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How Bush Got It Wrong

Thoroughly disgusted, Bamford’s informant quit WINPAC but moved on to another intelligence office where he continues to do roughly the same work. It is probable that Senator Pat Roberts’s invitation to whistle-blowers reached the ears of Bamford’s informant but he did not choose to repeat to the Senate Intelligence Committee the marching orders issued by his boss at WINPAC. In his testimony, Jami Miscik, the agency’s chief of intelligence analysis, admitted there was a lot of interaction of CIA officials with policymakers, including Vice President Dick Cheney “coming back to certain points or issues repeatedly….” Cheney crossed the Potomac to discuss WMDs at the CIA as many as eight times in the year before the war, and Miscik conceded that an analyst pressed to go over and over some point about Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, say, “might be able to say or might think of that as some sort of, if not pressure, then some sort of a reluctance to accept the answer they were given….”

But was there outright pressure to change an assessment? No one claimed anything quite like that, despite a platoon of witnesses asked to identify anything—anything—that smacked of White House pressure. In its report the committee quoted eight analysts who went beyond the typical “no” or “never” when they were asked about pressure from on high. Among their comments:

? “…It might be that our assessments suited what they needed. But we were never pressured to make an assessment a certain way or anything.” (Biological weapons analyst at the CIA.)

? “I did not have any analysts come to me [to say] they were feeling pressure to change their judgments…as far as I’m concerned, there were no such things happening.” (National intelligence officer for science and technology at the CIA.)

? “We had no internal or external influences on what [the analysts’] judgments were.” (Chief of programs on nuclear weapons at the Defense Intelligence Agency.)

? “I think the NIE…was a rushed process like we talked about, but as it stands our position is adequately represented in there.” (Nuclear weapons analyst at the Department of Energy.)

About as close to charges of actual skewing as the committee could find came from two former intelligence officials, Gregory Thielmann, who left his position as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) shortly before the NIE was written, and Richard Kerr, a retired CIA official called back by Tenet to review the Iraqi WMD intelligence once it was clear the inspectors had come up empty. Kerr said that some CIA analysts had complained of the repeated questions from White House and other high officials, but in his opinion “nobody changed a judgment” and in any event “it is not at all unusual for analysts to feel they are being pushed by one group or another.” Not even Gregory Thielmann, who had publicly criticized the Bush administration for building its case on “faith-based intelligence,” said he could provide the names of specific analysts who had altered specific assessments under pressure. In its report the committee said it “did not find any evidence” that Cheney or other administration officials tried to coerce analysts.

I am not surprised. Asking CIA analysts if they have been cooking the books while their bosses sit in the room reminds me of those well-meaning Western lefties who paid visits in the 1930s to prisoners in the Soviet gulag and returned with assurances that the prisoners all agreed the food was great and they were getting plenty of outdoor exercise. Understanding how the CIA came up with its “high confidence” NIE requires the Senate to connect the dots, but it shouldn’t be hard. There are only two—the White House and the CIA. Which way does the committee think the influence runs? But the Senate Intelligence Committee has declined to hazard a guess on this point, and its careful wording amounts at best to a Scotch verdict—not proven. But the rest of the report, with its numerous examples and close analysis of evidence used to build a case for war, raises troubling questions about the CIA’s ability to dig in its heels when a president insists that a grab bag of ambiguous information is all he needs to prove a “gathering threat” or a “growing danger.”


The one danger that trumped all others was the atomic bomb—“the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” as Bush put it in a speech in Ohio on October 7, 2002. That turn of phrase has an interesting history recounted by Bamford in A Pretext for War and by Michael Massing in these pages.3 It first appeared in a story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon in The New York Times on Sunday, September 8, a month before the President’s speech in Ohio. Miller and Gordon reported that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq “has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons,” a claim proved by its efforts to buy “specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” One official was quoted anonymously as saying that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’…may be a mushroom cloud.” As it happened Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all appeared that Sunday on talk shows to warn of the very danger that Miller and Gorden had reported—Saddam with a bomb. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said Rice on CNN.

The President’s Ohio speech came a week after the CIA published its NIE, formally titled Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction. If Bush had sound reason to warn of mushroom clouds he must have found it in the NIE. Accordingly, the Senate Intelligence Committee devoted 106 pages of its 529-page report to the evidence provided by the CIA to back its “high confidence” that Iraq was “continuing and in some areas expanding” its nuclear program, that it could build a bomb “in months to a year” once it had the fissionable material, and that “we are not detecting” all of Iraq’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Details aside, that roughly adds up to a claim that the prospect of Saddam armed with a bomb was definitely a “gathering threat.” What the Senate Intelligence Committee did was to ask whether the CIA and other intelligence organizations who contributed to the writing of the NIE actually had evidence to support their conclusions.

The heart of the agency’s case was built around four factual claims—that Iraq was trying to buy a kind of uranium ore called yellowcake in Niger; that Iraq was trying to buy thousands of aluminum tubes that could be used as rotors in a centrifuge to separate fissionable material; that magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools on the Iraqi shopping list were intended for its bomb program; and that Saddam himself was taking a personal interest in the program and in the community of scientists who were running it. In every case the Senate committee found that the evidence for these claims was thin or nonexistent, and it strongly suggested that the CIA’s analysts and estimate writers consistently ignored or dismissed evidence that undermined or contradicted their central claims.

The CIA’s bedrock assumption that Saddam never abandoned his hope of developing nuclear weapons can be traced back to the shock of discovering just how close he had come before the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The cease-fire that ended the first Gulf War in early 1991 provided for open-ended inspections by the United Nations to confirm Saddam’s promise that he would shut down his weapons programs and destroy stockpiles of prohibited items. The Iraqi nuclear establishment that was discovered and dismantled during these inspections showed that Iraq might have been as little as a year away from producing a working atomic bomb. Saddam Hussein’s continuing defiance convinced the CIA and just about every other intelligence organization paying attention that Iraq might be down, in the WMD game, but it was not out.

The sanctions then imposed on Iraq made any all-out effort impossible but the CIA assumed that once the sanctions were ended Saddam would resume his race for a bomb. It was a reasonable assumption, just as it was reasonable to reconsider the assumption after the UN inspectors left Iraq in 1998 and conclude he wouldn’t wait till sanctions were removed—the inspectors’ departure offered Iraq all the freedom it needed to get going. But reasonable assumptions do not a proof make and the actual evidence assembled by the CIA and its rival in the Pentagon, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), was in fact shaky, beginning with the CIA’s claim in the NIE that Iraq had been “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake.”

The case of the Niger yellowcake has already been explored in public, but the Senate Intelligence Committee adds significant detail to the story, stressing that the yellowcake was the only item on the Iraq shopping list that did not have a dual use—i.e., it could not be used for civilian as well as military purposes—thereby lending it additional strength as evidence. The report that Iraq had approached Niger to discuss a yellowcake purchase came originally from the British, but when the CIA sent former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger to check it out, he said that none of his contacts confirmed it. He added that the Niger uranium mines were operated by the French, and it would be all but impossible for five hundred tons of yellowcake to be diverted to Iraq.

Wilson’s report, according to the committee, was never circulated to the White House or cited in intelligence estimates; nor were later reports from a US diplomat in Niger discounting the yellowcake claim, and another State Department eyes-on check of a warehouse in which the US Navy had reported the yellowcake was being stored. The checker found only bales of cotton. Nevertheless, the British repeated the claim in a “white paper” issued on September 24, 2002, and an early draft of the President’s Ohio speech contained a reference, eventually dropped, to the yellowcake buy. An NSC staffer, according to the Senate’s report, initially resisted CIA advice to drop the claim because it would leave the British “flapping in the wind.” Even the CIA’s John Mclaughlin stepped back from the British white paper in a congressional hearing when he said, “I think they stretched a little bit” in pressing the yellowcake claim.

But the yellowcake story refused to die. A sheaf of fabricated documents arrived from Italy to muddy the waters in October 2002 and the President included the yellowcake story in his State of the Union address in Jan-uary—the soon-to-be-exploded sixteen words that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” But despite the potential significance of the new documents, which purported to record the yellowcake deal, the CIA made little effort to obtain copies of their own, and when they did they were sluggish in checking them for authenticity despite a warning from the State Department’s INR saying they looked fishy.

  1. 3

    Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004.

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