This is a moment of crisis for the Central Intelligence Agency—the second in the half-century since it was established in 1948 primarily to serve the president. Directors of central intelligence are now confirmed by the Senate before they can take office, and they are required to report on their activities in a timely manner to the intelligence committees in Congress, but these gestures of oversight and restraint have not limited the power of presidents to use the CIA as they see fit. In past decades presidents have used the CIA to carry out acts of war against foreign nations, to attempt to assassinate foreign leaders, to raise funds in order to conduct secret wars, and even, in the notorious instance called Watergate, to attempt to quash the FBI’s investigation of a White House–directed burglary team. The current crisis is the result of a White House–directed campaign to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by citing intelligence reports of Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and accelerating programs to build more. But following the fall of Baghdad a CIA team more than a thousand-strong failed to find any WMD stockpiles, and the team’s director, David Kay, concluded after six months of fieldwork that Iraq’s research- and-development programs had been suspended or shut down years earlier.
This apparent failure of American intelligence is the subject of several ongoing investigations and is bound to be a matter of controversy for years to come. The failure is compounded by what Kay’s team actually found—empty warehouses, idle factories and laboratories, as well as clear evidence that the regime in its last years had been corrupt, demoralized, and disintegrating. The CIA, it appears, was not only ignorant of the true state of affairs in Baghdad, where imaginary WMD “programs” were used to extract large sums from an increasingly erratic Saddam Hussein, but the agency’s estimating arm in October 2002 had also expressed “high confidence” in a frightening list of allegedly real and present dangers that simply did not exist. Public controversy and congressional investigators have understandably focused on these twin failures. How could the CIA, with a budget in the many billions and a total staff approaching 20,000, get things so badly wrong? But two separate questions, in my opinion ultimately more important, have for the moment been skirted by observers and investigators alike: Did the CIA’s director, George Tenet, and other high agency officials respond to White House pressure for estimates that would support the administration’s determination to go to war? Did the administration intend from the beginning to use these alarming intelligence reports as a blunt instrument to extract a vote for war in Congress?
The war in Iraq is described as an “entirely irrelevant military adventure” by Richard A. Clarke, a career government official in charge of White House efforts to fight terror under both President Clinton and President Bush. In his new book charging that the Bush administration was slow to grasp the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, Against All Enemies (to be reviewed at length in a future issue of The New York Review), Clarke writes that President Bush made a bad situation immeasureably worse by his “unprovoked invasion” of Iraq, taking the United States down “a path that weakened us and strengthened the next generation of al Qaedas.”
The most troubling question raised by Clarke is how the CIA, which warned the Bush White House urgently and often of an impending terror attack over the summer of 2001, could have followed that professional triumph with repeated and explicit claims to have found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which weren’t there. Clarke’s answer ought to give every American pause. The day after al-Qaeda’s devastating attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Clarke says he “walked into a series of discussions about Iraq” in the White House, which were not about “getting al-Qaeda.” Instead “I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq.” The implication is clear: “getting Iraq,” in Rumsfeld’s words, came first, followed many months later, in the fall of 2002, by the CIA’s evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Investigating the origins of the Iraq war is certain to be awkward and painful but, taken seriously, it promises to teach Americans much about two kinds of danger that intelligence organizations pose to the nations that employ them. One is obvious and well understood by everybody—getting important things wrong. In its first half-century the CIA got lots of things wrong. In 1948 it was much criticized for failing to predict a coup in Columbia that resulted in a civil war that has still not ended. In 1950 it failed to foresee intervention by the Chinese in the Korean War, a mistake that almost resulted in American armies being driven entirely from the peninsula. In 1968 the agency was surprised by the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, a failure repeated in 1979 when the agency failed to predict the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Ten years after that the estimators continued to issue new alarms about Soviet power and intentions almost until the very moment the Berlin Wall came down, signaling the true end of the cold war, an event soon followed by a still greater astonishment—the actual collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union itself.
None of these failures was followed by a catastrophe on the ghastly scale of Pearl Harbor, and I believe all were honest—based on genuine misreading of the tea leaves. It is not hard to identify things bound to happen, but it is very hard to say when. The CIA has long struggled with the difficulty of forecasting but has never found a good way to estimate the probability of the awful things everybody fears. Estimators have learned to choose caution and qualification as the wisest course, despite the inevitability of occasional mistakes. On the long list of horrors that might happen, after all, some will.
A second kind of danger posed by intelligence organizations is both harder to prove and, especially in a democracy, harder to admit—their exploitation by the executive branch of government as tools of domestic coercion and control. President Richard Nixon always believed that the CIA had a liberal bias and deliberately fed information to John F. Kennedy, which helped him to win the 1960 presidential election. I have never seen evidence that it really happened but that does not mean Nixon was wrong. A clearer example can be found in the summer of 1964, when the administration of President Lyndon Johnson authorized the CIA to run aggressive over-the-beach operations to land South Vietnamese sabotage teams in North Vietnam while American destroyers patrolled nearby in the Gulf of Tonkin. North Vietnamese patrol boats may have attacked the destroyers one night early in August; a second attack was almost certainly imaginary but was nonetheless cited as justification for an American air raid on North Vietnam, and used to push through a hasty congressional resolution later cited by President Johnson as authority for the war in Vietnam.
Calling them as they see them is the official governing ethic of the CIA, and for the most part that is what the agency does. But the CIA works for the White House in the same way that the Defense Intelligence Agency works for the secretary of defense, and no one who read DIA estimates of Soviet missile programs throughout the cold war ever doubted for a minute that “the threat” would always justify buying, building, or developing whatever the secretary of defense had on his wish list. Can giving higher-ups what they want be called dishonest if it’s inevitable?
A long book might be written on this subject, but for our purposes here it is enough to say that no one can understand, much less predict, the behavior of the CIA who does not understand that the agency works for the president. I know of no exceptions to this general rule. In practice it means that in the end the CIA will always bend to the wishes of the president, and as long as the director of central intelligence serves at the pleasure of the president this will continue to be the case. The general rule applies to both intelligence and operations: what the CIA says, as well as what it does, will shape itself over time to what the president wants. When presidents don’t like what they are being told they ignore it. When they want something done they press until it happens. As a disciplined organization the agency does not complain about the one, or long resist the other. In a word, it is responsive.
Understanding this general rule opens a useful window onto American behavior in the world. Presidents generally make no secret of what’s on their minds—Kennedy loudly worried about Fidel Castro’s plan to export the Cuban revolution in the 1960s, Nixon and Reagan urgently warned of Soviet missile building in the 1970s and 1980s, Bush worries openly about Iranian efforts to develop atomic bombs now. Knowing what’s item number one on the agency’s agenda is readily learned from what presidents and their advisers say, a street that runs both ways: if you know what the CIA is doing, you know what the president wants done.
Once put into words the general rule seems obvious. Why would the CIA ignore what the president wants or believes? Why would a president tolerate a CIA with an agenda of its own? But at times the general rule leads to troubling questions of the sort democracies hate. In the 1980s it was learned that the CIA was actively supporting contra forces in Nicaragua in flagrant violation of a congressional ban. The general rule would say that President Reagan not only knew of the effort but authorized and directed it. Who else? But this obvious conclusion was evaded by the special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, and congressional investigators, and historians generally have consigned “the Iran-contra affair” to the dark attic of American history reserved for awkward questions labeled by tacit agreement as too difficult to unravel. Architects of the CIA anticipated such awkward moments by establishing a policy of “plausible deniability”—organizing “sensitive” secret operations at one remove from the White House so presidents might “plausibly deny” having authorized or even known about any that are publicly revealed. There have been plenty of occasions for denial over the years, but claims that the White House was out of the loop, while routinely accepted, are rarely plausible.
The challenge facing investigators now, and historians later, is to explain how the evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction collected by the CIA—wrong in almost every instance—was used by President Bush and his principal advisers to describe an urgent and growing danger which justified a preemptive war. Can the White House plausibly claim that its loud misreading of the evidence was not driven by a determination to go to war? Can the President plausibly claim that the war policy was not his, or that he did not know he and his spokesmen were exaggerating the dangers they cited? It is these questions which define the crisis confronting the CIA—an increasingly clear-eyed skepticism among legislators, commentators, the broad general public, and the rest of the world that American intelligence officials, when they are under pressure, can be trusted to call them as they see them. Down this road the questions get harder, not easier, because distrust of the CIA must soon expand to include first the President’s advisers, and finally the President himself.