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.


The first time a Senate investigating committee seriously looked into the way presidents use the CIA was in 1975, following discovery by the public that the CIA had made serious and sustained efforts to assassinate Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro. The existence of the plots raised the obvious question: Who authorized them? Efforts to kill Castro had begun under President Eisenhower, were actively pursued under President Kennedy, and were not abandoned until after the election of President Johnson in 1964. It was not only presidents and their defenders who denied that the White House had plotted murder; the chief of the CIA during the years when the plotting was at its height, John McCone, also insisted he knew nothing of these schemes and as a Catholic would never have agreed to them. At the outset of the investigation the committee’s chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho, in effect accepted these denials at face value and said he thought the CIA had behaved like “a rogue elephant on a rampage” during the years when Castro’s overthrow was a principal goal of American foreign policy. A “rogue elephant,” of course, listens to no one.

But all talk of a “rogue” CIA had disappeared before the Senate investigating committee finally published its 350-page report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders in November 1975. This extraordinary document recounted in meticulous detail the CIA’s many attempts, some with the help of notorious Mafia gangsters, to kill Castro, along with its involvement in other plots to kill Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and Salvador Allende in Chile. The Church Committee report was unprecedented; no other nation had ever conducted a comparable investigation of its own intelligence activities, and the report’s release was preceded by intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering. An increasingly alarmed President Ford, horrified as news of the plots leaked out during the months of the committee’s investigation, reversed his initial support for an inquiry and urged members of Church’s committee to keep their findings under wraps.

The pressure was so great that the Senate itself, fearful of taking a stand, refused either to support or oppose publication of the report. In the end committee members agreed to go ahead only after Senator Church threatened to resign in protest if they repudiated their own work. The result when the report appeared was a predictable nine-day-wonder in the news media and something like a crash course in political realism for reporters, scholars, historians, and the general public. In the past, when American officials had stoutly denied that the United States would ever stoop to secret murder, outsiders could never be really sure if they were being told the truth or a fairy tale. The Church Committee report introduced all who cared to know to the secret world as it is.

But what about the awkward question of authorization—did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson approve the murder plots or not? The general rule leaves no room for doubt on this score; of course authority came from the White House—where else? Laymen need not agonize over this question; the absence of an explosion of official anger at the discovery of murder plots provides all the evidence anybody really needs.

The Church Committee did not have the ordinary citizen’s luxury of addressing this question on the merits. The defenders of presidents were ready for a bare-knuckle fight to the death, and of course the surviving evidence was never quite 1,000 percent conclusive. Senator Church was a political man in a political town. What to do? In this painful situation the testimony of Robert McNamara unexpectedly offered the Church Committee and its chairman a soft resolution of their dilemma. As the secretary of defense under Kennedy, McNamara was in the government’s innermost circle—not just intimately familiar with efforts to overthrow Castro but to some degree even their author. If anyone knew who gave the go-ahead it was McNamara, but he circled the matter with great care. He told the Church Committee that White House approval of assassination attempts would have been “totally inconsistent with everything I know about” President Kennedy and his brother Bobby, who had been placed in charge of efforts to get rid of Castro after the failure of the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. At the same time, McNamara told the committee, he knew the CIA well—the agency would never go off on its own. He wasn’t denying that the efforts to kill Castro took place, he wasn’t saying that those efforts were duly authorized, and he wasn’t saying that the CIA was out of control. “I understand the contradiction that this carries with respect to the facts,” he concluded. The McNamara formula was intellectually weak but it offered a way out. Church accordingly chose caution over glory, followed McNamara’s lead, and said in effect that the committee had been unable to establish exactly who authorized the plots.


The failure of Senate investigators, journalists, and historians to identify and hold to account those ultimately responsible for the plots to kill Castro and similar “excesses” of the 1960s—the presidents for whom the CIA worked—has been damaging to the agency, which naturally felt it had been chastised for doing its job. It is not hard to see why presidents like pushing the blame for folly or failure onto others; the puzzle is why those who ought to be paying attention—politicians, journalists, and historians alike—have let them get away with it. In the investigation of Watergate the Senate and House both focused on “the cover-up” and sidestepped the more alarming crimes—the pressure of the Nixon White House on the CIA to assist the White House plumbers in what turned out to be illegal break-ins, and, later, to block the FBI’s investigation. Much the same happened during the Iran-contra investigation, when CIA officers faced jail and crippling legal fees while the man in charge of these illegal foreign adventures, President Reagan, was allowed to plead a lapse of memory.

This pattern of blaming the CIA for what presidents have ordered it to do is the single most important cause of the emergence within the agency of a “risk-averse” culture—a learned caution about undertaking operations of the sort CIA officers have later been required to explain or deny under oath on the witness stand. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once told Richard Clarke that it was not hard to explain the passive-aggressive behavior of the CIA. “It has battered child syndrome.” The agency’s operational timidity beginning in the mid-1980s is one reason efforts to kill or kidnap Osama bin Laden failed in the years leading up to September 11—a reluctance to act frequently cited by Clarke in Against All Enemies. But Clarke credits the CIA with issuing frequent urgent warnings over the summer of 2001, and reserves his most pointed criticism for two failures of the Bush White House—its inability to grasp the urgency of the danger posed by al-Qaeda before September 11, and its folly later in going to war with Iraq. Clarke’s strongest passages are reserved for the consequences of this mistake, which diverted American resources and the attention of the White House from the real threat, al-Qaeda, at the very moment when victory in Afghanistan offered an opportunity to deal the terrorist organization a fatal blow. Instead, while the Bush administration busied itself going to war to “disarm Saddam Hussein,” al-Qaeda was given a year to recover, reorganize, and carry out many new acts of terrorism. But it appears that the established pattern is repeating itself in the investigation of the CIA’s alleged intelligence “failure” while the White House fixation on Iraq, vividly described by Clarke, is ignored.

The investigators will find the going routine so long as they limit their inquiry to the nuts and bolts of intelligence collection and estimate-writing. The CIA, the NSA, and other agencies will grumble about threats to “sources and methods” when they are asked to deliver raw intelligence reports, but some sort of secure procedure will be worked out and investigators will soon find themselves wading through a sea of paper. Technical experts will explain how to read overhead photos or monitor cell-phone traffic with watchwords. Specialists will line up to say why they thought tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq after the war were, or were not, mobile biological weapons laboratories. Other specialists will do the same for the now-notorious aluminum tubes which maybe were, but probably weren’t, intended for an Iraqi centrifuge. Estimate writers will explain the deliberative process that went into creating the October 2002 Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and why the CIA had high confidence that they posed a growing threat, but low confidence that it could predict what Saddam Hussein would do with the weapons.

Much time will be required for this investigation; White House and CIA officials will concede nothing; the issues will be factually complex; long hours of testimony will be delivered in sentences with many clauses; there will be much talk of fragmentary evidence, ambiguous reports, making the most of what you’ve got, doing the best you can. At day’s end, described in a fat report, this exercise may be expected to reveal “an honest mistake”—a picture of the world that, despite expensive hardware, thousands of man-hours, and painstaking debate, turned out to be wrong. Things that looked clear in the beginning will look fuzzy by the end. Appended to the report will be numerous recommendations for new tables of organization, improvements in procedure, more emphasis on training, and of course additional funds.

But this kind of nuts-and-bolts effort will avoid all the really troubling and difficult questions raised by the use of intelligence to convince Congress to vote for an unnecessary war in order to pursue an undeclared policy that the legislators did not understand, much less have an opportunity to debate. I do not mean to imply that the administration’s policy had sinister aims; I take the President at his word when he says his purpose was to make America safer. But questions of war and peace affect the whole country, the Constitution specifically provides for the deliberation of Congress, and nothing in the enabling legislation of the CIA suggests that the president alone, and not the Congress, should enjoy the benefit of the CIA’s best efforts. The debate is supposed to be honest, but in this case the debate fell short of the ideal by a country mile. To ignore the administration’s manipulation of intelligence is to issue an invitation for more of the same.

Investigators will need no instruction in how to conduct a nuts-and-bolts study of the Iraq intelligence failures, and politics will certainly impede and possibly preclude entirely an effort to explain the deeper reasons why and how false intelligence was used to prepare the way for war. But perhaps not. To be serious and complete, investigations now underway, and additional efforts undertaken by historians later, should explore the following questions:

  1. The close cooperation between American and British intelligence services which helped President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair make their case for war while protecting them from awkward questions. In particular investigators should look into the source and vetting of fabricated documents suggesting that Iraq was trying to buy Niger yellowcake; British claims that they possessed “other” evidence of the yellowcake purchase; the provision to Secretary of State Colin Powell of an allegedly official British report on Iraqi intelligence organizations that was cited by Powell at the UN only two days before journalists revealed that the report was based on materials plagiarized from open sources; CIA collaboration with British intelligence officials in creating an intelligence dossier outlining al-Qaeda responsibility for the attacks of September 11; the content of all communications between British and American intelligence figures in the months between President Bush’s appearance before the United Nations in September 2002 and the outbreak of war the following March; and British and American cooperation in espionage targeted on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and members of the UN Security Council.
  2. Communications with the CIA by officials in the Pentagon, the office of the vice-president, and the National Security Council that might have been intended, or reasonably interpreted, as pressure to skew intelligence estimates. A special office to “re-look” intelligence on Iraq was established in the Pentagon immediately after September 11 by Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy. This group received numerous reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction from Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which was supported and paid by the Department of Defense. Investigators should track the circulation of these reports, most later dismissed as false or even fabricated, to determine if they were “stove-piped” (a term for sending reports directly to higher-ups without benefit of analysis) to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell (who may have depended on them for passages in his address to the UN on February 5, 2003), or NSC staffers who worked on speeches for the President.
  3. The origin of the obsession with Iraq which the Bush administration brought into office in January 2001, an obsession well-documented in Clarke’s new book, in the recent book about former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty; in Bob Woodward’s book of a year ago, Bush at War; and in a new Woodward book soon to be published. Clarke describes the obsession with Iraq as “an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made” eight months before the attacks of September 11. Still missing from the public record is any reliable account of why the administration was already determined to invade Iraq when it had barely heard of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda; why it chose to divert attention and resources from Afghanistan while bin Laden and leading members of the Taliban government were still at large, in order to invade Iraq; when and why it chose to justify war by citing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, how and when the decision for war was discussed with allies, especially Britain; and what the administration hoped to achieve by the conquest of Iraq. It is this obsession with Iraq which best explains the pressure on the CIA to “find” an extensive WMD program which did not exist.

Attempts to answer these questions will be resisted by the White House principally on the grounds of executive privilege, and by the CIA citing its historic understanding with British intelligence that neither will share information received from the other without its prior agreement, which the British may confidently be expected to refuse. No other administration has held its deliberations on sensitive questions more closely, and it is possible that official investigators, journalists, and historians will never really get a full understanding of the purposes and hopes of the President and his advisers as they prepared for war. But the need to explain what happened is made urgent by the now-unmistakable collapse of the official case justifying the invasion. Only one of two things could have happened—either the CIA completely misread the evidence and precipitated an unnecessary war, or the administration determined on war for reasons of its own and insisted that the CIA cobble together a best case from scraps of information in the intelligence grab bag. No official body will decide to state the choices quite this starkly, and the writers of reports will be even less willing to identify the implications. But something went terribly wrong as America debated the need for war a year ago, and each of the possible explanations raises grave questions of trust—either the CIA cannot be trusted to see the difference between real and imaginary dangers, or the agency made itself pliant and supine in the hands of the President, who exploited the CIA to make his case for war.

—April 1, 2004

This Issue

April 29, 2004