuing to pursue new weapons of mass destruction is far from conclusive and that it falls far short of justification for starting a war.
Your speeches on Iraq last October -- in Cincinnati and at the UN --were rhetorical triumphs. But you need to be aware now that much of the evidence you adduced against Iraq could not withstand close scrutiny. Your advisers had you shooting yourself in the foot with hyperbole.
In both speeches they had you making alarmist claims that our allies know do not square either with the facts or the judgments of the US and wider allied intelligence communities. I'll mention just two:
- Singling out the high-strength aluminum tubes Iraq has been trying to purchase, you said they "are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." After an aggressive investigation, the UN inspectors in Iraq have now concluded that the tubes were not meant for enriching uranium but rather for making ordinary artillery rockets, as the Iraqis have said.
- You also claimed that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon "in less than a year." Our allies are finding it difficult to reconcile that with the formal estimate of the US intelligence community that Iraq will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon until the end of the decade, if then.
On January 3, to the well-rehearsed cheers of our troops at Fort Hood, you stated three times that Iraq is a "grave threat" to the United States. But for our allies, and for an increasing number of Americans, repetition alone does not enhance credibility. They are looking for proof. (You are, after all, talking war.)
In the past, Mr. President, you have said that the CIA delivers the world's best intelligence, but now you seem captive to the "intelligence" coming from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz. You will recall how stung Wolfowitz was last fall, when the CIA insisted that reports tying Iraq to al-Qaeda lacked credibility and that the available evidence on Iraq's nuclear program was inconclusive. And you are probably aware that he has declared publicly that CIA analysis "is not worth the paper it is written on."
To be sure, CIA's conclusions are often unwelcome. The question is whether they are more accurate than the ones you are getting from the Pentagon.
When NATO ambassadors asked Wolfowitz last month about the evidence against Iraq, he likened it to pornography: "I can't define it, but I will know it when I see it." He did little to rehabilitate himself as super analyst last Thursday with his long, unpersuasive speech in New York.
Rather than offering evidence to support the points he was trying to make, Wolfowitz fell back on phrases like "There is every reason to believe." Worse, he has a peculiar affinity for information from defectors and exiles, sources that experienced intelligence professionals know to be notoriously unreliable.
Suffice it to say that were Wolfowitz an apprentice intelligence analyst in his two-year probationary period, I would not recommend taking him on as a career employee.
As you prepare for Tuesday's address, you might consider giving your principal intelligence adviser, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, an advance look at your draft this time. And please think long and hard about the rhetoric.
Talk is cheap, and it is easy to play down the significance of rhetoric. But it would be a serious mistake to do so with reference to major pronouncements like the State of the Union.
That words can have far-reaching consequences is shown by North Korea's decision, after you labeled it part of the "axis of evil" in last year's address, to renege on its commitment to forgo nuclear weapons. No one should have been surprised when the North Koreans concluded that, without a strengthened nuclear deterrent, they would be next in line after Iraq for a US "preemptive" attack.
Hopefully, your intelligence advisers have warned you of the possibility that Pyongyang will decide to take further advantage of your fixation on Iraq in the weeks ahead and perhaps even go beyond words to threaten the 37,000 US troops who form a human tripwire south of the demilitarized zone. There, beyond question, is a real and present danger.
Good luck Tuesday evening. Please cool the rhetoric and stay close to the facts.
Ray McGovern worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He is now co-director of The Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry in Washington, DC. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.