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Secret Intelligence and the ‘War on Terror’


Now is a good time for Americans to pause and consider our progress in what the Bush administration chooses to call the war on terror. Osama bin Laden remains at large three years after the attacks of September 11, the war in Iraq has reached a kind of stasis of escalating violence matched by an erosion of our ability to control events there, new crises loom with other members of the “axis of evil” defined by President Bush in January 2002, and the President’s reelection rules out the likelihood of any sudden change in American policy. With suspense on that point ended for the moment, we ought to weigh what we have learned from the linked disasters of September 11 and the war in Iraq, and what we should fear or expect next as American plans and facts on the ground sort themselves out in the Middle East.

The Central Intelligence Agency finds itself at the center of this unfolding story in a way we have come to expect from its conflicted history as a tool of the White House and as the nation’s principal collector and analyst of secret information. The CIA is not only deeply involved in the day-to-day fighting of the war on terror, but is simultaneously charged with knowing, and with telling those who have a need to know, who our enemies are, what dangers they pose, whether American efforts are working, and how other governments react to what we are doing. Intelligence is a function of the executive branch of government and as such it answers to the president—just as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the United States Forestry Service do. Like them it is supposed to serve the nation as a whole, but like them it can also be used by the White House to help the president politically—in the case of the CIA, generally by controlling the flow of information to ensure that good news reaches the public while bad news remains secret, compartmented, and codeword-protected beyond the scrutiny of Congress and public alike.

A kind of rough etiquette has evolved around this fact of life—presidents are granted a lot of latitude when it comes to classifying information, but they cross the line when they use the CIA directly against political opponents, as Richard Nixon did during the Watergate episode; or when they use the CIA to do secretly what Congress has forbidden, as Ronald Reagan did during the Iran-contra affair; or when they suborn the CIA to exaggerate, distort, or misrepresent intelligence findings, as I believe the White House of George Bush did during the run-up to the Iraq war. The reports of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group and the Senate Intelligence Committee do not reach but lend support to this conclusion and thus invite us to consider again, as previous reports have done, the difficulties encountered by democratic governments when they grant national leaders more or less unsupervised control over secret intelligence services.

What we have learned from the history of the CIA is that it is subject to extraordinary internal stresses whenever American presidents encounter unexpected challenge or failure abroad. Past agonies are captured in a string of names, each in its own way a rich mosaic of illusion and failure—Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua—and it is already clear that Iraq must be added to that list. Indeed it is my guess that Iraq will be cited as the outstanding object lesson for decades to come of the ways in which evidence can be tortured to justify what presidents want to do. It is a tossup whether the President or the agency will be blamed once the dust has settled. But if history is our guide we must expect the CIA to take the fall, and it is not yet clear whether it will survive this latest trauma, or in what form.

The fate of the agency is no minor matter to intelligence professionals who have spent their careers trying to serve both presidents and the nation; all know that these two masters are often at odds, and many have been forced to hire lawyers, face grand juries, and risk jail for what they did, or for failing to describe truthfully what they did, for presidents unable or unwilling to take the stand themselves. There is no easy way to reconcile these divided loyalties. But there are good reasons for trying to understand what has now brought the stresses to breaking point, especially for the analytical side of the CIA. Put simply, President Bush has laid an immense wager that the American military invasion and occupation of Iraq will result in a stable government friendly to the West and thereby make America safer. Some members of the administration have argued further that a genuine democracy in Iraq will help to change the political landscape in the Middle East, and Paul Wolfowitz, one of the Pentagon architects of the plan to invade Iraq, was even quoted as saying before the war that the road to Jerusalem—by which he meant peace between Israel and the Palestinians—lay through Baghdad.

These hopes seem to have dimmed now, but the wager is on the table and cannot be withdrawn. Social and political realities in the region of conflict will determine whether the answer is win, lose, or draw, but CIA analysts, drawing on the resources of all American intelligence organizations, will be the first to know how things are going, just as it had the deepest knowledge of the dangers before the war. George Tenet, who resigned as director of central intelligence in July, always insisted that the analysts call them as they see them, but that gets progressively harder to do as the President, with his policy on the line, makes it understood what he is expecting to hear. That’s where the stress lies—in the crack of daylight between White House hopes and reality on the ground. The wider the crack the greater the stress.

In the nine months before September 11 the White House officer charged with worrying about terrorism, Richard Clarke, found it impossible to get the full attention of high officials with warnings about al-Qaeda because the administration had a different agenda in mind—building a super-expensive, space-based anti-missile defense system. Critics of the Bush version of the Star Wars plan said the reasons for that had died with the cold war; terrorism was the danger facing America in the first years of the twenty-first century. The 9/11 Commission reported that Clarke, the CIA, and others had warned the administration as many as forty times of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, but that is not what the administration wanted to hear, and it did not hear it.

In the months before the war in Iraq the crack opened again; Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction posed a “gathering threat” and a “growing danger.” The evidence was spotty and inconclusive, but the National Intelligence Council still managed to give Congress an estimate stressing the dangers with “high confidence.” The crack of daylight is now plainly visible following Bush’s wager as insurgency widens in Iraq. The President insists that “freedom is on the march” while as I write thousands of Marines have been fighting their way into the resistance-dominated city of Falluja—a large-scale set-piece battle eighteen months after Bush, thumbs up in a flight suit, proclaimed an end to “major combat operations” on the deck of a US aircraft carrier under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

Nothing in Iraq has so far gone the way Bush and his advisers predicted. What is new is the level of stress placed on American intelligence analysts now, torn between reality and official optimism, raising the necessary question whether the analysts can be trusted to do their work honestly by what we might call the ancillary consumers of intelligence—not only Congress, which has some legal right to know what the CIA is doing and saying, but also the press and television, the general public, and the whole rest of the world, which includes the intelligence services of America’s coalition partners and traditional allies. Ancillary consumers have limited access to American intelligence product but they get the general drift of what the CIA is saying in the manner of any alert reader of newspapers over time, and their support for American policy depends in part on their confidence that the people down in the boiler room trying to make sense of events have access to timely and accurate information, understand the region, know what the administration is trying to do, and are telling the President what they really think—in other words, calling them as they see them.

For the broader world watching the unfolding drama of the war on terror, or any other great American initiative abroad, we might say that the CIA serves in some ways as the canary in the coal mine—when it shows sign of stress, we know something is wrong either with intelligence collection or with the policies it is intended to support. It’s always one or the other—the evidence is thin or missing, or it points to conclusions that meet resistance. A classic early example was the American reliance in the 1960s and 1970s on the heavy and relentless bombing of North Vietnam and the supply trails south through Laos and Cambodia to break the will of Hanoi and win the war for our side. Increasingly throughout the Vietnam War CIA estimators spoke in a strange croak—everybody wanted to know if the end was in sight but so far as I know the agency delivered its opinion on everything but, and never reported in plain language that the strategy was working—or not working.

Instead, for nearly ten years, the estimators who monitored Operation Rolling Thunder focused on trying to measure the pain—so many trucks, so many men, so many dollar-equivalents in munitions fed into the top of the funnel to get one fifth, or one tenth, or one hundredth that amount out the bottom to carry on the war. At that time Americans were still learning how to eavesdrop on the intelligence world and never fully understood the stress the CIA was under to deliver good news, or to conceal the bad news by ever-tighter focus on the minutiae of evidence. Still, everybody paying attention got the drift. Presidents and their advisers might insist the bombing campaign was working to shorten and win the war, but the war itself refuted them.

Bad as the stress got to be during the Vietnam War years, it is worse now. We might say that after failing to find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction the canary fell insensible from its perch—a second unmistakable sign that things are seriously awry. The first, of course, was the finding of the 9/11 Commission that American intelligence, despite its vast capacity to monitor the world, failed to prevent the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But the second, parsed in detail by the Senate Intelligence Committee and more recently in the report of the Iraq Survey Group, recounted in detail how intelligence analysts managed to misread the crippled and demoralized dictatorship of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a vital state building weapons of mass destruction which posed a “gathering threat” for the West. What brings any student of intelligence to a kind of shocked halt is the fact that CIA analysts did not get anything right—every claim about Saddam’s WMD was wrong—completely wrong, flatly wrong, wrong by a country mile.

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