US intelligence: seeing what it wants to see in Iraq

The CIA and Defense Department are at it again. As usual, this is about their different approaches to the analysis of intelligence. CIA analysts tend to call it like they see it. Defense analysts tend to call it like they want to see it, or sometimes more to the point, how they want Congress and the public to see it. The subject this time is Iraq.

Dissatisfied with what the CIA is telling the White House, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has set up his own unit to analyze reports from the CIA and other agencies. He is relying on this process for justification of his bellicose policy toward Iraq – something he thinks he is not getting from the CIA. Rumsfeld starts with a policy and looks for intelligence to support it. The CIA (most of the time anyway) stays with what it thinks the intelligence shows and leaves it to policymakers to come up with answers on what to do about it.

It is typical of presidents to want the CIA to report what they want to hear. When Lyndon Johnson sent troops to intervene in the Dominican Republic in 1965, he said publicly it was to prevent a communist takeover. When the CIA reported that it could find no communists, he went to the FBI, which found plenty.

During the first Bush administration, when CIA director William Webster told the House Armed Services Committee that the collapse of Soviet and Warsaw Pact military power was irreversible, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, now vice president, complained that such statements made it more difficult for him to persuade Congress to approve the defense budget.

With respect to Iraq, there is evidence that Saddam Hussein has used poison gas against Kurds, but not that he is likely to make unprovoked attacks using chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons. President Bush has nonetheless said that the danger of such use demands there be no delay in removing Mr. Hussein from power. When asked for evidence, the White House pleads that it must protect intelligence sources and methods. Frequently, this is more an excuse than a reason for not saying out loud what the government knows or thinks it knows. The United States does acquire some intelligence from sources or with methods that should not be publicly known.

For example, we might have bribed a foreign official or broken a foreign code. If the intelligence is disclosed, the foreign government will recognize the source and take steps to ensure that we cannot use it again. Maybe it executes the person who told us; maybe it changes the code. This is what is meant by protecting sources and methods.

Sometimes, however, there is no such intelligence; there are no secrets being protected. What is happening is that a government official (sometimes the president himself) has made an assertion that is unsupported by evidence.

During the cold war, Defense and CIA consistently differed in their estimates of Soviet military strength. Whenever this happened, liberals accused Defense analysts of inflating intelligence estimates; conservatives accused the CIA of minimizing them. Finally, it was agreed that outside experts would be brought in to provide independent judgments. They were organized into Team A and Team B, one examining Defense data and methodology, the other that of the CIA. The Senate Intelligence Committee made its own review and reported that the exercise was inconclusive. When the end of the cold war opened Soviet files to some extent, it was found that both Defense and CIA had overestimated Soviet military spending, Defense more so.

Aside from the different approaches to intelligence by Defense and CIA, there are other reasons for this deep-seated rivalry. One is money. The director of the CIA is charged by law with coordinating the government's intelligence work, but most of the money (an estimated 80 percent) is concealed in the Defense Department appropriation. In addition, a great deal of the actual collection and analysis of intelligence is done by the Defense Department. This includes the operation of spy satellites as well as the tactical intelligence of the armed forces.

It should be said that interpreting intelligence (what do hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reports, some of them conflicting, mean, if anything?) is no simple task. The question of bias applies alike to the analyst and the policymaker to whom he reports. Does either or both have an ax to grind? The informed observer can never be sure. He can only identify with experience some telltale signs to look for.

• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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