Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Pin The Tale On Tenet

According to a story in today's New York Times, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has been investigating the intelligence failures in the run up to the Iraq invasion, has uncovered some disturbing findings about the conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency in this crucial period. According to intelligence sources, a report from the Committe will criticize the Central Intelligence Agency for the failure to adequately acknowledge and give credence to statements made by Iraqi scientist defectors and "by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad's programs to develop unconventional weapons had been abandoned."

The Times summed up the gist of the criticisms thusly: "Among the many problems that contributed to the committee's harsh assessment of the C.I.A.'s prewar performance were instances in which analysts may have misrepresented information, writing reports that distorted evidence in order to bolster their case that Iraq did have chemical, biological and nuclear programs, according to government officials. The Senate found, for example, that an Iraqi defector who supposedly provided evidence of the existence of a biological weapons program had actually said he did not know of any such program.

In another case concerning whether a shipment of aluminum tubes seized on its way to Iraq was evidence that Baghdad was trying to build a nuclear bomb, the Senate panel raised questions about whether the C.I.A. had become an advocate, rather than an objective observer, and selectively sought to prove that the tubes were for a nuclear weapons program." [emphasis added]

The report apparently goes into detail about the questionable judgment that the C.I.A. used in relying "heavily on four Iraqi defectors to reach its conclusion that Iraq had developed mobile biological weapons laboratories."

According to the report "one defector, an Iraqi scientist, said he had been working on a technical program known as a 'protein slurry,' and that his work was unrelated to biological weapons. He said he did not know of any other biological weapons activity under way in Iraq. Senate investigators did not discover that his statements contradicted the view that Iraq had an active biological program until they read the original reports of his debriefings from before the war, officials said. A C.I.A. official said the agency still had good reasons to use the defector's information, and has been trying to explain that to the Senate committee. The official would not elaborate.

There were problems with the handling of the other defectors used to buttress the biological weapons case. Information from one was used even though the Defense Intelligence Agency had warned in the spring of 2002 that he had fabricated information. The C.I.A. took statements that another defector had given to German intelligence without knowing his identity or learning that he had ties to the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Mr. Chalabi, until recently a close ally of the Pentagon, fell into disfavor with the Bush administration after it became clear that his organization had provided disinformation to the United States and had exaggerated the threat posed by Mr. Hussein."

It seems that the report is on the verge of concluding what many had already suspected:

"In hindsight, the Senate panel and many other intelligence officials now agree that there was little effort within the American intelligence community before the war to question the basic assumption that Mr. Hussein was still seeking to produce illicit weapons. Evidence that fit that assumption was embraced; evidence to the contrary was ignored or seen as part of a clever Iraqi disinformation campaign." [emphasis added]

This observation of the intelligence community is made in the historical context of an administration whose many advocates were claiming that the C.I.A. was being overly cautious, possibly negligent, by failing to recognize and acknowledge the full dimensions of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. It is at that time that the intelligence community began to respond to the criticism by churning out intelligence reports that comported with the Bush team's assessment, even going as far as to use sources with dubious credibility and ties to Chalabi, who the C.I.A. was already hostile to for very good reason.

It was also in this environment that Donald Rumsfeld launched a turf war by creating the now infamous Office of Special Plans, headed by Douglas Feith, in the Pentagon in order to circumvent the more rigorous vetting process within the C.I.A. and get the raw intelligence stove-piped up to senior administration officials via his own network of political appointees with little intelligence analysis experience, and with less vetting and greater preference for items that were favorable to the administration's preconceived notions.

With this in mind, the following conclusion from the report seems hard to reconcile with reality:

"While the Senate panel has concluded that C.I.A. analysts and other intelligence officials overstated the case that Iraq had illicit weapons, the committee has not found any evidence that the analysts changed their reports as a result of political pressure from the White House, according to officials familiar with the report."

So, it was the C.I.A.'s fault for being overzealous in making claims about Saddam's WMD program? The C.I.A., acting on its own initiative, dragged a reluctant administration to war by failing to present both sides of the intelligence debate to an administration eager for a more dialectical analysis? And there was no pressure from the administration, who only coincidentally was undermining the authority of the C.I.A. by creating its own intelligence gathering apparatuses? Interesting. I'm happy to see that the liberal New York Times has regained its sense of journalistic integrity following the Judith Miller debacle.

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