Thursday, July 15, 2004

The CIA Strikes Back

It appears that the acting head of the Central Intelligence Agency, John E. McLaughlin, is bristling at the suggestion that the intelligence community is to blame for the decision to invade Iraq last year. McLaughlin, apparently not as willing to fall on his sword as his predecessor George Tenet, claimed that there should have been a more rigorous debate in the run-up to the invasion based on the caveats, dissents and qualifications that appeared in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a document that contained the assessment of Iraq's WMDs and al-Qaeda links prepared for the White House by the CIA.

According to an article in today's New York Times, McLaughlin "said Wednesday that American intelligence agencies should not be blamed if there was inadequate debate about the decision to go to war against Iraq."

"Those comments...were aimed at the Senate Intelligence Committee, which issued a report last week that portrayed American intelligence agencies as having exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had illicit weapons. But the comments also were an implicit retort to arguments that the Central Intelligence Agency, not President Bush, was primarily responsible for sending the country to war."

In an interview on CNN McLaughlin argued that the Bush team was wrong to place so much emphasis on the NIE, and that "to treat the document as a pivotal element in the march to war would be 'an oversimplification of the situation.'" He added, "If there wasn't sufficient debate about these issues, it wasn't the fault of the people who prepared this estimate."

The document included some qualifications and dissents, and Mr. McLaughlin suggested that these caveats should have given rise to more vigorous debate than was heard about the degree to which Iraq posed a threat to the United States. Part of the problem may be related to the fact that Bush relied on a one page summary of the NIE that largely ignored the dissenting evidence and conditional language in the NIE.

As was reported in yesterday's New York Times, the one page review, "prepared for President Bush in October 2002, summarized the findings of a classified, 90-page National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq's illicit weapons. Congressional officials said that notes taken by Senate staffers who were permitted to review the document show that it eliminated references to dissent within the government about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusions."

There is also a precedent for believing this summary is incomplete in its treatment of the evidence. The same article notes that, "A separate white paper summarizing the National Intelligence Estimate was made public in October 2002. The Senate report criticized the white paper as having 'misrepresented' what the Senate committee described as a 'more carefully worded assessment' in the classified intelligence estimate. For example, the white paper excluded information found in the National Intelligence Estimate, like the names of intelligence agencies that had dissented from some of the findings, most importantly on Iraq's nuclear weapons program. That approach, the Senate committee said, 'provided readers with an incomplete picture of the nature and extent of the debate within the intelligence community regarding these issues.'

Among the specific dissents excluded from the public white paper on Iraq's weapons was the view of the State Department's intelligence branch, spelled out in the classified version of the document, that Iraq's importation of aluminum tubes could not be conclusively tied to a continuing nuclear weapons program, as other intelligence agencies asserted. Also left out of the white paper was the view of Air Force intelligence that pilotless aerial vehicles being built by Iraq, seen by other intelligence agencies as designed to deliver chemical or biological weapons, were not suited for that purpose."

The White House is refusing to release this one page document to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Also in today's Times, an interesting sign of dischord in the otherwise well disciplined GOP. Despite the fact that President Bush has been claiming that the removal of Saddam Hussein is justification enough for the war, despite the lack of WMDs and ties to al-Qaeda, conservative Republican Senator, and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts of Kansas, seemed to indicate that the humanitarian cause is not a sufficient rationale in retrospect

"Mr. Roberts said he was 'not too sure' that the administration would have invaded if it had known how flimsy the intelligence was on Iraq and illicit weapons. Instead, the senator said, Mr. Bush might well have advocated efforts to maintain sanctions against Iraq and to continue to try to unearth the truth through the work of United Nations inspectors. 'I don't think the president would have said that military action is justified right now,' Mr. Roberts said. If the administration had been given 'accurate intelligence,' he said, Mr. Bush 'might have said, 'Saddam's a bad guy, and we've got to continue with the no-fly zones and with inspections.'"

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