Have you noticed? Neither President George W.
Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney have cited any US intelligence assessments
to support their fateful decision to send 21,500 more troops to referee the
civil war in Iraq. This is a far cry from October 2002, when a formal National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was rushed through in order to trick Congress
into giving its nihil
obstat for the attack on Iraq.
Why no intelligence justification this time around? Because there is none.
Having successfully cooked intelligence four years ago to get authorization
for war, the Bush administration has zero incentive to try a repeat performance.
Nor is there any sign that the new Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House
intelligence committees will even think to ask the intelligence community
to state its views on the likely effect of the planned "surge" in troop strength.
This, even though an NIE on Iraq has been "almost ready" for months.
For the Bush administration, it has been difficult enough whipping its fickle
but ultimately malleable generals into line. The civilian intelligence chiefs
have proven more resistant. So the White House is playing it safe, avoiding
like the plague any estimate that would raise doubts about the wisdom of the
decision to surge. And that is precisely what an honest estimate would do.
With "sham-dunk" former CIA director George Tenet and his accomplices no longer
in place as intelligence enablers, the White House clearly prefers no NIE
to one that would inevitably highlight the fecklessness of throwing 21,500
more troops into harm's way for the dubious purpose of holding off defeat
for two more years.
From Mushroom Cloud to Lead Balloon
The NIE, which leaned so far forward to support
the White House's warnings of a made-in-Iraq "mushroom cloud," remains the
negative example par excellence of corrupted intelligence. The good news is
that Tenet and his lackeys were replaced by officers who, by all indications,
take their job of speaking truth to power seriously. Deputy Director of National
Intelligence for Analysis, Tom Fingar, is a State Department professional
not given to professionally selling out. And his boss, John Negroponte, is
too smart to end his government career by following the example of his servile
predecessors in conjuring up "intelligence" to please the president – not
even for a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Unvarnished NIEs sent to the White House by the Negroponte/Fingar team have
not shied away from unwelcome conclusions undercutting administration claims,
and have gone over like proverbial lead balloons. An estimate on Iran completed
in early 2005, for example, concluded that the Iranians will not be able to
produce a nuclear weapon before "early to mid-next decade," exposing Cheney's
fanciful claims of more proximate danger. And an NIE produced in April '06
on global terrorism concluded that the invasion of Iraq led to a marked increase
in terrorism, belying administration claims that the invasion and occupation
had made us "safer."
Worse still from the administration's point of view, patriotic truth-tellers
(aka leakers) inside the government apparently decided that administration
rhetoric on both of these key issues had deliberately misled the American
people, who were entitled to know the truth.
The two unwelcome estimates meant two strikes on Negroponte. Then the White
House learned of an impending strike-three – this one an NIE assessing the
future in Iraq and apparently casting doubt on the advisability of US escalation.
In a classic Cheneyesque pre-emptive strike, the estimate was put on hold;
Negroponte was given a pink slip and assigned back to the State Department.
There are rumors that Fingar is clearing out his desk as well.
NIEs Can Be Important
National Intelligence Estimates are the most
authoritative genre of analytical product, embodying substantive judgments
on key national security issues. They are coordinated throughout the 16-agency
intelligence community and then signed by the Director of National Intelligence
in his statutory capacity as chief intelligence adviser to the president.
In times past, presidents and their senior advisers actually read them and
often took their judgments into account in the decision making process.
There have been good estimates, and bad ones. In the latter category, an
NIE of Sept. 19, 1962, entitled "The Military Build-Up in Cuba" estimated
that the Soviet Union would not introduce strategic offensive missiles into
Cuba (even while such missiles were en route). Embarrassing, but an honest
mistake. The NIE issued on Oct. 1, 2002, 10 days before the congressional
vote on the war, was dishonest from the get-go. It was prepared by spineless
functionaries eager to please their boss (Tenet) and his boss (Bush) by parroting
the faith-based analysis of senior analyst Dick Cheney. It is by far the worst
NIE ever produced by the US intelligence community. But, hey, it achieved
its primary purpose of scaring Congress into approving a war of aggression.
In the wake of that debacle, few of us intelligence alumni harbored much
hope that honesty could be re-introduced into the estimative process any time
soon. Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner went so far as to tell a TV host
that he thought the CIA should be "dismantled." Thus, it was a very welcome
surprise to learn, thanks to patriotic truth-tellers, of the gutsy judgments
of more recent NIEs – and to discover that a remnant of analysts of the old
truth-to-power school have been able to ply their trade unencumbered under
Fingar and Negroponte.
Some History: Estimates on Vietnam
As one of the intelligence analysts watching
Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, I worked on several of the NIEs produced
before and during the war. All too many bore this title: "Probable Reactions
to Various Courses of Action With Respect to North Vietnam." Typical of the
kinds of question the president and his advisers wanted addressed: Can we
seal off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing it? If the US were to introduce
x thousand additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay,
how about xx thousand?
Our answers regularly earned us brickbats from the White House for not being
"good team players." But in those days we labored under a strong ethos dictating
that we give it to policymakers straight, without fear or favor. We had career
protection for doing that. And – truth be told – we often took a perverse
delight in it.
Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway) were pooh-poohed as negativism;
and policymakers, of course, were in no way obliged to take them into account.
The point is that they continued to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson or
Richard Nixon would be likely to decide on a significant escalation without
seeking our best guess as to how US adversaries would likely react to this
or that escalatory step
What About Now?
As noted above, an intelligence estimate on
Iraq has been in process for months – and months – and months. It is not that
the analysts are slower these days; it is that the White House has decided
that, for political reasons, no estimate at all is better than an unwelcome
one. The White House thought process seems to be this:
With Fingar and Negroponte and their benighted ideas about fact-based, rather
than faith-based, intelligence analysis, it is far better to duck the issue
altogether – at least for as long as the congressional oversight committees
continue to slumber. Besides, if Cheneyesque pressure were again to be applied
to intelligence analysts, there is a growing risk that this might turn some
of them into patriotic truth-tellers. Besides, we already have the needed
authorization – and even enough funding to send 21,500 additional troops.
It seems quite clear that the additional troop decision was made without
any formal input from the intelligence community. There would be no NIE on
"Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to Iraq" – no
formal paper that could make the president's decision appear highly questionable.
Let the on-again-off-again NIE on prospects for Iraq languish.
And let former CIA director, now Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pretend,
as he did on Jan. 12 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that he is
"unaware" of the existence of an NIE draft on prospects for Iraq. Sen. John
Warner, R-Va., raised the subject with Gates, saying that Negroponte had assured
him the NIE would be issued at the end of the month.
Don't hold your breath.
Originally published on TomPaine.com