The Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on pre-war U.S. intelligence in Iraq inspires two unexpected questions:
- 1) Why didn’t more elected officials question the Central Intelligence Agency the way Vice President Dick Cheney did?
2) Did any politicians question the CIA enough?
Americans have grown accustomed to the manifest excellence of our armed forces. When our elected leaders told them to take Iraq, they did it in a matter of weeks, with remarkably little collateral damage or loss of life. Government doesn’t get any more efficient than the 3rd Infantry Division marching through sandstorms to Baghdad.
But the Senate report depicts a CIA whose efficiency often resembled the U.S. Postal Service more than the U.S. Army.
Cheney wouldn’t take CIA reporting for granted. He peppered the agency with questions. Some Democrats would like to depict his inquisitiveness as an effort to pressure the agency to change its analysis to suit Cheney’s foreign policy agenda. Truth is, more elected officials should have questioned the agency like Cheney did.
He was a Doubting Thomas, who wanted to see for himself.
The Senate report says Cheney visited the agency five to eight times between September 2001 and February 2003. To be sure, he brought his own mindset and asked questions directly of the analysts monitoring Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. But he did not try to get these analysts to skew the evidence or their conclusions. Nor, according to the report, did any policymaker.
A CIA manager, describing the character of meetings with Cheney, said: “It was trying to figure out why do we come to this conclusion, what was the evidence, a lot of questions asked, probing questions, but no pressure to get us to come to a particular point of view.”
Yet, Cheney was a lonely inquisitor on the CIA’s analysis of Iraqi WMD.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts (R.-Kan.) concluded that CIA analysts did better in tracking Iraq’s ties to terrorists precisely because, in this area, more policymakers hammered them with questions. “[W]here there was pressure and repetitive questioning, we got a pretty good product,” Roberts said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation. “Where there was no repetitive questioning or very little . . . on the WMD section, that’s when we got some problems.”
Pressure from politicians is not why U.S. intelligence was so wrong about so much in Iraq.
One reason seems to be that the United States studied Iraq the way we study the Moon: Many years ago, we sent men there to make observations. More recently we were content to gaze from afar, photographing it from space, monitoring it with instruments. The problem with this approach is that while the moon is made of stone, Iraq is made of people.
We needed good information on what Iraqis–both leaders and commons–were thinking and doing. We didn’t get it.
After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Senate report says, the U.S. relied so heavily on UN weapons inspectors to collect information on Iraq’s WMD programs we failed to develop our own human intelligence capability in that area. When Saddam Hussein expelled the UN inspectors in 1998, we were flying blind.
“The Intelligence Community did not have a single HUMINT [human intelligence] source collecting against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after 1998,” says the report.
How did that happen?
“When Committee staff asked why the CIA had not considered placing a CIA officer in Iraq years before Operation Iraqi Freedom to investigate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, a CIA officer said, ‘because it’s very hard to sustain . . . it takes a rare officer to go in . . . and survive scrutiny . . . for a long time,'” said the report. “The Committee agrees that such operations are difficult and dangerous, but they should be within the norm of the CIA’s activities and capabilities. Senior CIA officials have repeatedly told the Committee that a significant increase in funding and personnel will be required to enable the CIA to penetrate difficult HUMINT targets similar to prewar Iraq. The Committee believes, however, that if an officer willing and able to take such an assignment really is ‘rare’ at the CIA, the problem is less a question of resources than a need for dramatic changes in a risk averse corporate culture.”
If the committee’s assessment is accurate, it means that based on WMD intelligence the CIA did not risk officers to collect in Iraq, the U.S. military put 130,000 troops in harm’s way there.
Since 1998, we have had administrations controlled by both parties and Senate Intelligence Committees controlled by both parties. Politicians of both parties ought to have questioned the CIA aggressively enough to discover its weakness in Iraq and pressure the agency to fix it. Now both parties must make sure it doesn’t happen again.