Uncovering Government Secrets

Early in February, James Bamford, a veteran investigative reporter and expert on intelligence matters, got a call from a producer at one of the leading cable news programs. She wanted to know what he thought about the U.S. intelligence that had been offered in support of going to war with Iraq. In response, Bamford mentioned the Gulf of Tonkin, a reference to North Vietnam’s alleged attack on a U.S. naval vessel in 1964. Evidence of that attack, presented as irrefutable at the time, turned out years later to be largely bogus, though the nearly 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women who died in Vietnam in the decade following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution were real enough.

But the analogy was lost on the producer. "Tonkin?"she repeated, having never heard of either the place or the incident. She asked Bamford to spell it out: "T-O-N-K-I-N."

What unsettled him was not merely the producer’s ignorance of the past but the uneasy feeling that today’s so-called "hard intelligence"on Iraq might also one day be revealed to be suspect. In this, Bamford is not alone. For months, the United States has pressed its case against Iraq, branding it part of the "axis of evil,"accusing it of accumulating weapons of mass destruction, and linking it to al Qaeda. U.N. weapons inspectors wandered across an area the size of California, caught between the cat-and-mouse deceptions of Baghdad and the reluctance of Washington to share what it was touting as incontrovertible proof of that deception. Until Colin Powell’s Feb. 5 address to the Security Council, the evidence for Washington’s claims remained cloaked in secrecy. The U.S. insisted it must protect its "sources and methods"-- the Who and the How of intelligence.

Indeed, in an administration whose fixation on secrecy predates 9/11, the sanctity of "sources and methods"long trumped all else. But these past months have offered an object lesson not in the supremacy of secrecy, but rather in its limits. And they have offered a reminder of how critical it is that the press relentlessly challenge that supremacy and, as best it can, test the authenticity and credibility of those secrets that are revealed.

After all, "sources and methods"are only of value insofar as they produce intelligence, and the ultimate end to which intelligence is to be put is not merely the successful prosecution of war but the ability to demonstrate why war is necessary in the first place. That greater cause took a back seat this winter. And the irony seemed lost on officials who suggested that publicly producing specific intelligence might put sources at risk even as tens of thousands of American servicemen and women were moved steadily into harm’s way, based on information to which they and the world were not privy.

The longer the United States persisted in hiding the particulars of its case and the more it relied on Rumsfeldian rhetoric, the warier some allies became. Public support for the war softened and suspicions grew that secrecy was hiding the administration’s true objective -- a regime change in Baghdad. Sources and methods are indeed valuable, but they are not sacred, especially when balanced against national credibility or the lives of those willing to sacrifice all.

In newsrooms across the country, reporters debated how best to cover such complex issues as government secrecy, leaks of intelligence, and the formal release of classified materials, all of which seemed to bolster the administration’s position that it was necessary to confront Saddam Hussein. Even in relaxed times, the intelligence beat is one of the most difficult in which to develop independent sources. In times of crises, reliable sources often dry up or take cover. The beat naturally draws some of the most sophisticated and resourceful journalists, individuals who know how to navigate difficult waters and how to draw the fine distinctions upon which intelligence depends.

But sometimes the obvious eludes them. One of the most important services an intelligence reporter can and should perform for readers is to routinely provide them with a primer on intelligence. Specifically, readers need to understand -- or be reminded -- that intelligence is not a hard science but one that is riddled with nuance, that it requires interpretive skills, that it often produces contradictory or conflicting results, that it is not always immune to political pressures, and that, historically, its accuracy has been uneven. Context is everything; without it, stories about intelligence are misleading or outright unintelligible to many readers.

Then, too, news organizations, already stretched thin from foreign coverage and war preparations, must continually reinvest in their investigative resources at home and abroad to determine if the intelligence offered is reliable. Reporters and editors should not be disdainful of modest or incremental advances in their stories; they should recognize that theirs and those of other news organizations may cumulatively offer readers vital insights and send a message to the administration and those who would use intelligence to manipulate public opinion that they, too, are accountable. And while the capacity to knock down an administration leak is relished, an independent confirmation of intelligence is no less valuable. It is equally clear that these same journalists must be able to withstand withering criticism, whether from the administration, be it Bush or Rumsfeld or Ashcroft, or from that portion of the public that is ready to savage any reporter who questions the party line.

History has rightly taught reporters to be skeptical about intelligence claims. More than a generation ago, secret intelligence suggested that political unrest in Cuba would produce armed support against Fidel Castro, an earlier object of regime change. That support never materialized, as the survivors of the Bay of Pigs remember too well. "I don’t think the intelligence reports are all that hot,"President John F. Kennedy is said to have remarked. "Some days I get more out of The New York Times."

One need not turn back forty years to find fallible intelligence. In August 1998, in retaliation for the terrorist bombings of two United States embassies in Africa, the U.S. launched cruise missiles against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, convinced that it was producing chemical agents. Today, few within the Central Intelligence Agency still support that conclusion, notwithstanding the fatalities left in its wake. In May 1999, for the Yugoslav air war, the CIA selected as a bombing target what it said was the Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement in Belgrade. It turned out to be the Chinese Embassy.

It may also be remembered that in the first gulf war intelligence estimates hinted at heavy American casualties to come and spoke of Saddam’s "elite"Republican Guard. Mercifully, such estimates were all wrong. This go-round, they apparently suggest an easier time of it, despite the specter of urban warfare. Not exactly comforting.

Reporters can and should point out that most analysts pride themselves on their independence and take grave offense at the mere suggestion that they are in any way influenced by political winds. But reporters should also point out that it is not within the ranks of the analysts that most of the shaping of information for political ends occurs.

Dana Priest, who covers the CIA for The Washington Post, says that while most intelligence may start out as objective, once it reaches the policymakers, its character tends to change. "The president,"she says, "takes the information from the CIA and normally lets us know what suits his political agenda, unless he’s outed some other way and can’t help it.”

The intelligence Powell offered the Security Council appeared to be firmest in documenting Saddam’s deception and in raising legitimate questions as to the disposition of Iraq’s forbidden biological and chemical weapons. Some intelligence reporters suspect that the U.S. stopped short of disclosing the whereabouts of specific stores of those agents to U.N. inspectors for fear that the Iraqis have spies among them and would be able to move the weapons before inspectors could find them. Instead, these reporters believe, Washington has decided to keep the weapons’ whereabouts a secret and to take them out in the first stages of an air war against Iraq. To those reporters, it seemed, war was a foregone conclusion.

Even in Powell’s presentation, the intelligence offered the public was nothing if not selective. Powell made much of finding a link between Saddam and al Qaeda. But in October the CIA Director, George Tenet, suggested that Iraq did not pose an immediate threat to the United States and was unlikely to share its weapons with terrorists -- unless provoked by an invasion. That assessment was conveniently left out of Powell’s presentation -- after which, Tenet seemed more in line with the administration. And now, even some CIA analysts who doubted a terrorist connection with Iraq appear to be on board with the administration. "Perhaps it’s because they see the train heading out and George Tenet is on it,"says Priest.

This tenuous link between Saddam and al Qaeda is the linchpin of the administration’s argument for going to war with Iraq now, instead of later, after Saddam might have provided terrorists with weapons of mass destruction. The link is "clearly hyped,"says Walter Pincus, who covers national security for The Washington Post. "The ties between Saddam and al Qaeda are not that clear. They spent over a year looking for that connection and this is the best they’ve been able to do. This is intelligence in support of a political point. They’ve created this cell in Baghdad that may or may not be there. You have to take their word for it.”

What Colin Powell told the Security Council was meant as much for domestic ears as for the diplomats. His words changed few minds abroad. France, Germany, and China seemed as convinced as ever of the need to give inspectors more time. Iraq dismissed the charge of an al Qaeda connection as pure smoke. Britain’s Tony Blair, America’s staunchest ally, saw it as a smoking gun. But the American public was swayed, according to polls. Whether it was the persuasiveness of the intelligence or Powell’s own magnetism is less clear. What he served up in photos, audiotapes, and reports was a series of dots requiring some imagination to complete the picture. That is often the nature of intelligence. Its ambiguities require interpretation and invite mischief

In the end, despite all the talk of sources and methods, it seems doubtful that Powell’s disclosures damaged U.S. intelligence collection methods. Those who cover the intelligence beat are convinced that the photos were not of a resolution that would reveal anything of the nation’s more sophisticated capabilities. The intelligence from eavesdropping on Iraqi officers focused on low-tech communications that were not even encrypted. Besides, Powell made it clear that he was not showing his full hand, hinting at still richer intelligence (an effective rhetorical device) and suggesting that truly sensitive elements remained well protected.

In making his case, Powell went out of his way to praise a British report. "I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities,"he said. Not long after, it was discovered that much of the report cited was not based on original intelligence but was cobbled together from various magazines and academic journals, some of it cribbed verbatim from a postgraduate student’s research in California. Many reporters insist they are doing all they can to test U.S. intelligence, though some concede that they have little real leverage. Even when reporters are able to challenge intelligence reports, their findings seem to fall on deaf ears. "There are only a few of us who care about the details," laments Pincus.

Other reporters, like James Bamford, disparage what they see as an uncritical acceptance of government leaks and pronouncements. A few even suspect that their peers mistake credulity for patriotism, or fear appearing disloyal in a time of crisis. E.B. White had something to say about that in 1939, on the eve of another crisis: "In a free country,"he wrote, "it is the duty of a writer to pay no attention to duty.”

Reporters must learn from the past, but which past? In the shorthand that passes from one generation to the next, place names become paradigms, ignored at our peril. For one generation, it is Tonkin, a reference to deceit, corrupted intelligence, and a pretext for war. For the generation before it, the Sudetenland chastens with a contrary lesson of history, one of appeasement, intentions horribly misread and provocations disregarded. The atlas is full of regret and recrimination. And now, Baghdad. That’s "B-A-G-H-D-A-D."

Ted Gup is the author of The Book of Honor: Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives, and is the Shirley Wormser professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University.

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