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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

We almost missed this great article by Kenneth Pollack (yes, the one who wrote the book arguing for war with Iraq) in the Atlantic Monthly. It's very balanced, addressing both failures in intelligence gathering in the U.S. and around the world and U.S. government efforts to overplay the worst parts of the story:

'The Bush officials who created the OSP gave its reports directly to those in the highest levels of government, often passing raw, unverified intelligence straight to the Cabinet level as gospel. Senior Administration officials made public statements based on these reports—reports that the larger intelligence community knew to be erroneous (for instance, that there was hard and fast evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda). Another problem arising from the machinations of the OSP is that whenever the principals of the National Security Council met with the President and his staff, two completely different versions of reality were on the table. The CIA, the State Department, and the uniformed military services would present one version, consistent with the perspective of intelligence and foreign-policy professionals, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Vice President would present another, based on the perspective of the OSP. These views were too far apart to allow for compromise. As a result, the Administration found it difficult, if not impossible, to make certain important decisions. And it made some that were fatally flawed, including many relating to postwar planning, when the OSP's view—that Saddam's regime simultaneously was very threatening and could easily be replaced by a new government—prevailed.'

'For the most part, the problems discussed so far have more to do with the methods of Administration officials than with their motives, which were often misguided and dangerous, but were essentially well-intentioned. The one action for which I cannot hold Administration officials blameless is their distortion of intelligence estimates when making the public case for going to war.'

'As best I can tell, these officials were guilty not of lying but of creative omission. They discussed only those elements of intelligence estimates that served their cause. This was particularly apparent in regard to the time frame for Iraq's acquisition of a nuclear weapon—the issue that most alarmed the American public and the rest of the world. Remember that the NIE said that Iraq was likely to have a nuclear weapon in five to seven years if it had to produce the fissile material indigenously, and that it might have one in less than a year if it could obtain the material from a foreign source. The intelligence community considered it highly unlikely that Iraq would be able to obtain weapons-grade material from a foreign source; it had been trying to do so for twenty-five years with no luck. However, time after time senior Administration officials discussed only the worst-case, and least likely, scenario, and failed to mention the intelligence community's most likely scenario. Some examples:'

'In a radio address on September 14, 2002, President Bush warned, "Today Saddam Hussein has the scientists and infrastructure for a nuclear-weapons program, and has illicitly sought to purchase the equipment needed to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Should his regime acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year."'

'On October 7, 2002, the President told a group in Cincinnati, "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year."'

'On November 1, 2002, Undersecretary of State John Bolton told the Second Global Conference on Nuclear, Bio/Chem Terrorism, "We estimate that once Iraq acquires fissile material—whether from a foreign source or by securing the materials to build an indigenous fissile-material capability—it could fabricate a nuclear weapon within one year."'

'Vice President Cheney said on NBC's Meet the Press on September 14, 2003, "The judgment in the NIE was that if Saddam could acquire fissile material, weapons-grade material, that he would have a nuclear weapon within a few months to a year. That was the judgment of the intelligence community of the United States, and they had a high degree of confidence in it."'

'None of these statements in itself was untrue. However, each told only a part of the story—the most sensational part. These statements all implied that the U.S. intelligence community believed that Saddam would have a nuclear weapon within a year unless the United States acted at once.'

'Some defenders of the Administration have reportedly countered that all it did was make the best possible case for war, playing a role similar to that of a defense attorney who is charged with presenting the best possible case for a client (even if the client is guilty). That is a false analogy. A defense attorney is responsible for presenting only one side of a dispute. The President is responsible for serving the entire nation. Only the Administration has access to all the information available to various agencies of the U.S. government—and withholding or downplaying some of that information for its own purposes is a betrayal of that responsibility.'

The picture of what actually happened is complex as reality always is. It was neither the sole fault of the CIA or the Bush Administration that we went to war with Iraq, and any efforts to divise measures to prevent this sort of problem in the future should take all the weaknesses in the system into account.

Andrew 6:04 PM : |


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The Atlantic Monthly

Bloggers we like:
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