Saturday, December 03, 2005

The "Same Intelligence"

"That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate, who had access to the same intelligence, voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power." --George W. Bush

"It is irresponsible to say that I deliberately misled the American people when it came to the very same intelligence they looked at, and came to, many of them came to the same conclusion I did." --George W. Bush

It makes me a little crazy when I hear President Bush and his supporters repeatedly make the claim that the Congress had access to the "same intelligence" as the administration in the fall of 2002. This notion is just plain silly on its face, and it becomes more preposterous with deeper scrutiny.

I say "on its face" because to reject the claim all you really need to understand is that the nation's major intelligence organizations (the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the State Department's INR, etc.) are all under the executive branch. Although there are congressional committees that perform intelligence oversight, the Congress is necessarily some distance removed from the gross machinations of the intelligence apparatus.

Not so the executive branch. The president's administration is intimately meshed at every level in the intelligence process--both in producing intelligence and also "consuming" it. (Unfortunately, the Bush administration has given new meaning to the notion of "producing" intelligence. Many critics claim that top-down political and ideological bias has deeply corrupted the process and tainted its result.)

The president's chief representative in the intelligence fray is his National Security Advisor. One of her (then Condoleezza Rice) important roles is to objectively assimilate the output of the various intelligence agencies, and to provide a coherent intelligence picture to the president. Of course, the National Security Advisor is not the only major intelligence channel into the White House. For example, George Tenet, then director of the CIA, personally delivered the "Presidential Daily Brief" to President Bush.

There is simply no analogue in the Congress to this kind of connectedness to the intelligence process: the channels into the intelligence apparatus open to Congress are by comparison quite limited. For this reason, and because they lack the requisite committee memberships and security clearances, most members of Congress are substantially locked out of the discussion. So how can it be that the Congress saw the "same intelligence" as the president? Of course, it cannot be.

By its very nature the business of intelligence is fraught with uncertainty; how you judge the caveats makes all the difference. During the run up to war, a debate invisible to outsiders raged within the intelligence community. Many intelligence insiders took grave issue with the "evidence" that administration officials touted as fact. Yet there was no way for the Congress and the public to know the full extent of the disagreement. Throughout most of the pre-war maneuvering, most members of Congress were little more than spectators to the administration's rhetoric, in essentially the same way as was the public at large.

In a recent published memorandum, former Senator Bob Graham, and John Podesta of the Center for American Progress, put it this way: "The most egregiously false claims about the Iraqi threat -- particularly those involving the supposed nuclear threat -- came straight from public statements made by the President and the Vice President. Congress and the American people should be able to start from the assumption that comments from the President and Vice President about national security threats can be accepted at face value. We now know that the White House was warned on numerous occasions by various domestic intelligence agencies that it found much of the evidence the President and other senior administration officials used to make the public case for war to be unreliable."

In the fall of 2002, Senator Graham was as well informed about the Iraqi threat as anyone in Congress could possibly be, and far better than most. As Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he had a good working relationship with George Tenet, and could request and receive information directly from him. Tenet responded in August 2002 to a query by Graham with a classified 25-page letter discussing Iraq's WMD and its ties to al Qaeda. According to a 2003 article in The New Republic (TNR), an insider described that letter as "reasonable", "candid", and "balanced". Because Tenet's letter, and an early September report to the Intelligence Committee by the Defense Intelligence Agency "were completely at variance with what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other administration officials were saying publicly", Graham and Senator Dick Durbin asked Tenet to produce a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. They were dismayed by what they got.

A NIE is intended to be a consensus document, produced in cooperation with all the nation's intelligence agencies, and providing a detailed summary of the intelligence community's conclusions on a particular topic. This NIE, delivered at the end of September 2002, suggested consensus in areas where none existed. Dissenting opinions were present, but they were pushed down to the footnotes. Conclusions were presented with greater certainty than were warranted by the unsettled internal disagreements, and were at odds with the personal correspondence between Tenet and Graham. The most outrageous claim made by the NIE was that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs, despite the fact that the various points of evidence supporting this contention (aluminum tubes, uranium from Africa) were hotly disputed by many intelligence analysts. In short, this NIE was "an artificial consensus within a community that was sharply divided over the threat from Iraq."

Even so, says TNR, the NIE "was still less overheated than administration rhetoric." With the upcoming congressional vote on authorizing the use of force, Graham requested that Tenet release an unclassified version of the NIE. "Tenet delivered--only in this new version, he wiped clean the qualifiers, alternative explanations, and dissents." Graham, says TNR, was "outraged".

And so we have come at last to the intelligence that Congress "saw" immediately prior to its vote to authorize force against Iraq: an eviscerated, shallow, misleading depiction of the intelligence community's assessment of the Iraqi threat. This unclassified NIE, provided by the administration to Congress and to the American public, was less than useless as a basis of informed consent.

Was the unclassified NIE all Congress had to go on? Maybe not. I've seen divergent opinions on whether or not all members of Congress, and not just the members of the intelligence committees, were entitled to read the full classified NIE. A recent Washington Post article stated that all members were so entitled. TNR, however, suggested that Graham wanted the unclassified NIE "so members could use the document to inform their upcoming votes on the war." But this, of course, would be unnecessary if members already had access to the full classified NIE. Whatever the truth, the full NIE was itself a flawed document--certainly not the "same intelligence" as was available to the president. And in any case, according to the Washington Post "no more than six senators and a handful of House members read beyond the five-page executive summary."

So much for Congress seeing the "same intelligence".

For Further Reading

For a brief discussion of the political winds swirling around Congress's October 2002 vote, see my previous post, "Congress Got Rolled".

The subject of pre-war intelligence is fascinating; despite renewed interest, it is hardly a new topic. A robust discussion was underway from the early days of the war. Mining this early public record would be an interesting and useful response to the Bush administration's complaint that its current critics are trying to "rewrite history" on how the war began.

To get a more complete look at the TNR article that I could only touch on, I highly recommend you read "The Operator", by Spencer Ackerman and John B. Judis in the September 22, 2003 The New Republic. Beware that one online version I've seen, on TNR's web site, no less, is a truncated and quite incomplete version of the article. It ends far before the period in 2002 I've been discussing.

You can read the Graham/Podesta memorandum here.

See also "(Over)selling the World on War", by Evan Thomas et. al., in the June 9, 2003 Newsweek.

For a truly excellent description of how intelligence can be politicized, see "The Stovepipe", by Seymour M. Hersh, in the October 27, 2003 The New Yorker. This is a must-read, and the folks at The New Yorker, God bless 'em, have it available online.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


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