Before he departed on his quest for Saddam Hussein's fabled weapons of mass destruction, David Kay, chief of the Iraq Survey Group, confidently told friends that he promptly expected to locate the cause of the preemptive war. Yet on Jan. 28, Kay appeared before the Senate to testify that there were no WMD. "It turns out that we were all wrong... and that is most disturbing," he said. The fault, he reckoned, was "limited data." It was not that "analysts were pressured to reach conclusions that would fit the political agenda of one or another administration. I deeply think that is a wrong explanation." President Bush, he added helpfully, was misinformed by the whole intelligence community, which, like Kay, made assumptions that turned out to be false. The issue, he concluded, was ultimately a failure of intelligence.
Within days, Bush, who had been resisting, declared that he would appoint a commission to investigate. His motive was patent in the announcement: The commission would report its findings after the election. Kay's testimony was the catalyst, but on only one of his claims is he correct: He was wrong. His assertion of authority on what happened with intelligence -- "we were all wrong" and that there was no pressure -- is as unfounded as his previously certain belief in the existence of WMD. The truth is that much of the intelligence community did not fail, but presented correct assessments and warnings that were overridden and suppressed. On virtually every single important claim the Bush administration made in its case for war, there was serious dissension. Discordant views -- not from individual analysts but from several intelligence agencies as a whole -- were kept from the public as momentum was built for a congressional vote on the war resolution.
Precisely because of qualms the administration encountered within, it created a rogue intelligence operation -- the Office of Special Plans, located within the bowels of the Pentagon. The OSP was under the control of neoconservatives; it roamed outside the regular interagency intelligence process, stamped its approval on stories retailed by Iraqi exiles that the other agencies dismissed as lacking credibility, and directly piped them into the president through the vice president's office. It was fail-safe in producing disinformation and feeding the impulses of a self-isolated president, but it was not what anyone involved in the craft of intelligence calls intelligence.
There was no general intelligence failure; on the contrary, there was a successful effort by the Bush administration to intimidate, subordinate and punish intelligence to fit its political objectives.
Rush to Judgment -- When Bush insisted that Saddam was actively and urgently engaged in a nuclear weapons program and had renewed production of chemical weapons, the Defense Intelligence Agency denied the assertions. Bruce Hardcastle, defense intelligence officer for the Middle East, South Asia and Counterterrorism, "told them that the way they were handling evidence was wrong," reports Patrick Lang, former head of Human Intelligence at CIA. The Bush administration response was not only to remove Hardcastle from his post: "They did away with his job. They wanted just liaison officers who were junior. They didn't want a senior intelligence person who argued with them. Hardcastle said, 'I couldn't deal with these people.' They are such ideologues that they knew what the outcome should be and they thought when they didn't get it from intelligence people, they thought they were stupid.
"They start with an almost pseudo-religious faith," says Lang. "They wanted the intelligence agencies to produce material to show a threat, particularly an imminent threat. Then they worked back to prove their case. It was the opposite of what the process should have been like, that evidence should prove the case."
When the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) submitted reports that aluminum tubes Saddam possessed were for conventional rocketry, not nuclear weapons (a report corroborated by Department of Energy analysts), that mobile laboratories were not for WMD, that the story about Saddam seeking uranium in Niger was bogus, and that there was no link between Saddam and al Qaeda (a report backed by the CIA), its analyses were shunted aside. Greg Thielman, chief of INR at the time, told me that "What everyone in the intelligence community knew was that the White House couldn't care less about any kind of information that there were no WMD or that the U.N. inspectors were very effective. Everyone knew the White House was deaf to that input. It was worse than pressure; they didn't care."
When the CIA debunked the tales about uranium from Niger and the Saddam/al Qaeda connection, its reports were ultimately ignored and direct pressure was applied. In October 2002, the White House inserted mention of the uranium into a speech Bush was to deliver, but the CIA objected and it was excised. Three months later, it reappeared in his State of the Union address. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed never to have seen the original CIA memo, and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley apologized that he had simply forgotten about it.
Never before had any senior White House official physically intruded into the CIA's Langley headquarters to argue with mid-level managers and analysts about unfinished work. But twice Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, came to offer their opinions. According to Patrick Lang, "They looked disapproving, questioned the reports and left an impression of what you're supposed to do. They made it clear they didn't like what the analysts wrote. They would look at the analytic piece that was produced and say you haven't looked at the evidence. We find some reports here you didn't take in consideration. The answer would be, those reports aren't valid." The reports in question were from Iraqi exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi. "The analysts would be told that you should look at this again. Finally, people gave up. You learn not to contradict them."
Others also turned up at CIA to browbeat analysts, including Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House and member of the Defense Policy Board, along with Condi Rice, according to Ray McGovern, former CIA chief for the Middle East. "Cheney, he just likes the soup in the CIA cafeteria," McGovern joked.
Meanwhile, senior intelligence officers were kept in the dark about the Office of Special Plans. "I didn't know about its existence," said Thielman. "They were cherry-picking the intelligence and packaging it for Rumsfeld and Cheney to take into the president. That's exactly the kind of rogue operation that peer review is intended to prevent."
CIA director George Tenet opted to become a political advocate for Bush's brief rather than a protector of the intelligence community. On the eve of the congressional debate, in a crammed three-week period, the agency wrote a 90-page National Intelligence Estimate justifying the administration's WMD position.
According to Thielman, the CIA's decision to support the contention that Saddam was building nuclear weapons was made by someone who had been a personnel manager. Tenet released a version of the NIE scrubbed of its numerous dissents. But, in July 2003, after the war, a declassified version showed 40 caveats -- including 15 uses of the word "probably."
Tenet further ingratiated himself by remaining silent about the OSP. "That's totally unacceptable for a CIA director," said Thielman. "Therefore not only is the president culpable because he's tolerating a rogue operation inside his government, but Tenet should have made it an existential question for his job."
Powell Ignores Advice -- On Feb. 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented evidence of WMD before the United Nations. He had decided to fall into line as a good soldier. In the preparation, Cheney and Libby had attempted to inject material into it channeled from Iraqi exiles and OSP, but Powell rejected most of it. Yet for the most important speech of his career, he refused to allow the presence of any analysts from his own intelligence agency. "He didn't have anyone from INR near him," said Thielman. "Powell didn't want to know what was true or not. He wanted to sell a rotten fish. At some point, Powell decided there was no way to avoid war. His job was to go to war with as much legitimacy as we could scrape up." Just before he was to deliver his speech he sent a copy to INR, whose analysts sent back marginal comments that he chose to ignore about the aluminum tubes. Almost every piece of evidence he unveiled turned out later to be false.
Last Monday -- the day Bush announced he would appoint an investigative commission -- Powell offered a limited mea culpa at an editorial board meeting at the Washington Post. He said that if only he had known the intelligence, he might not have supported an invasion. Thus he began to show carefully calibrated remorse designed to distance himself from other Cabinet-level members of the administration and especially Vice President Cheney. Powell also defended his U.N. speech, claiming "it reflected the best judgments of all of the intelligence agencies." Thielman asked, "Powell said he got the best intelligence. Why did he not have INR with him?"
Powell is highly sensitive to the slightest political winds, especially as they might affect his reputation. If he is a bellwether, will it soon be that every man must save himself?
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Bill Clinton, is the author of The Clinton Wars.
Publication date: 02/12/04