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Secret Intelligence and the ‘War on Terror’

1.

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.

We have already heard much about these two failures, and it is perhaps time to move beyond the failures of the past in order to anticipate potential future failures while there is still time to do something about them. But that effort will be helped by a brief description of what the linked failures of September 11 and Iraq seem to me actually to represent—in the first case, a classic example of the CIA falling on its sword so the White House might “plausibly deny” responsibility for something which had gone badly wrong. Serious professional lapses by the agency, the FBI, and others before September 11 have been identified, principally holding on to information that should have been shared, or ignoring warnings from the field when they reached the upper ranks. But too little in my opinion has been said about what the CIA and Richard Clarke in the White House both got right—the numerous warnings delivered to the President and his national security advisers. Condoleezza Rice has said that these warnings were too vague and the President has said that he would have moved heaven and earth if he had only known when and where the terrorists planned to attack. The White House was paralyzed, the official version goes, because the intelligence organizations of the United States had failed to connect the dots….

But the fact is that the intelligence analysts who provided warnings to the White House connected a great many dots—they anticipated the use of commercial aircraft, they knew that al-Qaeda cells were operating inside the United States, they knew that Ramzi Yusef, the field commander of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had hoped to bring the towers down, and had promised an FBI debriefer after his arrest that another attempt would be made. They knew that al-Qaeda wanted to strike inside the United States, and they knew that al-Qaeda was approaching the operational climax of a new effort. In a sense all the most important dots had been loosely connected except for the last two or three.

The question then is whether an alert administration, anxious to protect the country, knew enough to do something—to give a dynamite charge to intelligence chiefs, or summon the officials responsible for public safety and disaster relief, or prod the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up security at airline gates, or ask the Immigration and Naturalization Service if borders were secure, or suggest to the FBI that suspected terrorist cells should be put on notice that they were being watched. Best might have been an attempt to put all those officials in a windowless room for a day with orders to report to the President personally before the sun went down. Presidents do not normally find it hard to get the attention of government offices, and bureaucrats all know how to put on a show of frantic activity. That, at the very least, is what we should have found when the lights went on after the attacks of September 11.

This is not a stretch. I don’t think I am being unfair. Think of the recent battery of big storms in Florida. Every one was anticipated vigorously despite the fact that it was impossible to say precisely when or where the heart of the storm would strike until the final hours. If you wait, it’s too late. So the authorities evacuated the Keys—unnecessarily. They evacuated New Orleans—unnecessarily. But they put all the responders on alert, and they evacuated coastlines which in fact were hit, and bad as the storms were, they might have been a great deal worse if everybody had sat back and waited for the connecting of the final dots on the weather map. The same response might have been given to the CIA’s warnings before September 11. There are lots of things to do when you don’t know exactly what to do. But the President did nothing. It would be hard to find words adequate to describe the full range and amplitude of the nothing that he did. My own preliminary, working explanation is that for reasons of his own the President decided to do nothing. Why? Historians will be occupied for many years before they come to agreement on the answer to that question.

But the United States is a forgiving country when it comes to presidents, and it is the American intelligence community—not the President or the White House—which has been the object of righteous anger for the “failure” of September 11.

2.

Much the same is the case with the missing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Predicted stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were not found after the fall of Baghdad because they did not exist. For more than a year the White House insisted it was too early to confess failure—the weapons themselves or a hidden infrastructure for their development and construction might still turn up. The psychology of this official reluctance to admit failure is not hard to understand. It is unlikely that the United States had ever been more comprehensively and significantly wrong about anything, ever, than it was in identifying the reasons for going to war in Iraq.

But why did the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, go on repeating the White House formula for a year as well—insisting that it was too soon to reach conclusions, that the Iraq Survey Group was busy in the field and something might still be found? Is it possible that in addition to writing a National Intelligence Estimate which was wrong in every particular, and on top of providing the factual basis for about thirty false or distorted claims of Iraqi weapons activity made in a speech before the United Nations’ Security Council by Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003—is it possible that in addition to producing these two compendiums of error, the intelligence community really needed a year and a half to conclude that it had been wrong? Think about this for a moment. Before the war, working with the barest smattering of fragmentary information, the CIA could conclude with high confidence that these stockpiles existed. But now we are asked to believe that after the war, with unimpeded access to every file, every person, and every street address in Iraq, the CIA could not, over the course of a year, decide whether the stockpiles were there or not?

The obvious answer to this question compels us to register a fact which everyone who pays attention to American intelligence has grown far too accustomed to accepting without comment. By that I mean our reluctance to criticize, or even to note in any audible way, the obvious explanation for Tenet’s faithful echoing of the President’s tactics of delay. Tenet was protecting the President—not from foreign enemies abroad, but from political opponents at home. Why did Tenet do this? Because he was part of the President’s team. What does this tell us about the integrity of American intelligence? What should Congress and the people do about an intelligence service they cannot trust?

In my opinion this is not a minor matter. As long as DCIs defend the president politically, they cannot be trusted to embrace their broader mandate—which is to call them as they see them. And as long as the agency run by the DCI conceals or manipulates information to keep peace with the White House, or goes further and actually marches officials up to Capitol Hill to testify in support of misreadings, distortions, exaggerations, or even outright fabrications, then the agency cannot be trusted either. The close relationship between the White House and the CIA is an old and difficult problem. No president will long tolerate an organization that contradicts him, however quietly and privately. That is a fact of life which DCIs have learned to live with. But at the same time we should not expect Congress or the public to trust or fund an agency indefinitely which allows itself to become a kind of foreign ministry of spin. This is where we find ourselves now—the CIA under George Tenet gradually abandoned its pretense of objectivity and joined the President’s claque for war, but Congress has not yet decided how to describe or recognize this fact, or what to do about it.

But severe as the problem already is, it threatens to become still worse as war continues in Iraq and as Porter Goss settles into his position as director of central intelligence, or is perhaps elevated to a newly invented post with more power and broader control over the full community of American intelligence organizations. Goss has arrived in Langley with a history of ever-closer ties to President Bush and his administration. Last March he attacked the Democrats, including John Kerry, for seeking budget cuts which were “devastating to the ability of the CIA to keep America safe.” In June he called Kerry “dangerously naive.” On arriving at Langley, Goss launched a concerted effort to bottle up contrarian voices inside the CIA. Early efforts to plug leaks led to a major dust-up and the resignations on November 15 of the two highest officials of the agency’s clandestine service. Tenet left the agency in July, the same month the National Intelligence Council issued a paper, still classified, which warned of the possibility that Iraq would collapse into civil war. The best-case scenario, the council said, would be a “tenuous stability”; rosier hopes were dropped from the paper as unrealistic.

In September The New York Times learned that the NIC had circulated two classified reports in January 2003 warning that the invasion of Iraq would probably divide the country along religious and ethnic lines, bring political violence, and arouse the anger of the Islamic world. President Bush, running for reelection, dismissed the July report as “just guessing,” and the longtime CIA analyst in charge of the pessimistic July report, Paul Pillar, was vigorously attacked by The Wall Street Journal and the conservative columnist Robert Novak for criticizing administration policy at a private dinner in California.

Also uncomfortably exposed in the spotlight was Michael Scheuer, a counterterror expert who ran the CIA’s bin Laden unit for several years in the late 1990s. Last spring the agency permitted Scheuer to publish a book criticizing the war on terror, Imperial Hubris, but then ordered him to stop discussing it with journalists. Some months back Scheuer sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee citing ten examples of timidity, mismanagement, and dysfunction on the part of intelligence officials who put their careers ahead of their work. When The Atlantic published the text of his letter Scheuer resumed giving interviews to journalists, thereby inviting official retaliation. On November 12, Scheuer announced his resignation.

The internal stresses of the CIA, rarely visible to outsiders, are apparent now because the agency has been pressed to test the limits of what long custom has identified as permissible stretching of the evidence to bolster a case or avoid an unwelcome conclusion. In the half-century since it was founded in 1947 analysts have often held views which the White House did not share, and they have consequently learned to endure periods when they are ignored. Carrying the “President’s Daily Brief” to the White House is much like leading a horse to water—the CIA has learned that you can lay your best estimate on the desk in the Oval Office but you can’t make a president read it or heed it. The agency makes extraordinary efforts to serve presidents by accommodating their agendas and management styles. Analysts have learned to tackle issues from the end that presidents think important, to be circumspect about conclusions which policymakers resist, to hold back in estimate-drafting sessions when other institutions like the Pentagon take a proprietary interest in some narrow intelligence question, and above all to keep quiet when presidents go their own way. All that is included under the rules of the game as it is played. But the agency in its present form, and the people who staff it, cannot long tolerate a working climate in which they are expected to produce a stream of “intelligence” handcrafted to support an administration’s view of the world, or of its progress in the war on terror.

In my view it was a surrender of exactly that sort which explains the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, written on the President’s behalf to convince Congress that Saddam Hussein represented a threat sufficiently grave and urgent to justify war. How else are we to account for the analysts’ failure to get anything right? Debaters might insist that anyone can make a mistake, and everybody else made the same one about Saddam’s WMD, but being wrong is not what needs to be explained. The problem is the “high confidence” with which the NIE reached its wrong conclusions, using the barest handful of factual claims which were all arguable and ambiguous.

This is not the place to reargue the claims about the aluminum tubes. We need only consider the process of analysis itself, which measures what could or might be known against what is known. Reporters do this. Historians do this. Criminal prosecutors do this, and they all learn to tell the difference among answers that are spot on, probable, possible, plausible, conceivable, or too thin to utter in public. To accept the Iraqi WMD mistake as honest I would have to believe that CIA analysts steeped in their field of expertise could not tell the difference between a weak case and a strong case. I don’t believe that. In my own view they all knew the case was weak but surrendered to pressure from above and hoped to be saved by a miracle—they convinced themselves that something would turn up when the troops got to Baghdad and were free to look in all the nooks and crannies. But as Charles Duelfer makes clear in the recently released and exhaustive final report of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group, there was nothing.

Bad as that lapse was, still worse may lie ahead as the administration marches ahead on the course it has chosen. As the war in Iraq unfolds, and perhaps even spreads to neighboring countries, CIA analysts will be expected to address many basic questions about the nature and progress of the struggle. The principal audience for these estimates will of course be in the White House, but the rest of the administration will be watching them as well, and the ancillary consumers of intelligence will be waiting for the telltale public signs that reality and official policy are in harmony, or at war. Both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans and can be expected to stand by the President—but not forever if success eludes us. How will they know? The bad news always arrives in the same way—as a deepening contradiction between official briefings and what senators and congressmen read over their morning coffee in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The first and most basic question CIA analysts must address in keeping tabs on the progress of the war is whom we are fighting. I do not know of any official answer to this question—just occasional anecdotal answers given by administration officials, starting with the most voluble, Donald Rumsfeld, who has variously described our opponents as die-hard Baathists, dead-enders, and Saddam Hussein loyalists. Also frequently mentioned are forces generally described as “loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” who is said to be an ally of Osama bin Laden or an associate of al-Qaeda.

The President insists that the war in Iraq is now the central front of the war on terror, and the insurgents’ use of car bombs, kidnappings, and beheadings certainly qualifies as terror. But defining our opponents as terrorists disguises the more important fact that most of them, probably in excess of 90 percent, are Iraqis angry at Americans. This should not be hard for us to understand. Americans have invaded their country, have killed anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 civilians, plus an unknown number of combatants in the regular Iraqi army or the resistance, and have vowed to transform their country politically—beginning with the banishment from public life of scores of thousands of Baath Party members who ran things for thirty years before the Americans came. It’s one of the oldest stories in human history—an invasion followed by military occupation backing a client government has encountered resistance. What else would we expect?

But if our reason for war was to counter a threat posed by terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, a threat since proved illusory, while the actual resistance we meet in Iraq is angry and nationalist in an uncomplicated way, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that we are fighting an unnecessary war. This is not a conclusion the White House will want to concede, nor will it be likely to accept the wide circulation of any CIA finding that would support this view. What should we expect instead? My guess would be painstakingly thorough accounts of all foreign elements beginning with al-Zarqawi, much about the prevalence of Islamic extremism within the resistance, and very little about angry Iraqis who hope to drive the Americans away with roadside bombs, or why they might risk their lives to do that. The question of whom we are fighting, awkward now, will become critical if the elections scheduled for January fail to establish a government Iraqis accept as legitimate. The result of that will be the very thing Rumsfeld derided as preposterous at the outset of the war—a quagmire of the unwinnable sort the United States last experienced in Vietnam, where we spent a decade trying to defend a government that couldn’t defend itself.

A second question, closely related, concerns the level of assistance given to the Iraqi resistance by neighboring countries, principally Syria and Iran. Both have been accused by the administration of permitting “terrorists” to cross their borders into Iraq, and Iran has been often warned in addition to abandon its alleged program to build nuclear weapons. The administration’s reluctance to recognize the Iraqi resistance as largely homegrown pushes it to exaggerate the role of foreign terrorists, to blame anti-American feeling on meddlers from abroad, to accuse Syria and Iran of sponsoring or harboring terrorists, and to threaten both with regime change as part of a broader strategy of “draining the swamp” of Islamic and terrorist extremism throughout the Middle East. The interim government of Iraq has recently closed the border with Syria and Jordan to halt the influx of foreign fighters, whose motives are too little explored. Do they come to spread “terror,” or to drive out the Americans as they once crossed borders to drive the Russians from Afghanistan? CIA estimators will not find it easy to explain why the motive then cannot be the motive now.

But the most difficult question of all for the analysts at the CIA will probably concern the attitudes of foreign governments toward American policy. Tight-lipped skepticism is the best we can expect from the Arabic and Islamic world, where the populace is horrified by the nightly newscasts of civilian casualties, and things do not seem to be going much better among our traditional allies. Of the thirty-two countries which sent troops—in most cases only token units—to join the US in Iraq, fourteen have withdrawn or reduced their forces. Most recent was Hungary, which has announced that it would pull out its three hundred troops before the end of 2004. How will the rest of the coalition, and other traditional allies, respond to threats of still wider war as the United States escalates its pressure on Iran to abandon hope of building nuclear weapons? How will the governments of our traditional allies view such threats—not to mention the governments of Russia and China? What are these governments, some of which are now negotiating with Iran, saying to each other about the war right now?

Edward Creasy, author of Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, published in 1851, writes somewhere that following the Crimean War every discussion in the foreign chanceries of the world soon turned to the question of Russia. The second Bush administration will make it difficult for other countries to treat the war in Iraq as a passing aberration—a “bizarre episode,” in the words of Ronald Reagan. Further widening of the war to change regimes in Syria and Iran could open the door to something which the United States has never previously experienced—organized resistance by former friends and allies who oppose American policy and hope to back up their words with practical pressure. This may sound alarmist now, but how many observers expected, much less predicted in public, that the United States would invade and occupy Iraq a year before it happened?

3.

We are on the verge of entering new territory here. I think we should all take careful note of official American remarks about Iran and Syria, but Iran especially; to my ear they closely echo what the administration was saying about Iraq beginning early in 2002—the regime is unelected, it is dominated by extremists, it is embarked on a program to build nuclear weapons, it supports terrorist groups and might give them weapons of mass destruction, the regime is a threat to America. Professional military observers rule out a wider war at the moment for the practical reason that American forces are already stretched to the breaking point. The Pentagon insists there will be no return to the draft, but defense officials also say that the volunteer army works fine, and nothing stands in the way of its expansion but congressional authority and the money to pay troops. Bush ran for reelection as a man who means what he says, and he says he will not tolerate governments that sponsor terror, or the prospect of Iran with a bomb.

Maybe it’s only talk this time, but no foreign government will long trust to that. Consider the map. The United States already occupies Afghanistan and Iraq; imagine for a moment that American armies entered Iran as well. Every nation would see immediately that this would constitute a great geopolitical fact—something very much resembling the radical map change feared by the Carter administration in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a radical fundamentalist cleric. Twenty-five years ago it was not the Americans alone who feared that one more step would put Russian armies on the shore of the Persian Gulf after a century of trying. Only a dozen years ago, when Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, the whole world joined a grand coalition led by the United States to evict him. Would the governments of France, Germany, Russia, and China, trusting to American good intentions, take a more relaxed view of long-term American military domination of the oil-producing states of the Middle East? I’m guessing not, and once joined such a conflict might last fifty years.

But in this world guessing is not good enough. To make our way safely through this quagmire we would need to know how foreign governments felt about our plans, and what, if anything, they planned to do in response. The President would need to know, of course, but so would Congress and the people before contemplating, permitting, or agreeing to pay for a step so momentous. My purpose is not to nail down the probability of a wider war; it is only to suggest that the American intelligence universe is already shifting in profound ways. Not long ago it was a simple matter for American governments to learn how the French and the Germans felt about something; all they had to do was ask. With matters as they stand now I’m not so sure. But I suspect that the suspicion and cross-purposes dividing us from old allies have already carried us into a new realm, and it would not surprise me to read tomorrow or the next day that some American agricultural attaché in Paris or Berlin was being expelled for activities incompatible with his post.

The toughest challenge for anyone trying to pay attention to the world is to grasp the large shape of events—not the details of warming or cooling relations as routine issues come and go, but the sea change when everything begins to shift. In the world at the moment the big unknown is what America is up to. Following Bush’s reelection we must expect the question of American intentions to enter the discussion in the foreign chanceries of the entire world. These intentions are not transparent. The administration first argued that it sought only to disarm Saddam. When that turned out to be unnecessary it was ready with a new argument—replacing Saddam with a free, democratic government would create a beacon of hope and a light unto the nations, persuading terrorists to give up the struggle and changing the political landscape of the Middle East.

Maybe that was the real reason all along, and maybe not. Foreign governments may feel that a better guide would be the President’s national security strategy issued in late 2001. There the administration argued for a policy of preemption, and a forward policy projecting American military power into the heart of the Middle East. A forward policy requires client states on the ground. What sort of client states? How big a military presence? To remain how long? Those are the kind of questions foreign chanceries will want to answer.

A parallel question for us is what is happening to American intelligence as the President’s policy is gradually revealed. The CIA’s operations and reading of events have always been pregnant with political significance but over the last four years we have seen the beginning of what I would describe as a sea change—from an agency uneasily aware of the possible political impact of everything it does and says, because presidents never let them forget it, to an agency turning by slow degrees into an operational arm of the White House, not only doing or attempting to do what presidents ask, but one increasingly willing to play a team role, to describe the world as the President sees it, and to lend its authority to “intelligence” the President can use to carry along Congress and the public.

We must not pretend to be surprised at this. We have just watched it happen. Fear of Saddam Hussein’s illusory weapons of mass destruction was used by the President to frighten and intimidate Congress into voting for war. Kindness permits us to call this an honest mistake once, but only once. Next time we will have to conclude that the CIA can no longer be trusted, and matters will deteriorate from there.

—November 16, 2004

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