The Persistent Myth of ‘Intelligence Failure’, Phase II

The Senate Committee on Intelligence finally released its report on “Phase II” of its investigation into the “intelligence failure” on Iraq’s WMD. The report based upon “Phase I” of the investigation was released in 2004. That report made no judgments or assessments of the truthfulness of Bush administration statements about Iraqi WMD. That task was mandated for Phase II of the investigation, which has been long postponed.

As the Washington Post reported, “The new report is the last in a series of Senate reports on the intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq war. The first such report, released in July 2004, focused on flaws in intelligence-gathering and analysis by the U.S. intelligence agencies but put off the politically explosive question of whether Bush administration officials deliberately distorted or misused the information they were given. The final report was delayed as committee members clashed over what the report should say and whether such a report was still necessary.”[1]

The report’s findings are as unsurprising as the media coverage of it. As summarized by The New York Times, “The report on the prewar statements found that on some important issues, most notably on what was believed to be Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs, the public statements from Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other senior officials were generally ‘substantiated’ by the best estimates at the time from American intelligence agencies. But it found that the administration officials’ statements usually did not reflect the intelligence agencies’ uncertainties about the evidence or the disputes among them.”[2]

That latter conclusion is unavoidable, despite contradicting the former–though the Times takes no notice of the contradiction.

A Times editorial from the same day was quite a bit more critical. “The report shows clearly,” it said, “that President Bush should have known that important claims he made about Iraq did not conform with intelligence reports,” but then adds that the report only “confirms one serious intelligence failure: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials were told that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons and did not learn that these reports were wrong until after the invasion.”

There’s just one problem with this argument: the very claims the Times says the Bush administration “should have known…did not conform with intelligence reports” are some of the same claims made on chemical and biological weapons attributed by the Times itself to an “intelligence failure”. True, the CIA had assessed that Iraq had WMD, but one shouldn’t confuse key “judgments” with “intelligence”, any more than one should confuse the word “opinion” with the word “evidence”. It’s this basic fallacy that allows the official myth of “intelligence failure” to persist.

The Times itself demonstrates this, though it glosses over the fact that its own reporting belies the fallacious conclusion that there was an “intelligence failure” in this regard. Further into the article, one reads that “the only new data on biological weapons came from a dubious source code-named Curveball and proved to be false.”[3] Again, the Times takes no notice of the glaring contradiction.

One needn’t attempt to reconcile contradictions one pretends don’t exist.

More to the point, as the Phase I report makes perfectly clear, the CIA had never actually interviewed “Curveball” and relied on German reporting about his claims, complete with warnings that he was a drunk and that his claims couldn’t be corroborated.[4] But regarding the use of such “evidence” as Curveball’s on Iraqi pursuit of biological weapons, it’s more convenient, and more politically acceptable, to regard it as a “failure” than to attribute it to official dishonesty.

After all, as everybody knows, the US government wouldn’t lie to people. God forbid.

The fact of the matter, as the Phase I report clearly demonstrates, is that the “judgments” of the CIA (such as, for example, in it’s 2002 National Intelligence Estimate) were not supported by the available intelligence. Fairly self-evident is that these “judgments” were clearly politicized. Administration statements to the same effect, after all, preceded the NIE (which was only ordered after a schoked Senate had learned that no such assessment had been requested by the administration. That it was requested by Bob Graham rather than by George W. Bush is particularly instructive). In other words, the NIE was based on official claims of the administration rather than administration claims being based on any NIE produced by the intelligence community.[5]

To its credit, the Times notes that “The report shows that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it—if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for…. The report documents how time and again Mr. Bush and his team took vague and dubious intelligence reports on Iraq’s weapons program and made them sound like hard and incontrovertible fact.”

All too true—as is the Times’ criticism that “If they had wanted to give an honest accounting of the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney would have said it indicated that Mr. Hussein’s nuclear weapons program had been destroyed years earlier by American military strikes.”[6]

It’s a worthy criticism. The only problem is the criticism’s source. I’ve made the exact same criticism of the Times’ own reporting on Iraq prior to the US invasion, when the paper was all too eager to report administration officials’ false statements without bothering to inform their readers that “Mr. Hussein’s nuclear weapons program had been destroyed years earlier”, not only by American military strikes, but primarily by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which “destroyed, removed or rendered harmless all Iraqi facilities and equipment relevant to nuclear weapons production” by as early as 1992. In 1998, the IAEA was “confident that we had not missed any significant component of Iraq’s nuclear programme.”[7]

This context, all open-source information, was just as sorely lacking from the Times’ coverage before the war as it was from administration statements. In other words, just as the administration points to the intelligence community as its scapegoat, citing a mythical “intelligence failure”, so does the media scapegoat the administration in an effort to obfuscate its own role in leading the country to war.

The Times adds that, “According to the Senate report, there was no evidence that Mr. Hussein intended to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, and the intelligence community never said there was.”[8] This fact need not be attributed to the recent Phase II report. The 2002 NIE key judgments on Iraqi WMD have long been declassified, and it makes it perfectly clear that it was well recognized that it was unlikely Saddam would use WMD against the US unless in response to being attacked.[9]

In the end, the Times says it “cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq”, but that withholding “vital information from the public” or leading the public “to believe things that” are known to be “not true” is “bad enough.”

The New York Times should consider its own reporting on Iraq and take a long hard look in the mirror on this point. It should also look up the word “lie” in a dictionary, since making untrue statements with intent to deceive or creating a false or misleading impression is the very definition of the word.[10] So if the Times can say with certainty that Mr. Bush was guilty of the latter, then, by definition, he lied, and they could thus credibly say so with just as much certainty. Of course, the Times lied, too, so their reluctance to call Bush and Co. liars is perfectly understandable.

Others, of course, have even more self-interest in defending the administration. As the Washington Post noted, “The report’s conclusions were sharply criticized by several Republican members, who accused the Democratic majority of rehashing old material for political advantage.”[11]

Yet Democrats in the Senate have been just as complicit as Republicans not only in the decision to go to war, but also in attributing the patently false pretext for the war to an “intelligence failure”.

In sum, the notion of an “intelligence failure” is a convenient myth for all who propagate it.

____________________

[1] Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus, “Bush Inflated Threat From Iraq’s Banned Weapons, Report Says”, The Washington Post, June 6, 2008; A03

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/05/AR2008060501523_pf.html

[2] Mark Mazzetti and Scoot Shane, “Bush Overstated Iraq Evidence, Senators Report”, The New York Times, June 6, 2008

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/world/middleeast/06intel.html

[3] “The Truth About the War”, The New York Times, June 6, 2008

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/opinion/06fri1.html?th=&emc=th&pagewanted=print

[4] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq” (Phase I), July 2004

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/archive/iraq/iraq_war/congress_senate_committee_prewar_intelligence.htm

[5] I’ve written at length elsewhere on a number of specific aspects of the so-called “intelligence failure” with regard to WMD and the true motives for the invasion of Iraq:

“Inconvenient Facts and ‘Conspiracy Theories'”, January 7, 2004

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2004/inconvenient_facts_conspiracy_theories.htm

“The Mea Culpa of Our Times”, May 28, 2004

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2004/mea_culpa_of_our_times.htm

“The U.S. ‘intelligence failure’ and Iraq’s UAVs”, November 14, 2005

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2005/us_intelligence_failure_iraq_uavs.htm

“The Hypocrisy of Mr. Cheney”, November 23, 2005

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2005/hypocrisy_cheney.htm

“Iraq’s Anthrax and the Myth of ‘Intelligence Failure'”, January 27, 2006

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2006/iraq_anthrax.htm

“Denial and Deception: Iraq’s Aluminum Tubes and the Case for War”, February 12, 2006

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2006/iraq_aluminum_tubes.htm

“The Revision of the Iraq War”, May 25, 2006

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2006/revision_of_the_iraq_war.htm

“An Unpredicted ‘Disaster’?”, October 3, 2006

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2006/unpredicted_disaster.htm

“The ‘Option’ of Military Force”, October 14, 2006

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2006/option_of_military_force.htm

“The Reasons for Regime Change in Iraq”, September 6, 2007

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/articles/2007/reasons_regime_change_iraq.htm

[6] “The Truth About the War”, The New York Times, June 6, 2008

[7] “The Mea Culpa of Our Times”, May 28, 2004

[8] “The Truth About the War”, The New York Times, June 6, 2008

[9] “Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction”, CIA National Intelligence Estimate, October 2002

http://www.yirmeyahureview.com/archive/iraq/iraq_war/cia_nie_2002.htm

[10] www.merriam-webster.com

[11] The Washington Post, June 6, 2008

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