Cheney's 'Irresponsible' Speech

When Vice President Dick Cheney comes out of seclusion to brand critics "irresponsible," you know the administration is running scared.

The last time Cheney was enlisted to do so was in the spring of 2002, amid reports that intelligence warnings given to President Bush prior to Sept. 11, 2001 should have prompted preventive action. Cheney branded such reporting "irresponsible," and critics in the press and elsewhere were successfully intimidated.

In the recently released congressional report on the 9/11 attacks, fresh attention is given to an item titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." contained in the president's daily intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001. Dana Priest of the Washington Post recently reported that this item stated that "bin Laden had wanted to conduct attacks in the United States for years and that (his) group apparently maintained a support base here." It went on to cite "FBI judgments about patterns of activity consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks." (The president has cited "executive privilege" in refusing to declassify this item.)

With the administration under fire once again, the vice president came off the bench on July 24 in an attempt to hit two birds with one speech: one, distract attention from the highly embarrassing 9/11 report released that day; and two, stem the erosion of the administration's credibility on Iraq. The absence of Iraqi WMD and the growing firestorm around the "16 words" in the SOTU speech, alleging Iraqi uranium purchases were becoming increasingly embarrassing for the White House. In the words of one Cheney aide, "We had to get out of the hole we were in."

But, alas, thanks to Cheney's speech, they have dug themselves in deeper. The centerpiece of the speech was his selection of quotes from the intelligence community's most authoritative assessment of the Iraqi threat: a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) dated Oct. 1, 2002, and titled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction." The excerpts he cited were designed to demonstrate that Iraq posed such an urgent threat to the U.S. that it would have been "irresponsible" to shy away from using force to deal with it.

Inconveniently, experience on the ground in Iraq over the past four months has given the lie to the very NIE judgments that the vice-president chose to quote. Worse still, as Cheney knows better than anyone, it was largely the unrelenting pressure he put on intelligence analysts -- during his unprecedented "multiple visits" to CIA headquarters and in other ways -- that put them so wide of the mark.

In his unusual speech on July 24, Cheney cited four statements from the NIE:

  1. "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions. If left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."

    But where are the chemical and biological weapons, the missiles?

  2. "All key aspects -- the R&D, production, and weaponization -- of Iraq's offensive (biological weapons) program are active and most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War."

    Again, where are they?

  3. "Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program."

    Where is the evidence of these weapons in Iraq?

  4. The intelligence community has "high confidence" in the conclusion that "Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN Resolutions."

The logical conclusion of Cheney's speech is not the urgency of the Iraqi threat but rather the inescapable reality that "high confidence" judgments can be dead wrong. This is often the case when analysts are put under pressure from policymakers, who have already publicly asserted, a priori, the "correct" answer. Former CIA director John Deutch remarked late last week that the failure to find chemical or biological weapons in Iraq would be "an intelligence failure of massive proportions."

Among the things Cheney neglected to mention on July 24 is that analysts in the State Department’'s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) would not
be bullied into making politically expedient judgments. On the key nuclear issue, they insisted on recording the following dissent in the NIE:
"The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq may be doing so, but INR considers available evidence inadequate to support such a judgment. Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors, or to project a time line for completion of activities it does not now see happening."
It was also INR analysts who branded the infamous Iraq-seeking-uranium-from-Niger story, which somehow crept into the text of the estimate, "highly dubious." It is a fair inference that the intelligence analysts at State enjoy more freedom in speaking truth to power than their counterparts elsewhere in the Intelligence Community.

Ray McGovern is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He chaired NIEs and prepared the President's Daily Brief during his 27-year career at CIA.

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