Politicizing intelligence?

An ex-CIA analyst claims the Bush team politicized intelligence, but his explanation suggests the CIA did so, too.

In a much-touted article in Foreign Affairs, Paul R. Pillar, former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, argues that the Bush administration politicized intelligence. But in the effort to prove his point, he wittingly or unwittingly makes a stronger case of politicization by the intelligence community itself.

Extensive investigations, which Pillar acknowledges, found that the Bush administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to alter or shape their judgments. Instead, the pressure seemed to come from within the intelligence community. Pillar reveals that intelligence reports that conformed to the Bush administration's policy preferences had an easier time making it through the intelligence community's coordination and approval process than ones that did not.

This suggests that intelligence officials may have disapproved or altered reports that questioned or contradicted the consensus view, before any reports were ever passed on to the Bush administration. If this is the case, then Pillar's article is a damning commentary on the intelligence community.

It is the job of intelligence analysts to deliver as objective, unbiased analyses as possible. A decision to do anything less is a decision tainted by politics.

For intelligence analysts, he writes, "attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success." This suggests that some intelligence analysts may be so keen on getting Brownie points that they will write what the higher-ups want to read at the expense of objectivity. Moreover, there was a "disinclination within the intelligence community to challenge the consensus view about Iraqi WMD programs." If certain analysts had second thoughts about the consensus view, why didn't they have the backbone to speak up?

Meanwhile, on whether the Bush administration politicized intelligence, Pillar claims that "the administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made." This is only partially plausible. Based on Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, the decision to go to war against Iraq appears to have been made early on, not long after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. And there is every indication the administration did use intelligence to inform its decision-making: the CIA and other intelligence agencies concluded (apparently erroneously) that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, which was the principle stated reason for going to war. Then, once that decision was made, it is plausible that subsequent intelligence reports were used to justify that decision.

Pillar writes that the Bush administration repeatedly pushed the intelligence community to uncover material that would contribute to the case for war, particularly on the matter of ties between Mr. Hussein and Al Qaeda. If the Bush administration requested such information with the intention of bolstering its case (and ignoring contradictory evidence) rather than informing its decision-making, then this indeed could be interpreted as using the intelligence community for political purposes - something that obviously should be avoided.

He refers to "the administration's rejection of the intelligence community's judgments" on the supposed alliance between Hussein and Al Qaeda. His wording implies that the intelligence community issued judgments concluding that there was no evidence of such an alliance, but that the administration went against the intelligence community and claimed there was an alliance anyway.

The apparent dispute is over what exactly constitutes an "alliance." The intelligence community certainly offered a lot of intelligence reports that suggested an alliance; then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 2003 UN speech cited numerous examples of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and especially between Iraq and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terrorist network. In any case, even if there was no alliance per se, there was enough reason to worry that Iraq was a potential safe haven or source of weapons for terrorists.

Pillar alleges the Bush administration "cherry-picked" intelligence, i.e. retained supportive intelligence and ignored contradictory intelligence. The best evidence he gives for this is the 2003 State of the Union speech in which President Bush asserted that Iraq purchased uranium ore in Africa. US intelligence apparently questioned the credibility of the report, while British intelligence stood by it. If this were inserted into the speech without clearing it with the CIA, then the Bush administration should be faulted. Nevertheless, it is not apparent that cherry-picking was common practice, as opposed to an isolated instance.

[Note added March 19, 2006: I originally wrote that President Bush asserted in his 2003 State of the Union speech that Iraq "purchased" uranium in Africa. He actually said "sought." And this line in the speech was indeed cleared with the CIA, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report. So it may not be evidence of "cherry picking" after all, as Pillar suggests.]

Pillar acknowledges the general consensus within the intelligence community that Hussein possessed WMD. But he asserts that "intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs did not drive [the administration's] decision to go to war." That's an explosive assertion - one that needs a lot of backing up with facts.

But he merely bases his assertion on the observation that "a view broadly held in the United States and even more so overseas was that deterrence of Iraq was working, that Hussein was being kept "in his box," and that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place." He seems to be implying that because the Bush administration did not subscribe to this view, WMD must not have been the reason it went to war. That's weak - especially considering that the areas where such a view was "broadly held" were mainly among the political left and, famously, among countries like France, Germany, and Russia.

He also recounts that the intelligence community predicted a difficult and turbulent transition in a post-invasion Iraq. The implication is that the Bush administration ignored this assessment - or that it was a good enough reason not to go to war. But is it not reasonable to think that the administration carefully weighed this assessment, but concluded that the risks of Hussein using WMD are far worse than the risks of a turbulent post-invasion Iraq?

In any event, before one can draw any firm conclusions on politicization of intelligence by either the CIA or the Bush administration, Pillar would need to provide further clarification, elaboration, and evidence.

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