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| Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Daniel Benjamin's "Making Bad Connections"

Originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News of San Jose, CA, and copied from there.

Posted on Sun, Nov. 20, 2005


Making bad connections

By Daniel Benjamin

        “The suggestion that's been made by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.”   With that remark last week, Vice President Dick Cheney further escalated the fight over the origins of the Iraq war that has been growing nastier and more personal by the day.

        Cheney's attack on the growing chorus of war critics was an impressive rhetorical case of what Germans call Flucht nach Vorn -- flight to the front -- in which the flat-out aggressiveness of those charging forward in battle is meant to overcome the strength of their opponents.  His speech to a conservative audience in Washington on Wednesday echoed recent remarks by President George W. Bush criticizing his critics, including that it was “deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.”

        The problem for the American people is that fundamental issues are being obscured by the way the debate is being framed.  For example, recent comments by Sen. John McCain that “it's a lie to say that the president lied to the American people,” suggests that the heart of the matter was whether the administration simply invented the intelligence that was presented to the nation as part of the case for war.

        And frequent assertions by Republicans that there has been no evidence of political pressure on the intelligence community to produce the right kind of intelligence is meant to suggest that this is the only way manipulation of intelligence can occur.

        Politicians telling outright lies and browbeating civil servants is the stuff of bad movies.  The reality of what happened is more complex, involving the selective use of unrepresentative, and often unreliable, bits of intelligence and an unshakable refusal to consider that others' views might be closer to the truth.

        Some of the administration's defenses are hard to swallow.  Take, for example, the president's Veterans Day speech in which he called his critics irresponsible.  His basic contention was that many Democrats who were questioning his decision to go to war shared in his mistake because they voted for the war and, he said, had done so on the basis of the same intelligence he had used.

        There is a partial truth here: Members of Congress received from the administration the classified version of the major -- and deeply flawed -- compendium of intelligence on Iraq, the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate.  But the national debate was largely shaped by the unclassified “white paper” version that was given to the American public and which wiped away most of the caveats and cautions that a divided and uneasy intelligence community had included in the classified document.

        For example, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice announced publicly in 2002 that aluminum tubes that Iraq was trying to acquire “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs,” when she knew there were deep divisions in the intelligence community over whether that was true.  (It is now widely accepted that Energy Department experts, who said the tubes were for small conventional military rockets, had it right.)

        Congress did not distinguish itself by ignoring the evidence of division in the intelligence community that was in the classified document.  But the public was plainly misled.  Bush's remarks are also off the mark in that vast amounts of intelligence were unavailable to Congress, very few of whose members see even a fraction of the massive flows of reporting that circulate through the agencies that deal with national security.

        There is also a through-the-looking glass quality to the discussion of who-had-what-intelligence-when, since evidence suggests that the administration decided to go to war well before Congress began debating the issue and long before congressional leaders requested the National Intelligence Estimate.

        The evidence includes comments that former Bush administration official Richard Haass made to the New Yorker in which he recounts meeting with Rice in July 2002 -- more than eight months before the war started.  Haass, who was then director of policy planning in the State Department, said Rice told him not to bother discussing the wisdom of confronting Iraq because, as she said, “that decision's been made.  Don't waste your breath.”

        If that decision had been made, it was done, as far as we know, before any comprehensive intelligence evaluation about Iraq was compiled.  It is even possible that the decision had been made considerably earlier.

        In the course of reporting a new book, “The Next Attack: The Failure of the Global War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right,” I learned from former senior government officials of a meeting that was held in January 2002 in the White House to jump-start planning for military action that would begin by April 15 of that year.  That initial process, which appears to have been started by Cheney's office, was discontinued by Rice, who had initially not been informed about it.  As one official who requested anonymity told me: “In that period, it really wasn't clear who was in charge.”

        But even those who believe the Bush administration did keep an open mind until the immediate run-up to the war must acknowledge that the White House was not interested in listening to all sides on how much of a threat Iraq posed.

        Much has been written about the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, which much of Congress accepted too uncritically.  So I'll focus instead on another key part of the administration's case for war -- its argument about a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al-Qaida, an argument that has since been discredited by the Sept. 11 Commission, among others.

        Here, it is worth considering the claims of the administration and its supporters that there has been no indication that political pressure was brought to bear on intelligence analysts to shape their work in a particular way.  In fact, there are disagreements on this point between members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and independent investigators from the CIA, who have asserted that there was.

        But dwelling on whether there was pressure or not misses the point.  From numerous interviews with officials, current and former, from the intelligence community, the Defense Department and the State Department, it is clear that administration officials in fact did not threaten the jobs or otherwise intimidate lowly career analysts to get the intelligence they wanted.  Instead, administration officials bypassed the traditional intelligence community, created a parallel one of their own and presented its conclusions -- about the supposed Al-Qaida-Saddam link, for instance -- as authoritative.

        Some administration officials had their minds made up before the facts were in.  Even before the 2001 terrorist attacks, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in a meeting with counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and others, argued that no terrorist group could pull off the bombings which Osama bin Laden's organization had accomplished before Sept. 11 without support from a state and indicated that he believed Iraq was the state behind the curtain.

        After the Sept. 11 attacks, Wolfowitz told one of the Pentagon's top career counterterrorism officials (who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity) that the Iraqi government was behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 -- a position that had long been discredited by the intelligence community.  When the official told Wolfowitz that he did not agree, he said, “the light went out and he just wasn't interested.  And that's how it was for everyone [working on counterterrorism].  If you said you weren't convinced, you might as well have said, `You guys are a bunch of liars.' ”

        Ultimately, the Pentagon's office that dealt with terrorism was marginalized and kept out of important policy-making decisions.

        Not long after his meeting with Wolfowitz, the same career official was told by a colleague to have a look in a particular Pentagon conference room.  There, he says he found a reserve officer working on what looked like a long swath of butcher paper that was pinned up on the wall.  At one end was written “bin Laden” and at the other “Saddam Hussein.”   In between was a tangled mass of confusing lines.  When the counterterrorism official asked the reservist what he was doing, he answered: “I was asked to show the connections between Saddam and UBL [bin Laden].”

        “Were you asked to show if there was a connection?” the official asked.

        “No,” the reservist said.  “I was told to show the connection.”

        That same kind of thesis-driven analysis was adopted by a new Pentagon office that was created after Sept. 11 to counter the intelligence community's widely held judgment that Al-Qaida and Iraq were not allies and, unless Saddam's back was to the wall, were not likely to be.

        The Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group (CTEG), as it was called, was led by two well-known neoconservative political appointees, David Wurmser and Michael Maloof.  The group trolled through the ocean of intelligence on Al-Qaida.  It produced papers and briefings, but the conclusions -- including that bin Laden and Al-Qaida were in cahoots -- were never subjected to the same rigorous vetting by other intelligence agencies that all other major intelligence assessments are.

        Intelligence and counterterrorism officials at the State Department never saw the group's work.  Eventually, it appears, the office of the vice president, which was closely tied to the new Pentagon shop, tried to incorporate some of the reports that the group had dug up into Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech in early 2003 at the United Nations Security Council.  (Powell refused to use the draft and used a barnyard epithet to describe the Pentagon material.)

        It is easy to understand why Powell came to the conclusion he did about CTEG's work: One of its papers was later leaked to the neoconservative Weekly Standard.  It revealed a remarkably poor quality of analysis and relied on intelligence reports that were clearly dubious.  Intelligence reports were cited, for instance, that described meetings between bin Laden and former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz at a time when the United States was closely tracking both men and a secret meeting would have been impossible.

        The few government officials who saw the Pentagon group's material refused to endorse it.  CTEG officials met with then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet and several counterterrorism experts, but the CIA officials say they saw the work as poor and unconvincing.  And a top officer in military intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalls being summoned to a “long session” to review the findings of the Counter-Terrorism Evaluation Group.  In the end, he said that the leadership of the uniformed military intelligence refused to concur in the findings.

        He added that there was no pressure to conform, which supports the administration's claims that it didn't force intelligence officers to skew their reports.  But that hides a deeper truth.  The administration did not force intelligence officers to change their conclusions because the White House did not much care what these career officials had to say.  It simply relied on the material the new Pentagon group was providing it -- and passed that along as truth to the American people.

        That “intelligence” was valued for one reason: It confirmed what the president and his men already believed to be true.

DANIEL BENJAMIN is the co-author with Steven Simon of “The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right,” which has just been published.  Benjamin, who served on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999, wrote this article for Perspective.

        End of Archived Material

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