Doctors of Intelligence

As quixotic searches for "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq continue to yield little more than chagrin, the Washington political establishment is growing restive. Yet it's hard to say what's more bemusing about the burgeoning sturm und drang along the Potomac: the pointed questions about WMD-related "intelligence" cited by the Bush Administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, or the shocked tones in which some are asking the questions.

Anyone familiar with the intelligence game knows how susceptible any intelligence -- raw reports and intercepts, finished analyses, white papers, National Intelligence Estimates -- is to potential manipulation or subversion. Yet you didn't need a specially-compartmented Top Secret clearance to divine what was going on in the so-called case for war. By simply reading the papers and connecting some slightly-arcane open source dots last year, it would be clear that the Rumsfeld-Cheney axis was having its way with the CIA.

None of this should come as a surprise. It was a well-documented fact long before 9/11 that the neoconservative clique which the defense secretary and vice president hail from has a long history of using force and subterfuge to make intelligence confirm -- implicitly or explicitly -- its ideological needs. To be fair, such tinkering isn't something unique to one strain of the polity, nor does it mean career analysts warm to the task of cooking the books. As the distinguished intelligence writer Thomas K. Powers noted in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, "Dishonesty in the intelligence business is not personal but institutional," with the political realities of Washington inevitably leading the CIA to compromise its findings. And to illustrate this reality, Powers cites a case study that bears more than a passing resemblance to the current situation:

The CIA can drag its feet for only so long. For example, at the height of the controversy over the SS-9 -- the Soviet missile, first detected in the mid 1960s, that many suspected to be a first-strike weapon -- the CIA was more or less directly ordered by Melvin Laird to remove from the Soviet National Intelligence Estimate a paragraph which said that the Russians were almost certainly not planning to build a first-strike capability. Power, not argument, carried the day. Laird was the secretary of defense, and he simply would not accept the offending paragraph. This may not be what scientists call objectivity, but it is the way things work in politics.

There are, of course, other ways to get the CIA imprimatur required without being quite so interventionist. On Oct. 7, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet sent a letter to Congress that many progressives viewed as a rebuke to President Bush's relentless characterization of Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to the U.S. because of his WMD or links to terrorism. Conventional wisdom held that the president had real problems based on the CIA's assessment that Iraqi WMD operations were not on a hair-trigger, but were only likely to be used in the event of a US attack on Iraq.

However, almost every current or retired intelligence officer I spoke with that week had a radically different view of Tenet's letter: It was, in fact, a masterpiece of equivocation, a piece of politicized intelligence whose genius lay in a judicious use of language allowing for either pro- or anti-war forces to cite it with approbation. While it did indeed say that "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short or conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW weapons against the United States," the presence of the words "for now" between "Baghdad" and the somewhat opaque "appears" gave the assessment an urgent, ominous quality easy for any hawk to seize on.

Tenet's comments on WMD ties between Saddam and Al-Qaeda also cut both ways. "This is the price George, who's a Democrat, pays if he wants to keep his job in this Administration, especially post-9/11," a veteran intelligence officer said to me. "It's language ready-made for a stump speech: 'We have credible reporting that Al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to Al-Qaeda members in areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.'"

"Reporting may be credible," the officer continued, "but credible isn't the same as true. Can it be corroborated? What's the context for it? Does this automatically mean Saddam's in cahoots with Al-Qaeda for WMD attacks, or could it be that Saddam's keeping friends close and enemies closer? And if there's 'credible information indicating Iraq and Al-Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression,' things like 'safe haven' and 'non-aggression' sound pretty different than active cooperation. Which is it?"

Also worth noting, said the same spooks, were some fishy shifts in the content and conclusions of ongoing CIA reporting on Iraq's nuclear, chemical, biological and missile capabilities. Though I didn't plow through all the unclassified reports, National Security Archive fellow John Prados has, and his indispensable 5000-word report in the May/June Bulletin of Atomic Scientists makes for a highly interesting and informative read.

Entitled "A Necessary War?" Prados ultimately concludes that "it is fair to suspect that CIA analysts did not approve of the cast being given to their reporting ... Conversely, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had little real need to create his own in-house intelligence staff to furnish threat information on Iraq -- George Tenet's CIA had already been hounded into doing it. The Iraqi threat was nothing like the Soviet one, but intelligence has been manipulated just the same."

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

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