The CIA Did It

Or, perhaps the CIA did a little of it and the White House did the rest, but we won’t talk about that until after the election, if ever.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — In a highly critical report issued Friday, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee found that the CIA’s prewar estimates of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were overstated and unsupported by intelligence.

As far as it goes, the report is correct that a lot of inaccurate intelligence came out of the CIA. Here’s Sy Hersh last fall:

Since midsummer [2003], the Senate Intelligence Committee has been attempting to solve the biggest mystery of the Iraq war: the disparity between the Bush Administration’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and what has actually been discovered.

The committee is concentrating on the last ten years’ worth of reports by the C.I.A. Preliminary findings, one intelligence official told me, are disquieting. “The intelligence community made all kinds of errors and handled things sloppily,” he said. The problems range from a lack of quality control to different agencies’ reporting contradictory assessments at the same time. One finding, the official went on, was that the intelligence reports about Iraq provided by the United Nations inspection teams and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitored Iraq’s nuclear-weapons programs, were far more accurate than the C.I.A. estimates. “Some of the old-timers in the community are appalled by how bad the analysis was,” the official said. “If you look at them side by side, C.I.A. versus United Nations, the U.N. agencies come out ahead across the board.”

But is it really all the CIA’s fault? What about Stovepiping, Doug Feith, and the OSP? Oh, that? Silly voter, we’ll look at it later:

While the report is harshly critical of the CIA, it does not address the role played by the administration of the US president, George Bush.

Following pressure from Republicans on the committee, the report is being published in two phases, with the White House being spared the committee’s scrutiny until phase two begins. The second part of the report may not be published until after the presidential election takes place in November.

Which intelligence failures, precisely, are we not looking at until after the election? From the same Hersh article cited above:

Part of the answer lies in decisions made early in the Bush Administration, before the events of September 11, 2001. In interviews with present and former intelligence officials, I was told that some senior Administration people, soon after coming to power, had bypassed the government’s customary procedures for vetting intelligence.

… 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. Kenneth Pollack, a former National Security Council expert on Iraq, whose book “The Threatening Storm” generally supported the use of force to remove Saddam Hussein, told me that what the Bush people did was “dismantle the existing filtering process that for fifty years had been preventing the policymakers from getting bad information. They created stovepipes to get the information they wanted directly to the top leadership. Their position is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.

“They always had information to back up their public claims, but it was often very bad information,” Pollack continued. “They were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn’t have the time or the energy to go after the bad information.”

The Administration eventually got its way, a former C.I.A. official said. “The analysts at the C.I.A. were beaten down defending their assessments. And they blame George Tenet” — the C.I.A. director — ”for not protecting them. I’ve never seen a government like this.”

…But, Thielmann told me, “Bolton seemed to be troubled because INR was not telling him what he wanted to hear.”…Eventually, [then part of State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR] Thielmann said, [Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and noted conservative] Bolton demanded that he and his staff have direct electronic access to sensitive intelligence, such as foreign-agent reports and electronic intercepts. In previous Administrations, such data had been made available to under-secretaries only after it was analyzed, usually in the specially secured offices of INR. The whole point of the intelligence system in place, according to Thielmann, was “to prevent raw intelligence from getting to people who would be misled.” Bolton, however, wanted his aides to receive and assign intelligence analyses and assessments using the raw data. In essence, the under-secretary would be running his own intelligence operation, without any guidance or support. “He surrounded himself with a hand-chosen group of loyalists, and found a way to get C.I.A. information directly,” Thielmann said.

…Greg Thielmann, after being turned away from Bolton’s office, worked with the INR staff on a major review of Iraq’s progress in developing W.M.D.s. The review, presented to Secretary of State Powell in December, 2001, echoed the earlier I.A.E.A. findings. According to Thielmann, “It basically said that there is no persuasive evidence that the Iraqi nuclear program is being reconstituted.”

The defectors, however, had an audience prepared to believe the worst. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had long complained about the limits of American intelligence…After he became Secretary of Defense, a separate intelligence unit was set up in the Pentagon’s policy office, under the control of William Luti, a senior aide to Feith. This office, which circumvented the usual procedures of vetting and transparency, stovepiped many of its findings to the highest-ranking officials.

…As the campaign against Iraq intensified, a former aide to Cheney told me, the Vice-President’s office, run by his chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, became increasingly secretive when it came to intelligence about Iraq’s W.M.D.s. As with Wolfowitz and Bolton, there was a reluctance to let the military and civilian analysts on the staff vet intelligence.

“It was an unbelievably closed and small group,” the former aide told me … “There’s so much intelligence out there that it’s easy to pick and choose your case,” the former aide told me. “It opens things up to cherry-picking.”

Hersh’s entire report, The Stovepipe, is lengthy and full of many more similar details and episodes. It’s well worth reading again, particularly given the new The CIA Did It strategy. Basically, the CIA came up with all sorts of information, much of it in fact bad (both vetted and unvetted) and some of it accurate. The administration and its agents consciously discarded all of the good intelligence (no WMD in Iraq) and retained all of the bad intelligence (Iraq has WMD). Now they say, having discarded the accurate intelligence, “Look! All the intelligence we have here is wrong. It’s the CIA’s fault.”

Clever, and strongly reminiscent of the administration’s earlier use of the It Wasn’t Me tactic. But will it work?