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How Bush Got It Wrong

Eventually the documents were shared with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which reported almost immediately that the documents were crude and obvious forgeries, a conclusion with which the CIA was subsequently compelled to sheepishly agree. This summary only sketches in lightly the many ways in which the CIA over a period of months demonstrated the faintest sort of desire to know whether Iraq was really trying to buy yellowcake or not. In favor of the story are vague rumors and unsubstantiated claims; against it were many specific denials, and yet this gossamer web of “evidence” was pumped up in the NIE to support a claim that Iraq was “vigorously” seeking new sources of uranium. The CIA did not make up or fabricate the yellowcake story, but the Senate report clearly shows, although it is too polite to say, that the agency estimators fabricated the “vigor” that was nailed on to give the claim weight and urgency.

The only other concrete things cited as evidence of Iraq’s determination to build nuclear weapons were the aluminum tubes which it was allegedly trying to buy, apparently from China. The tubes were real enough, and Iraq’s desire to buy them has not been questioned either. But what were the tubes for? On that question the Senate Committee found that intelligence estimators had divided into two camps—those (mainly in the CIA and DIA) who believed they were intended for use in a centrifuge, where over the course of a year they might be used to separate enough uranium-235 to make two atomic bombs; and those (mainly in the Department of Energy and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research) who believed that the technical characteristics of the tubes, the history of Iraqi use of such tubes for missiles, and the Iraqi claims that the tubes were in fact intended for use in missiles all proved that the tubes, although prohibited by UN sanctions, were not part of Iraq’s nuclear program, if indeed it had one.

The Department of Energy in particular argued in great detail that the tubes were all wrong for uranium enrichment, and Iraq’s past efforts at a centrifuge program had followed a different path. One DOE analyst said, “We should just give them the tubes.” But the CIA ignored these doubts, sought “expert” advice backing the centrifuge interpretation from outside contractors who did not know enough to disagree, exaggerated the cost of the tubes, accepted a single flimsy claim that Saddam was “closely following” the tube purchase, falsely claimed that “almost every country” approached by Iraq to build the tubes said the tolerance specifications were too high, and while citing a DOE-INR “footnote” of disagreement in the text of the NIE, put the actual text of the footnote sixty pages deeper into the paper.

The committee’s report faults the CIA in every one of its twenty conclusions about analysis of Iraq’s nuclear program. It builds an argument for finding that the agency’s crafting and shaping of the NIE can only be described as an attempt to manufacture a case justifying war. But this case, if the committee should ultimately decide to dot the i‘s and cross the t‘s and state it plainly, must await the convening of a new Congress after November’s election.

But despite the committee’s reluctance to accept the logic of its own report, it is already clear that the agency’s false, exaggerated, and overstated claims set the stage for war. In December 2002 the CIA was asked to write an official evaluation of Iraq’s Currently Accurate, Full and Complete Disclosure of its weapons programs—a 12,000-page document delivered to the UN inspectors as required by the Security Council’s Resolution 1441, which sent inspectors back into Iraq and started the countdown to war. Woodward devotes a long section of Plan of Attack to the inclusion of this requirement in Resolution 1441. Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the Full and Complete Disclosure was the poisoned apple which would bring down Saddam Hussein, since he could never comply honestly with the demand. Either he would lie about what he had in late 2002, or he would admit he had been lying about WMDs for years past. “That would be sufficient cause to say he’s lied again,” Cheney said, according to Woodward, “he’s not come clean and you’d find material breach and away you’d go,” i.e., to war.

In the event the French successfully insisted on wording the resolution to say that a “material breach” would require a false declaration and a general failure to cooperate. But the distinction was empty; lies in the declaration, plus Iraqi failure to help the UN inspectors find the truth, would constitute the double-fault justifying war, and it was in that spirit that the CIA pounced on the Full and Complete Disclosure as soon as it was released by the Iraqi government in Baghdad on December 7. We learn from the Select Committee report that while WINPAC at the agency wrote the response, two analysts at INR and DOE, disgruntled at being shut out of the drafting process, exchanged complaints by e-mail. “It is most disturbing,” the DOE analyst wrote,

that WINPAC is essentially directing foreign policy in this matter. There are some very strong points to be made in respect to Iraq’s arrogant non-compliance with UN sanctions. However, when individuals attempt to convert those “strong statements” into the “knock out” punch, the Administration will ultimately look foolish—i.e., the tubes and Niger!

Now, nearly two years later, it is abundantly clear that the many claims made by the White House about “the tubes and Niger” were either substantially or completely wrong. But whether these errors were genuinely “foolish” depends on knowing what the false claims about Iraqi WMDs were intended to achieve. In October 2002 the claims were scary enough to win a vote by Congress for war. At the turn of the year they were used again to bolster the American case that Saddam couldn’t be trusted, and military action alone could solve the problem. The CIA-written US Analysis of Iraq’s Declaration was unequivocal: Saddam Hussein was defying the UN’s Resolution 1441 and was in noncompliance because Iraq in its declaration

fails to acknowledge or explain procurement of high specification aluminum tubes…[and] fails to acknowledge efforts to procure uranium from Niger….

The French, Germans, and Russians, as well as Hans Blix, continued to argue that the inspectors should be given more time, but no one came to the defense of Iraq’s Full and Complete Disclosure; no one said its “failure” to acknowledge current WMDs may well have been accurate. Wrong as they were, the CIA’s claims about Iraqi WMDs held up long enough to do what the President wanted—provide a reason for going to war.

3.

Americans are quick to criticize presidents for everything they don’t like, or want but don’t have, and at times they are willing to harass them so unmercifully on irrelevant personal grounds that presidents may be forgiven for regretting they were ever elected in the first place. But when it comes to the really big mistakes and disasters in public life, Americans can be strangely reluctant to hold presidents responsible. This reluctance can be seen plainly in discussion of the two recent intelligence failures—“catastrophic” in the words of a New York Times editorial on August 11—that are cited as the reason for fixing a badly broken system, the “failure” to predict and prevent the terrorist attacks of Sep-tember 11, 2001, and the “failure” in predicting discovery of Iraqi weapons programs that turned out to be imaginary.

George Tenet, before he retired as director of central intelligence, presided over both failures and is widely blamed for the faltering management that allowed them to happen, but while Tenet will have much to explain if he chooses to write a memoir, neither of these two failures can be usefully laid at his door. Consider first the report of the 9/11 Commission, which recounts in great detail the numerous ways in which the CIA and the FBI failed to grasp essential details and connections in the al-Qaeda plot to strike at America. There is a kind of agony in reliving the near misses by investigators who might have put it all together in time. Small wonder that the 9/11 Commission, and now Congress, are determined to oil the machinery so it will never happen again. But the 9/11 Commission also described in detail things that worked right, and no part of its report deserves closer scrutiny than Chapter Eight—“The System was Blinking Red”—which recounts the numerous warnings issued by the CIA in the year leading up to September 11.

Warnings and indications” have always been the first priority of the CIA. The agency was created in 1947 specifically to prevent another disaster on the scale of Pearl Harbor, and its history can be read as a continuing saga of dangers spotted or missed—the successes so often, and fairly, described as unsung, and the failures which generate storms of criticism and typically leave the agency battered and gun-shy.

Throughout the cold war defectors and spies handled by the CIA were always asked first, before anything else, if they knew of any imminent threat to or attack planned against the United States. In the first half of 1961 none of the persons interrogated at the agency’s Defector Reception Center in Frankfurt, Germany, reported anything of the kind. Nor did they describe what many had seen—huge stockpiles of building materials in Berlin—because questions about such preparations weren’t high on the list. The result that summer was a painful and potentially dangerous surprise when the Soviet Union suddenly divided the city of Berlin with a wall—a huge construction project requiring vast stores of cinder block and barbed wire which the Soviets had accumulated under the agency’s eyes. Thereafter new questions were added to the debriefing of defectors, having to do with unusual East Bloc activities that might not appear threatening at first glance, but could provide clues to dangers around the next turn in the road.

During the hearings conducted by the 9/11 Commission Condoleezza Rice and other witnesses for the administration frequently said that the CIA never gave them a warning they could act on—a name, an address, an airline flight number, a city, a specific plan and time of attack. President Bush added that he would have moved heaven and earth to protect America if only someone had told him what needed to be done. But just how much detail did he really need? According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, before September 11 the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) which the CIA delivered every morning to the White House included “more than 40” articles “related to Bin Laden.”

In March 2001 Richard Clarke, chief of the counterterrorism staff in the National Security Council, advised Rice against reopening Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic passing in front of the White House, warning that al-Qaeda cells were operating inside the United States and truck bombs were among their weapons of choice. In May the chief of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center, Cofer Black, warned Rice that the threat level was close to the level it had reached during the millennium, when major plots were thwarted in Jordan and in the United States, including one targeted on Los Angeles International Airport. On June 25, Clarke cited six separate reports of al-Qaeda plotting; three days later he added that terrorist activity “had reached a crescendo.” At the same time the CIA was instructing all station chiefs to warn host governments around the world and to seek their help in disrupting terrorist cells. On June 30 an agency briefing was headlined “Bin Laden Planning High Profile Attacks.”

So it went, day after day, week after week. By late July, George Tenet told the commission, the threat level could not “get any worse”—“the system was blinking red.” This appears to have been the case in both senses. The collection efforts of the CIA and other organizations were not only bombarded with signs and reports of threatening activity, but the warning system itself—all those channels of communication intended to rouse the President and the White House staff to alarm and activity—was “blinking red.” This gale-force wind of warning reached its highest level on August 6, when the PDB delivered to President Bush on vacation in Texas was headlined “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” For two years the White House fought to suppress the text of that warning and it is not hard to see why. It contains no addresses, dates, names of visa violators—no “actionable intelligence,” as Rice has frequently pleaded in the President’s defense. But the stark fact of Osama bin Laden’s desire to strike hard at the United States burns through unmistakably.

Hijacked planes, Osama’s knowledge of the millennium attack planned for Los Angeles airport, his patient planning for years before operations are carried out, the existence of seventy FBI field investigations of al-Qaeda activity inside the United States, even a reminder of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center—it would be hard to imagine the system blinking red more vividly than it does in the PDB of August 6. One can imagine the terrible frustration of George Tenet over the following two years, criticized for “failing” to prevent the attacks on September 11, and forbidden by circumstance and loyalty to the President from bursting out with the obvious question—what more did he need?

But like the Senate Intelligence Committee, the 9/11 Commission stops there. Perhaps holding presidents accountable is more than any commission or Senate committee can fairly be asked to do; perhaps only the electorate can properly hold a president accountable. We shall see.

But it is clear that no attempt to fix the system can hope to succeed if it cannot or will not identify the part that is broken. Warnings are useless, if a president will not listen. No attempt to assess a foreign threat can hope to be accurate if the estimators answer directly to the White House, are in effect part of the president’s team, have been told unmistakably what the president wants, and know full well that their careers will flower or wither under his hot breath. Journalists and members of Congress know how this works; for the most part they went along as well.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will not deliver until next year its final verdict on the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate used to justify war. It has stated in its July report that the estimate writers went beyond the intelligence they had to work with, and it will probably say as much about the President and other high officials who went further still in banging the drum—citing “gathering threats” and “growing dangers” that not even the most liberal of readings could find in the NIE. But taking the final step—stating plainly what is obvious to anyone who cares to see—may be more than the Senate Intelligence Committee, or any other group of official Americans, can bring itself to do.

The big idea on the table for fixing intelligence at the moment is the proposal, formally put by the 9/11 Commission, to establish a “national intelligence director” who will crack the whip when the dozen or so American intelligence organizations drag their feet, resist cooperation, insist on going their own way, cannot agree who is to run the spies, hold on to secrets too tightly or too loosely, or squabble over division of the immense, $30–40 billion American intelligence pie. This is a workable idea that will step on many toes but only one set of toes will really count. The Department of Defense may be expected to resist bitterly any loss of its control of intelligence budgeting, but it is ultimately presidents who will decide. President Bush has adopted the words but seeks to avoid the essence of the 9/11 Commission’s proposal; he would welcome a national intelligence director, but seeks to retain direct White House control of the director of central intelligence, who is the person who makes or breaks careers at the CIA, and ensures that the agency remains in effect an arm of the White House. It is that relationship—the intimate partnership between president and DCI—which explains why the CIA turned a miscellany of iffy intelligence reports into “high confidence” warnings of Iraqi WMDs.

If things had been otherwise, if the CIA had pressed and bullied the White House instead of the other way around, then the President would have lashed out angrily when the inspectors found nothing, and it became apparent that he had taken the nation to war without cause. But nothing of the kind happened. President Bush was serene. For a year he said those weapons might yet turn up, and Tenet loyally said the same. When others suggested something had gone badly wrong, the President expressed confidence in his director of central intelligence, just as he had following the attacks on September 11, and for the same reason. The country didn’t know it then, and the White House did what it could to keep the country from ever knowing, but for seven months George Tenet’s CIA had been hand-delivering warnings to the President about al-Qaeda at a rate of nearly two a week. Tenet might have volunteered one or two additional pieces of information—for example, the report he received on August 23 that FBI field agents in Minneapolis wanted to investigate an “Islamic extremist” arrested while learning to fly 747 airliners. Tenet says he told the White House nothing about that. It sounds odd, but that is what Tenet says. With that exception, Tenet’s performance as DCI was everything this president could ask for, and every word from Bush on the subject so far suggests that he agrees.

This is where things grow difficult for committees, commissioners, and ordinary citizens alike. It is not sympathy for President Bush as a person that makes them hesitate, but the power of the office of the presidency itself. A president is not only the leader of the country, but the leader of his party as well, and a serious attack on a president concerning a substantial matter is an invitation to conflict of a kind that resembles civil war. So the reason for the velvet gloves with which he is treated is not hard to understand. But the failure to act before September 11 and the unnecessary war with Iraq cannot fairly be blamed on intelligence organizations or anyone else. The White House is the problem, not for the first time. Iraq is President Bush’s war. He insisted on it, and nothing can save us from the same again until we find the will to hold the President responsible.

—August 25, 2004

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