Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Sisyphus' Toil, Part I

Harry Reid has rather deftly shifted the debate from the ideological leanings of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito back to issues relating to pre-Iraq war intelligence on WMD, potential manipulation/distortion of such intelligence and undue influence in the process of gathering such intelligence (as well as the associated unethical retaliation against certain critics of the process such as Joe Wilson). In addition to a disingenuous feigning of outrage, the Right is going to be running with what it perceives as its most potent talking points. The version du jour goes something like this:

Everybody, even Bill Clinton and the United Nations, thought that Iraq had WMD. Everyone, especially the CIA, was wrong, so you can't blame Bush or anyone else in the Administration. And how could there have been manipulation, deceit or distortion if there was such a broad reaching consensus?
As I have done multiple times before, I will, like Sisyphus, push the rock of knowledge back up the hill since it has been cast down yet again by those that seek to misinform and conceal. My apologies to any readers who may be experiencing a sense of deja vu. Such is the nature of American political discourse when engaging the forces of real-time revisionism.

First of all, the above talking point depends on timing. There are elements of the statement that are true in the sense that at various points in time, there had been a fairly broad consensus concerning Saddam's WMD. The argument becomes less compelling, however, the closer you get to the invasion in March 2003. Recall, there were UN inspectors on the ground in Iraq scouring the country in search of the "stockpiles" that so many in the Bush administration assured were there. While Hans Blix, the UN official in charge of the pre-invasion hunt, believed Saddam had WMD prior to the commencement of his mission, and his initial reports complained of lack of cooperation from the Iraqis, he became less convinced of the presence of WMD as time went by. His skepticism was reinforced by the fact that he was receiving regular intelligence updates on where to look from the Americans and British, and the Iraqis began to cooperate rather emphatically as the time of invasion drew nearer, yet he still was not turning up any evidence of WMD.

We reported consistently that we found no weapons of mass destruction and I carried out inspections at sites given to us by US and British intelligence and not found anything. [...]

In March, they (the Iraqis) cooperated like hell. They were pro-active. In December and January, no. That is why I gave a critical account on January 27. In February, it was more balanced."
That was one of the main reasons that many nations and their populations felt that the inspections should be given more time. The Iraqis began cooperating, and the results at that time warranted further investigation. In other words, there was big time disagreement over Saddam's alleged WMD prior to the invasion, or at least healthy skepticism based on the work of the inspectors. Only if one ignores this crucial period does the above talking point gain in veracity.

Second, it is a question of which WMD you're talking about. There was generally more agreement regarding chemical and biological weapons, but not nuclear. Yet in terms of destructive capacity and ability to motivate a population by fear, nuclear weapons should be in a class of their own - which renders the term "WMD" imprecise to say the least. The war was sold on "mushroom clouds" not sarin gas. This is from a post of mine from last November, discussing the disagreements over nuclear WMD:

For example, as laid out in this chart of Key NIE Dissents [from the Carnegie Endowment report], the [US State Department's intelligence apparatus] INR concluded in the NIE that "[t]he activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." INR added: "Lacking persuasive evidence that Baghdad has launched a coherent effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program, INR is unwilling to speculate that such an effort began soon after the departure of UN inspectors."

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concurred in this judgment, concluding that there was "no indication of resumed nuclear activities...nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities."

In this context, this assertion was made by Vice President Cheney:

"[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons" [March 2003]
And President Bush:

"The regime has the scientists and facilities to build nuclear weapons and is seeking the materials required to do so." [October 2002]

Several days later, President Bush asserted that Saddam Hussein "is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon." [October 2002]

"Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof - the smoking gun - that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." [October 7, 2002]
And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with perhaps the most egregious example:

"We said they had a nuclear program. That was never any debate." [July 13, 2003 - emphasis added]
There was in fact a debate, and a spirited one. But if you listen to the Bush administration, you wouldn't know it. The Carnegie report, in its chart entitled Summary Of Iraq's Nuclear Weapon Program, lays out an item by item comparison of the various claims regarding Iraq's nuclear program, and the positions of the various intelligence agencies and the Bush administration.
What's interesting about that side-by-side comparison (please, take a look) is not only does it make it clear that there was widespread and serious disagreement between the US and the UN on the issue of Iraq's nuclear program, but there was actually disagreement between the CIA's pre-2002 NIE intelligence assessments and those put forth in the 2002 NIE. So, the CIA disagreed with prior reports from the CIA, while INR disagreed with this new approach by the CIA. Hardly a settled question - even between agencies within the US government itself, and even within one agency in the US government. Suffice to say, the UN and State Department were right.

The pattern of the CIA disagreeing with its prior estimates is a familiar one. In fact, even in the areas of biological and chemical weapons, the CIA's 2002 NIE converted agnosticism to certainty, and replaced caveated, nuanced assessments with unequivocal "slam dunk" analysis. This change in tenor also departed from the less certain estimations of the UN and other foreign intelligence agencies. This stark shift was noticed by the authors of the Carnegie Endowment report who pointed out that it was likely due to pressure from the White House, as well as the creation of para-intelligence agencies like the infamous Office of Special Plans.

The dramatic shift between prior intelligence assessments and the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), together with the creation of an independent intelligence entity at the Pentagon and other steps, suggest that the intelligence community began to be unduly influenced by policymakers' views sometime in 2002.
The response from the Right has been a confusing and convoluted one. They have sought to hang all the blame on the CIA, which they say simply got the story wrong - not acknowledging any potential for undue influence from a White House that was actively seeking certain findings regarding Saddam's WMD. No, in this story, the White House was the unsuspecting victim of the CIA's remarkable incompetence. Yet, astonishingly, the CIA's director, George Tenet, was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his distinguished service. Odd to reward such rampant incompetence with high honors. And, ironically, it was this incompetence which was rewarded on the one hand, that was cited as the reason for the radical restructuring of the entire intelligence gathering community.

At the same time, the Right has been pushing the theory that a rogue CIA infiltrated with liberal ideologues has been out to get Bush and his Administration since taking office in 2000. But isn't it strange that this antagonistic group, so hostile to Bush, was also overly accommodating in adjusting its intelligence estimates to match Administration goals - departing from the intelligence estimations of the State Department and UN (two other notorious Bush-bashing institutions)? Again, confusingly enough, it was this "CIA gone bad" and "rampant incompetence" rationales that lay behind the massive purges of the "disloyal" that have taken place at the CIA since Bush Administration ally Porter Goss took over. Goss famously wrote a memo to staff admonishing them to "support the administration and its policies in our work," adding, "As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies." So, if you've been following, the narrative goes like this:

-The CIA got it wrong on WMD by transforming its prior assessments to conform with the Adminsitration's political goals, without any influence from Administration policymakers. Then the CIA's director was honored despite his monumental failures in this regard.

-All along, the CIA was really a bastion of Bush-hating liberal ideologues who somehow produced intelligence products that curried favor with the target of their hate (and disagreed with INR and UN), so there was a purge and a new directive not to contradict the administration.

-Now that all the Bush-haters have been cleared from the ranks, and its members instructed not to contradict the Administration's position, the CIA will produce more balanced, objective and accurate intelligence, less likely to be influenced by the Bush Administration. Because it was this anti-Bush environment that yielded the faulty pro-Iraq war intelligence in the first place.

Got it? Me neither.

In Part II, I will look closely at emerging evidence that the CIA was in fact very much influenced by Bush Administration insiders and, not surprisingly, this explains why the 2002 NIE authored by the CIA was so overly deferential to the political goals of the administration.

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