Thursday, April 07, 2005

Why Intelligence Matters, Why Appointments Matter

In case you missed it, Laura Rozen linked to an interesting op-ed by Ashton Carter, co-director of the Harvard-Stanford Preventive Defense Project and assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration. Carter, while discussing the Robb-Silberman presidential inquiry into intelligence failures concerning Iraq and other locales, makes the claim that the actual intelligence breakdowns mattered little since policy, not intelligence, determines government actions.

Let's take the case of North Korea. While the commission's chapters on North Korea's nuclear program are rightly classified, the unclassified summary suggests that spies and satellites have yielded very little information about that country's nuclear weapons efforts. But what does it matter? North Korea has admitted, indeed boasted, of its growing nuclear arsenal, and the United States has done nothing to stop it. How could a few more details provided by the CIA make a difference? If you don't have a policy, intelligence is irrelevant. North Korea's runaway nuclear program is a policy failure, not an intelligence failure....

A second member of the axis of evil, Iran, demonstrates the same point. Iran, unlike North Korea, denies it has a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration firmly contends that it does and is almost surely right, even though the intelligence is apparently not a "slam dunk." But since the administration does not plan either to attack Iran's nuclear sites or to try to negotiate them away (the Europeans are supposed to be trying the negotiation route), it hardly matters whether we know all the details....

The "intelligence failure" that prompted the creation of the Robb-Silberman commission was, of course, Saddam Hussein's missing weapons of mass destruction. Here there surely was a policy -- full-scale invasion, no less -- and no one can accuse the Bush administration of inaction. Knowing what we thought we knew, invasion was absolutely the right decision. WMD are too dangerous to take chances. But Bush has since made it clear that even if he knew then what we know now -- that the information on Hussein's weapons was "nearly worthless," in the words of the Robb-Silberman commission -- he would have invaded anyway. There were other reasons for his policy -- Hussein's mistreatment of his population and the wider implications for the Middle East of his continued rule in Iraq. Future historians will decide whether his policy was a failure or a success, but they will know from his own testimony that the CIA's "intelligence failure" was not the determining factor.

It therefore is a fact that in the three most important cases studied by the commission -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- the intelligence failures the commission so carefully identifies and makes recommendations to correct made no difference to policy success or failure.
Allow me to take issue with Carter on some finer points of this analysis. I think he is right to point out that policy trumps intelligence, but he too readily dismisses the connection between the two and the extent to which shortcomings in the latter can affect the "success or failure" of policy. In the case of Iraq, the dubious intelligence generated helped the Bush administration to muster support from allies in Europe and elsewhere, including many like John Howard in Australia who claimed before the invasion that Australia would not be sending troops to Iraq if Hussein's regime did not have WMDs. In that sense, intelligence can assist a policy, and make it possible to succeed.

On the flip side, the revelations regarding the lack of WMDs in the aftermath of the invasion has greatly impacted the credibility of our intelligence services, especially since this was such a prominent justification used by so many world leaders in convincing their respective populations of the necessity of this unpopular endeavor. As a direct result of this much scrutinized error though, certain policies in the future (say, building a coalition to invade and/or isolate Iran) will be harder to sell on the basis of our WMD intel alone. In a similarly destructive fashion, this grand mishap has led many in Iraq, and throughout the world, to question our intentions - suspecting ulterior imperialistic motives. This cynicism, in turn, affects the support, cooperation, and trust we can command, and upon which we rely in such ambitious missions as remaking the political life of the entire Middle East. So, intelligence failures in Iraq have affected the potential success of the overall operation.

In the case of Iran, intelligence could very well be the driving force behind the eventual policy that emerges, not the other way around as Carter suggests, depending on the extent to which we come to know that Iran does or does not have nuclear weapons and, if the latter is the case, when they will have them. In addition, specific intel, say on the number and location of Iran's nuclear facilities, will likely impact the decision to pursue certain measures like the limited air strike option as opposed to full scale invasion (if military intervention is deemed necessary).

It is also possible, of course, that there is a predetermined policy for dealing with Iran that is not terribly concerned with the nuclear question, as was the case with Iraq according to the President. But even then, the intelligence will be crucial in informing the positions taken by many legislators and policy makers, both domestically and abroad, as well as the citizens of this country and the world (we're supposed to matter too). Thus, accuracy remains at a premium.

Effective intelligence gathering, while not always the determining factor, clearly matters. Unfortunately, the Robb-Silberman commission, like so many other panels charged with investigating these issues, was only tasked with delving into half of the story. The various probes did an admirable job of describing the institutional dysfunction and internecine turf wars that have hindered the ability of our intelligence community to function in an optimal fashion, but the crucial inquiry into the ways that the Bush administration distorted the raw intelligence to fit its pre-conceived plan has been ignored and buried. The Republican leadership in the Senate, dutifully marching in partisan lockstep, has repeatedly pushed back that
second part of the investigation, and now it looks as if there will never be an official determination of the manipulation, intimidation, exaggeration, and obfuscation that ran rampant in the intelligence apparatuses from the Office of Special Plans to the State Department.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, Bush's nominee for Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, is in the middle of this sordid tale. As reported by the
New York Times:
Carl W. Ford Jr., the former State Department official, and Mr. Bolton clashed while at the State Department over what Mr. Ford regarded as Mr. Bolton's intimidation of intelligence officials. The committee is also seeking testimony from two intelligence officials, one a top Central Intelligence Agency analyst, about what the officials have said they believed were Mr. Bolton's efforts to have them replaced for disagreeing with him over the weapons programs of Iraq, Cuba and other countries.

Former government officials have accused Mr. Bolton of improperly circumventing State Department channels to gain access to confidential sensitive intelligence reports, the Congressional officials said.

In addition, there have been accusations that Mr. Bolton has sought to remove dissenters from their posts or bar them from meetings called to discuss policies. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official has become the second government official to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believes Mr. Bolton sought to remove him from his post after he complained that statements Mr. Bolton made in 2002 about a biological weapons program in Cuba did not reflect the views of intelligence agencies, Congressional officials said.
Now some Bush supporters, like Greg Djerejian, claim that Bolton is not as bad as his media image, but if these allegations are true then it is obvious that Bolton is not qualified for any serious position of influence. Silencing dissent and burying inconvenient facts are not the hallmarks of good policy based on the empirical method. These are the tactics of ideologues who place their vision ahead of the real world, and so often give rise to brilliant mistakes.

The other side of the argument regarding Bolton is that his appointment at the UN is something of a quarantine - keeping him out of Washington and away from policy making decisions. Fine, but if that is the intent, why not kick him to the private sector and out of government altogether? The problem with this kind of lateral move is that it sends a message to the world that we don't take the manipulation and distortion of intelligence seriously, which does nothing to repair our tattered credibility in this field - aside from the fact that his notorious UN bashing and vitriolic contempt for multilateralism alone has dampened the goodwill Bush and Rice were sowing on their recent excursions to Europe. If Bush thinks that rhetoric in State of the Union speeches can trigger revolutions, why turn such a deaf ear to the message conveyed in the appointment of our nation's representative to the premier world body?

All things considered, this seems a high price to pay to reward loyalty. But then again, it fits the pattern. It seems that the Bush team has rewarded everyone connected to policy failure with a promotion of one sort or another - taking an "aw shucks who knew?" attitude to most of the mistakes of the past four years. George Tenet, whose CIA is supposedly behind all these screw-ups - at least if you are to believe that the Bush administration was innocent - was rewarded with the Medal of Freedom. Alberto Gonzales justified torture and claimed the Geneva Conventions were "quaint," so he gets elevated to Attorney General - also sending a disturbing message to the world about how seriously we view torture. Similarly, Judge Bybee who famously wrote the memo which claimed that it is only torture if the pain is equivalent to "organ failure or death" (By the way, how does one determine the pain of death? It seems that most people you could ask for input are, well, dead) was given a comfortable spot on the Federal bench in the 9th Circuit. On the other hand, Larry Lindsey had the audacity to claim, before the invasion, that the cost of the entire Iraq campaign might exceed $90 billion. His predictions were ridiculed and he was promptly fired - or "forcibly resigned" ala another truth teller Paul O'Neill (in actuality, Lindsey was wildly optimistic because the bill is in the neighborhood of a quarter trillion and counting). Why no cushy post for him?

Gathering unbiased and accurate intelligence is absolutely vital to our national security - even if it primarily informs, not defines, policy. Government officials that dissemble on matters of intelligence to suit their agenda do not deserve high profile jobs or Medals of Freedom - even if they are loyal accomplices in the subterfuge.

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