Sunday, February 19, 2006

Fixing The Facts Around The Policy

If you only read one thing this weekend, make sure it is "Intelligence, Policy,and the War in Iraq" by Paul R. Pillar. (Hat tip - Kat at TDG)

Who he? Well, he is uniquely placed to speak on his chosen subject - he served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. That means he was "in charge of coordinating all of the intelligence community's assessments regarding Iraq," and that unique position leads him to say:
The most serious problem with U.S. intelligence today is that its relationship with the policymaking process is broken and badly needs repair. In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized. As the national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, I witnessed all of these disturbing developments.[Emphasis mine - C]
Pillar then goes into some detail on how all this happened and continues to happen.
The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made. It went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq. (The military made extensive use of intelligence in its war planning, although much of it was of a more tactical nature.) Congress, not the administration, asked for the now-infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, although few members of Congress actually read it. (According to several congressional aides responsible for safeguarding the classified material, no more than six senators and only a handful of House members got beyond the five-page executive summary.) As the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, I was in charge of coordinating all of the intelligence community's assessments regarding Iraq; the first request I received from any administration policymaker for any such assessment was not until a year into the war.
Including cherry-picking those items that aided the narrative for war, rather than relying on the intelligence agencies' own analyses (which included dire warnings of what would come to pass in post-invasion Iraq, all of which came true).
The issue of possible ties between Saddam and al Qaeda was especially prone to the selective use of raw intelligence to make a public case for war. In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be "linked" to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences.
One is forcefully reminded of recent pronouncements without evidence from the hawkish likes of Victor David Hanson that Iran is aiding al Qaida even when all the real evidence points to an ongoing conflict between the government and al Qaida.

Pillar is also scathing about enquiries into the Bush regime's politicization of intelligence, stating bluntly that such enquiries biased themselves against finding anything amiss by asking the right questions (right from Bush's point of view, that is).
the method of investigation used by the panels -- essentially, asking analysts whether their arms had been twisted -- would have caught only the crudest attempts at politicization.

...The actual politicization of intelligence occurs subtly and can take many forms. Context is all-important. Well before March 2003, intelligence analysts and their managers knew that the United States was heading for war with Iraq. It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. Intelligence analysts -- for whom attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success -- felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious.

...A clearer form of politicization is the inconsistent review of analysis: reports that conform to policy preferences have an easier time making it through the gauntlet of coordination and approval than ones that do not.

...Another form of politicization with a similar cause is the sugarcoating of what otherwise would be an unpalatable message. Even the mostly prescient analysis about the problems likely to be encountered in postwar Iraq included some observations that served as sugar, added in the hope that policymakers would not throw the report directly into the burn bag, but damaging the clarity of the analysis in the process.

...But the principal way that the intelligence community's work on Iraq was politicized concerned the specific questions to which the community devoted its energies. As any competent pollster can attest, how a question is framed helps determine the answer...the Bush administration repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war.
With the warning that "Although the Iraq war has provided a particularly stark illustration of the problems in the intelligence-policy relationship, such problems are not confined to this one issue or this specific administration", Pillar then goes on to suggest reforms which would make it more difficult for an administration to construct a narrative without disclosing any caveats or contrary assessments the intelligence community may have. The chief among these is to make the intelligence community independent of Presidential whim by making it's directors more akin to those of the Federal Reserve - appointees with a confirmation process who hold office for lengthy fixed terms. There are others too. It hardly matters at the moment because Bush is unlikely to implement a single one, but perhaps Democrat hopefuls for the Oval Office could consider taking them on board as part of a national security platform.

Overall, Pillar's article is the kind of open confirmation of leaks such as the Downing Street memos (and many others) that many have been expecting. Not only does it confirm the "rush to war" but it also confirms that cherry-picked intelligence has been used before and since to justify excess from a power-mad administration. As Simon Jenjins puts it in the London Sunday Times today:
America asks the world to believe itself so threatened as to require the kidnappings of foreign citizens in foreign parts, detention without legal process, the curbing of free speech and derogation from all international law. It asks the world to believe that it must disregard the Geneva conventions and employ foreign dictators to help it to torture at random. It uses the same justification for occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. The world simply refuses to agree.
John Conyers and others could do far worse than to have Pillar testify before Congress. I'm pretty certain that, given his position, duties and clearance until 2005, he knows more than a fair bit about domestic eavesdropping programs too...

However, it is in applying Pillar's observations and judgements to what it happening right now over Iran that his article is most interesting. Take for example the warmongering pronouncements of Victor Davis Hanson (again) in an article on Friday:
Iran is a uniquely fivefold danger. It has enough cash to buy influence and exemption; nuclear weapons to threaten civilization; oil reserves to blackmail a petroleum hungry world; terrorists to either find sanctuary under a nuclear umbrella or to be armed with dirty bombs; and it has a leader who wishes either to take his entire country into paradise, or at least back to the eighth century amid the ashes of the Middle East.

Just imagine the present controversy over the cartoons in the context of President Ahmadinejad with his finger on a half-dozen nuclear missiles pointed at Copenhagen.
See that? Iran..."has nuclear weapons"., it doesn't. Nor does it have a leader willing to nuke anyone. The Ayatollah is the leader, not the President, that's the definition of a "theocracy", and the Grand Ayatollah seems to be implaccably opposed to his nation having nukes at all. (Which also makes this Sunday Torygraph article an exercize in carefully leaving out the facts, including the fringe nature of the mullah mentioned, to help fuel the narrative.) Finally, the Oxford Research Group, among others, have pointed out that Iran has had chemical and certainly the technology for biological weapons for decades now - yet they have never given these weapons to any terror group despite their being more concealable, transportable and deniable than a nuke. Only the insanely paranoid believe a nuclear-armed Iran would give those weapons to terrorists, let alone to groups such as al Qaida that they are fighting themselves!

I and others have written many articles now on how the Bush administration and it's sycophants are trumping up dodgy intelligence to stir war fever over Iran - for reasons that have nothing to do with Iran's nuclear program and everything to do with their own ideologies and old grudges.

However, what Pillar's account brings home most forcibly is that strongarming, misuse and cherry-picking of intelligence will continue unabated as long as the neocons hold sway in the White House and the Hill. It is exactly in their interest to continue and exactly contrary to that interest to do anything to halt such abuse.

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