CIA 'Reform' Rings Hollow

If the American people want to prevent another intelligence failure like the one that has sent more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq, it will take more than just shaking up the CIA. Much of Washington's political and media elites would need to be sacked as well.

Indeed, it is a sign of how deep the problem goes that neoconservative Republican Laurence Silberman chaired a presidential commission evaluating the CIA's failures, since he also oversaw the Reagan-Bush intelligence transition team in 1980 that struck one of the first blows against the intellectual integrity of the CIA's analytical division.

The commission's co-chairman, former Sen. Charles Robb, represents another part of the problem: the go-along-to-get-along Democrats who did little to stop the Reagan-Bush-era politicization of U.S. intelligence.

But the crisis goes deeper still. The Silberman-Robb report, which faults the CIA for providing "dead wrong" intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, was delivered to George W. Bush, who has built his presidency on an unprecedented use of pseudo-facts over a wide range of issues, from the federal budget to global warming to the Iraq War.

Bush's contempt for information that went against his preconceived notions was the chief warning from Bush's first Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill as recounted to author Ron Suskind in the 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty.

O'Neill, who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations and later ran Alcoa, was startled to find Bush setting policies that "were impenetrable by facts" and based on little more than his ideological certainties. O'Neill also said the Bush administration had been planning a war with Iraq since Bush's first days in office.

Tenet's Role

Some mid-level CIA analysts may not have fully grasped this central reality about how the Bush administration functioned. But CIA Director George Tenet certainly did, explaining why he allegedly brushed aside warnings about dubious intelligence, such as the false claims about Iraqi mobile weapons labs from a source codenamed "Curveball."

In February 2003, on the night before Secretary of State Colin Powell's WMD speech to the United Nations, a senior intelligence officer warned Tenet that the source's information was suspect, the Silberman-Robb report said. "Mr. Tenet replied with words to the effect of 'yeah, yeah,' and that he was 'exhausted,'" according to testimony cited in the report. Tenet has denied receiving such a warning.

But regardless of exactly what was said about Curveball and other unreliable sources, the bigger hole in the commission's 600-plus-page report is that Silberman and Robb failed to put Tenet's purported reaction into the larger political context of a president who had his mind made up and had a low regard for countervailing information anyway.

The closest the report came to admitting this overriding reality was in an understated observation that "it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

But the Silberman-Robb commission, handpicked by Bush, didn't delve further into how the president helped create and sustain the Washington "group think."

Even after the invasion, Bush continued to freely misrepresent the facts about Iraq. In speech after speech, he revised the pre-war history by falsely claiming that he had no choice but to invade because Saddam Hussein wouldn't let U.N. arms inspectors in, when the truth was Bush had forced the inspectors out.

Bush's self-justifying distortion began in July 2003, just four months after the invasion, when he said about Hussein, "we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power." Bush continued to make similar assertions right through Campaign 2004, including in the Sept. 30 presidential debate. [See "Bush: Deceptive or Delusional."]

Deeper Problem

But the problem of corrupted information goes beyond the government, to a Washington press corps that credulously fell for Bush's bogus case about Iraqi WMDs. The journalists and columnists who joined in misleading the American people also benefit from the Silberman-Robb report because it lays most blame for the WMD mess at the CIA's door. The journalists can claim they were just deceived, too.

The real story of the Iraq-WMD disaster, however, wasn't just that the CIA fell down on the job. It's that virtually the entire Washington political-media establishment failed the American people and particularly the U.S. military by buying into the pro-war "conventional wisdom" in 2002-2003, rather than thinking independently and asking tough questions.

Given the pro-war hysteria -- much of it generated by the Bush administration and the conservative news media -- it certainly made career sense for journalists as well as politicians to go along. The few public figures who challenged Bush's policies -- such as former Vice President Al Gore -- were pummeled and ridiculed. [See "Politics of Preemption."]

The Silberman-Robb commission said it didn't take a broader look at the political climate that surrounded the WMD intelligence because the panel was "not authorized" by Bush to do so.

But a truly serious examination of how the nation got to this place where American soldiers can be sent off to war for bogus reasons and because of "dead wrong" intelligence would require even a deeper look back at the crumbling of institutions that Americans count on for supplying accurate information.

That change began in earnest more than a quarter century ago when U.S. conservative leaders decided to invest heavily in building a new infrastructure of media outlets and think tanks that would shift Washington's "conventional wisdom" to the right.

The conservatives called their strategy "the war of ideas," but it was really a battle over the control of information. The principal targets were the Washington press corps -- which was blamed for exposing Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal and revealing the Pentagon Papers history of the Vietnam War -- and the CIA's analytical division.

By the mid-1970s, aging Cold Warriors and younger intellectuals known as "neoconservatives" banded together to argue that the CIA's analytical division was grossly underestimating both Soviet power and Moscow's determination to destroy the United States.

'Team B'

In 1976, trying to appease this right-wing pressure, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush allowed these critics to review the highly classified CIA intelligence on the Soviet Union and present an alternative analysis, which became known as the "Team B" experiment. Though Team B found no hard evidence to support its alarmist theories, it still produced a report asserting that its dire Soviet assessments were correct.

The Team B analysis became the basis for a sustained assault on President Jimmy Carter's arms control efforts during the late 1970s. By 1980, some Republican hardliners, including Laurence Silberman and William Casey, had convinced themselves that Carter had to be ousted to protect the future of the nation.

During Campaign 1980, Silberman and Casey both played roles in secretive back-channel contacts with Iranian emissaries at a time when Iran's Islamic fundamentalist government was holding 52 U.S. hostages, a crisis that was sapping Carter's political strength.

Some witnesses -- including former Iranian officials and international intelligence figures -- have claimed the Republican contacts undercut Carter's hostage negotiations, though others insist that the Silberman-Casey initiatives were simply ways to gather information about Carter's desperate bid to free the hostages before the election.

Whatever the Republican intentions were -- whether informational or conspiratorial -- Carter did lose to Ronald Reagan, who then opened the doors of power to the neoconservatives. Silberman served as Reagan's top intelligence adviser before the Inauguration and oversaw the Republican transition team that prepared a report on the alleged shortcomings of the CIA's analytical division.

Accusing the CIA

Renewing the assault that had begun with the Team B analysis, Reagan's transition team accused the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence of "an abject failure" to foresee a supposedly massive Soviet buildup of strategic weapons and "the wholesale failure" to comprehend the sophistication of Soviet propaganda.

"These failures are of such enormity," the transition report said, "that they cannot help but suggest to any objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes more sinister than incompetence."

In other words, the Reagan-Bush transition team implied that CIA analysts who didn't toe the neoconservative line must be Soviet agents. In reality, however, it was the transition team that wasn't being objective. The evidence now is clear that the Soviet Union was in rapid decline, falling farther behind the West in technology and struggling just to maintain a modern military.

But the neoconservatives were learning an important lesson. By exaggerating an enemy's strength and then questioning the patriotism of anyone who disagrees, they could win policy battles and silence any meaningful dissent.

Even anti-Soviet hardliners like the CIA's Robert Gates recognized the impact that the incoming administration's hostility had on the CIA analysts.

"That the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile takeover was apparent in the most extraordinary transition period of my career," Gates wrote in his memoirs, From the Shadows. "The reaction inside the Agency to this litany of failure and incompetence" from the transition team "was a mix of resentment and anger, dread and personal insecurity."

Amid rumors that the transition team wanted to purge several hundred top analysts, career officials feared for their jobs, especially those considered responsible for assessing the Soviet Union.

According to some intelligence sources, Silberman expected to get the job of CIA director and flew into a rage when Reagan picked Casey instead. Silberman's consolation prize was to be named a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, where he became known as one of the court's most strident conservatives.

'Politicized' Intelligence

Under the leadership of Casey and Gates, CIA analysts found themselves under severe pressure to conform to the administration's political desires, especially hyping the Soviet strategic threat and blaming virtually all acts of terrorism on Moscow.

Analysts also were punished when they pointed out other unhelpful information, such as Pakistan's secret program to develop a nuclear bomb at a time when Casey considered Islamabad's help in aiding the Afghan insurgency a higher priority.

By the late 1980s, the internal CIA taboo against noticing Soviet weakness was so ingrained that the CIA analytical division largely missed the Soviet Union's collapse. Ironically, the CIA analysts got blamed for that intelligence failure, too.

The Reagan-Bush neocons used a similar strategy of intimidation to bring the Washington press corps to heel in the 1980s. Many American journalists who reported information that didn't fit with the Reagan-Bush propaganda themes were discredited as "liberal" or "anti-American." Many lost their jobs or learned to censor themselves. [For details on both the intelligence and media cases, see Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

In that Reagan-Bush climate of career intimidation, congressional intelligence staffers, including a young George Tenet, also learned that playing along with the neoconservatives was the safest route to advancement.

Tenet earned his spurs with the Bush Family in 1991 when he helped clear the way for Robert Gates to become CIA director, despite public complaints from former CIA analysts that Gates had "politicized" U.S. intelligence. Gates was also implicated in a string of national security scandals, including the Iran-Contra Affair and the secret arming of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

At the time, Tenet was a Senate Intelligence Committee staffer working for the panel's Democratic chairman, Sen. David Boren, whom Gates thanked in his memoirs for pushing through his confirmation. Later, Tenet became Bill Clinton's last CIA director and was kept on in that post by George W. Bush.

Staying Useful

A politically savvy player with renowned back-scratching skills, Tenet made himself useful to his new bosses -- Bush and the neocons, who had returned to power and were obsessed with finishing off Saddam Hussein.

As the drums of war grew louder, Vice President Dick Cheney personally sat in at CIA meetings at Langley where rank-and-file analysts felt themselves under pressure to adopt the worst-case interpretations of Iraqi evidence.

By late 2002 and early 2003, the Washington "group think" was in full swing. Not only was the U.S. intelligence community giving the neocons the WMD intelligence product they wanted, but that faulty evidence was reverberating through the national news media, including leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Anyone who dared to raise questions got clobbered. When former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter questioned the WMD evidence, he was labeled a traitor. When chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix asked for more time to search for the supposed weapons, he was called an incompetent.

After the U.S.-led invasion, the cable news networks eagerly declared that any 55-gallon drum of chemicals was proof of Iraq's WMDs and Bush's vindication. Only gradually did it sink in that Hussein and other Iraqis had been telling the truth when they said before the war that they had destroyed their WMD stockpiles.

No Accountability

Still, even as the death toll of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis mounted, there was almost no accountability in Washington. That was, in large part, because almost the entire political-media establishment had been wrong.

Also, since most national Democrats -- including Sen. John Kerry -- hadn't challenged Bush's rush to war, they had trouble articulating a coherent case against Bush's wartime leadership during Campaign 2004.

In the end, virtually no one was punished for leading the nation into the disastrous war. Bush got his second term; Tenet resigned but got the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the pro-war TV commentators and WMD-believing journalists kept their jobs, too.

Since then, the major recommendations for change have centered on structural reform within the intelligence community. Congress created a National Intelligence Director, who supposedly will work closely with the president in overseeing the intelligence community.

But adding just another box to the organizational chart doesn't address what appears to be the core problem: the politicization of the U.S. intelligence product over the past quarter century, while honest intelligence analysts were driven out of the CIA. The problem is cultural, systemic, even ethical -- not structural.

So the need is not to put the intelligence product more directly under Bush's control, but rather to restore the CIA's analytical commitment to professionalism and objectivity. The CIA's ethos again must be to give the policymakers the unadorned truth, not the rouged-up versions that the neocons demanded in the Reagan-Bush years and again in George W. Bush's first term. [For more details, see "Neocon Amorality."]

The Future

But how could this cultural reform of the intelligence community -- and the Washington Establishment -- occur?

The hard answer is that many of the government officials and the journalists, who have thrived under this corrupt process, would need to go. They would then have to be replaced by people who stood up for what was right and suffered during this period, the likes of Melvin Goodman, a CIA Soviet specialist who testified against Gates in 1991.

The housecleaning would have to include both Republicans who have been most responsible for the distortion of intelligence and some Democrats who aided and abetted the process. The news media would also need to purge many of its top editors, prominent reporters and leading columnists for failing to perform their journalistic duties.

If a reform Congress were elected in 2006, accountability could be exacted, too, against President Bush and top officials in his administration. Given the egregious loss of life in Iraq and the international opprobrium that the misguided war has brought down on America's reputation, firings would be in order; investigative hearings should be held; and potentially even an impeachment resolution against Bush could be considered.

Yet this accountability could only occur if there were an informed, energized and incensed American public. Democracy would have to find a fire that we haven't seen in the United States for many years.

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