Intelligence Test

Asked to respond to our <a href="/news/feature/2004/01/12_405.html">cover story</a> revealing how the Pentagon manipulated prewar intelligence, George Tenet responded: “I haven’t read <i>Mother Jones</i> in a while.” No wonder he’s so out of the loop.

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CIA director George Tenet yesterday defended his agency’s prewar intelligence work and strongly denied what many suspect — that the Bush administration pressured the CIA to produce evidence of Saddam’s illegal arsenal. He also admitted that he hasn’t read Mother Jones in “a while. (Video)

That’s too bad. After all, if Tenet had bothered to read Robert Dreyfuss’ article in the January/February issue, ‘The Lie Factory‘, he might have been able to actually answer a Georgetown University student’s question about how groups outside the CIA massaged and misused intelligence about Iraq. Instead, he dodged the issue. Which, while no help to national security, is probably a good thing when it comes to the spy boss’ job security.

CIA analysts “never said there was an imminent threat” from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, according to Tenet,
speaking at Georgetown on Thursday.

On the contrary, the CIA, said Tenet:

“painted an objective assessment for our policymakers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests.”

So how did we get from “objective assessment” to a complete absence of WMDs from Iraq?

Did the White House put too much faith in flawed CIA intel?

Seymour Hersh explains in October’s New Yorker, suggests something of the sort. The Bush administration, suspicious of bureaucrats, effectively shelved the requirement that “no request for action should be taken directly to higher authorities … without the information on which it is based having been subjected to rigorous scrutiny.”

“The point is not that the President and his senior aides were consciously lying. What was taking place was much more systematic—and potentially just as troublesome.”

On a less charitable view, the Bush administration did an end run around the CIA and, unusually, had important intelligence analysis done in house, by the specially created Office of Special Plans — the creation and operation of which Dreyfuss dissects. Now, the OSP story is getting wider play. Knight Ridder’s Joe Galloway

“That human intelligence was not foisted upon the decision-makers by the CIA or the NSA. It came out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and out of the Office of Special Plans, run by Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, in the office of the secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“Because the bosses, Rumsfeld and Cheney, didn’t like the intelligence product and analysis they were getting from CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, they created Feith’s happy kingdom. He crafted reports much more to their liking.”

Instead of the intelligence agency presenting a worst-case scenario backed up by facts and undergoing a drilling by skeptical politicians, this seems to be a case of hawkish politicians seeing what they wanted to see.

Former Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins

in the Financial Times that:

“Intelligence analysts are used to receiving push-back from policy makers who do not like what they are being told. The US and British intelligence communities are sufficiently insulated from overt political pressures to hold their own in such circumstances. In the instance of Iraqi WMD, however, the dialogue between intelligence and policy communities was not one between pessimists and optimists, but between pessimists and greater pessimists. The result was an almost inevitable emphasis on the downside risk.”

However, this was more than a case of politicians accepting the CIA’s word. Tenet’s speech suggests that the CIA provided a more complicated picture than previously thought and that the Bush administration was very selective in what it picked out, exaggerated, and publicized.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government has been recently cleared of charges of “sexing up” the dossier laying out its case for war. The British public remains to be convinced and after initial foot-dragging, as in the United States, the government has yielded to a creation of an independent commission to examine pre-war intelligence.

But as former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin
points out

“Bush and Blair are trying to deflate the criticism by creating investigative commissions that cannot possibly either find the answers or reduce the political damage…”

Instead Babbin calls for institutional reform, laying personal blame on Tenet and calling for his removal:

“The idea is intelligence “fusion,” getting all the information to the right people in one central place, the DHS [Department of Homeland Security], and making the combined assessments available to the president and other policymakers. But TTIC [Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which pools government intelligence data] is failing because the CIA and the FBI, along with the other agencies, still haven’t gotten the message. DHS is more a dumping ground for information than an effective intelligence agency. It is little more than political cover for the lingering problems in intelligence gathering and analysis.”

Rumsfeld, perhaps hoping for a smoking gun to justify his push for war, insists that the final verdict on weapons in Iraq hasn’t yet been rendered.

Tenet also stated that:

“despite some public statements, we are nowhere near 85% finished” in refuting former weapons inspector David Kay’s testimony that the weapons of mass destruction were destroyed before invasion.

Tenet described the slippery task of assigning blame:

“In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right … When the facts of Iraq are all in, we will neither be completely right nor completely wrong.”

The Bush administration could use this approach to its advantage.

Unlike Watergate or Monicagate, Republicans in Congress are allied with the president, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Gail Russell Chaddock writes:

“The willingness of the GOP Congress to limit the scope of their investigations to the gathering of prewar intelligence – and not to its possible political manipulation -has shielded Bush from potential damage.

“Meanwhile, Bush is setting his own parameters for the new independent commission on WMD. The commission won’t report until after the presidential election, for example. And while its scope will be expanded to include WMD intelligence regarding North Korea, Iran, and Libya, the focus will still be on intelligence, not its use by politicians.

“But in the leak-prone world of Washington, this investigation and others create uncertainties for the White House at a time when polls suggest Bush is vulnerable in the fall election.”


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