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Report of the President's Commission on Intelligence and Weapons of Mass Destruction
One Star on the Michelin Guide

            Yet another post 9/11 and Iraq War commission has just produced yet another questionable report. This commission, established by President George W. Bush on February 1st, 2004, to examine the "Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction" [deutsch] on March 31 issued a scathing denunciation of the U.S. intelligence community's performance in  assessing Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities. Essentially, the report concludes that  poorly led, badly managed US intelligence agencies, whose clueless operatives failed to evaluate their sources properly and engaged in group think to reinforce their  presumptions about Iraq, misled, almost betrayed, the President. While the criticism of the intelligence system is largely on the mark, the report's absolution of Bush is pathetic and has drawn widespread criticism. The New York Times April 1st lead editorial title, "A Profile in Timidity" typifies the response.

           There was, the report insists, no evidence to show that the executive branch attempted in any way to influence the intelligence findings to support its policy preference.  In fact, it quotes the CIA's ombudsman definition of politicization of intelligence as the result, not of policymakers leaning on analysts or their supervisors to provide the conclusions they want, but as "unprofessional intrusion by intelligence officers into the policymaking process, characterized by skewing of information and judgments to support or oppose a specific policy or general political ideology." In fairness, the definition allows that such skewing may be from a conscious desire to please a policymaker, but, in any case, the fault lies with the individual intelligence officer.

           Having duly established this, the report makes it very clear that, even while at least some intelligence analysts and managers believed (correctly) the administration had already decided to attack Iraq and decided it was fruitless to argue about the evidence in such documents as the famous, or infamous, October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, it could find no hint of any administration attempts to intervene directly in the intelligence process. There was no "politicization."

           As for those extraordinary visits to CIA analysts' offices by high level administration officers, or the establishment of such innovations as the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon, which some critics within and without the intelligence system have pointed to as evidence of political interference, the report is dismissive. It argues that "good faith efforts by intelligence consumers to understand the bases for analytic judgment, far from constituting  'politicization' are entirely legitimate. This is the case, even if policymakers raise questions because they do not like the conclusions or are seeking evidence to support policy preferences." (p;.189). "In sum," it concludes, "There was no 'politicization' of the intelligence product on Iraq. Poor tradecraft, exacerbated by poor management, contributed the erroneous assessment of Iraq's WMD programs. These problems were further exacerbated by the reluctance of Intelligence Community management to foster and consider dissident views." (p.194)

           Overall, the report is undoubtedly the severest spanking the "Community", especially the CIA, has ever received from an executive branch body. On many particulars the spanking is long deserved and echoes criticisms made by intelligence critics for many years. For that, it can be applauded.

           However, where the report loses credibility is in its insistence that the White House, the Department of State, the Pentagon, and the Vice-President's office, bear no personal or institutional responsibility for the misleading statements about the alleged threat posed by Iraq that they made to Congress, the US public, and to the world. It is absurd on its face to conclude that the president could not have known his presentations were deceptive. On the one hand, the report asks its readers to believe that NIEs, even if heavily footnoted and laced with caveats, are just too long for busy decisionmakers to read beyond their executive summaries. On the other, it argues that presidential daily briefs (PDB) are too short and reliant on attention-getting paragraph headings, thus leading the overburdened and naive executive into error. Thus, poor intelligence tradecraft is compounded by incompetency in communications. No one, according to this report, should expect a mere president, secretary of state, or secretary of defense or their meager staffs to cope with this, as they struggle to make decisions and explain them to lawmakers, press and public.

           And even if some part of press and public, or even members of Congress, do not quite accept this explanation for why Mr. Bush and the representatives of his administration so emphatically declared their belief that Saddam Hussein and his WMD presented such an imminent threat to the security - nay, the survival - of the United States and the world that an invasion was necessary, they will find that this report, which took 14 months and approximately $10 million to produce, coyly refuses to provide an answer.

           "Our review," it states in note 830 on p. 247, "has been limited by our charter to the question of alleged pressure on the Intelligence Community to shape its conclusions to the policy preferences of the Administration. There is a separate issue of how policy makers used the intelligence they were given and how this was reflected in their presentations to Congress and the public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it." (italics added - dcm) They do not stress the point, of course, that their "charter" was in the form of a presidential order signed by George Bush who, perhaps, did not want this question raised, let alone answered.

           So we have Federal Appeals Court Judge Lawrence Silberman and former Democratic Senator from Virginia Charles Robb and the rest of the commissioners - none of whom, despite the report's recommendation that intelligence analysis incorporate more dissenting views, appear to have dissented - concluding (rather convincingly, in the opinion of this former CIA estimates officer) that overall, and with some notable exceptions, the US intelligence system performed poorly on the question of Iraq's possession of WMD. Furthermore, they make some not entirely novel, and in some cases not really helpful, suggestions about ways to improve performance. For example, "fusing" domestic and foreign intelligence. (p.331) Rather ominously, they also include some warnings for those who might "leak" information on intelligence matters. Fair enough, but on the question of administration political pressure and/or manipulation of the intelligence system to justify its pre-determined invasion of Iraq it is far from credible. There is too much public information to the contrary. Finally, charter or no, its refusal to deal with how the administration abused and misused intelligence in its public presentations is simply unacceptable.

           If I were a Michelin Guide reviewer, the Silberman/Robb Report would get one star at most.

April 4, 2005

David MacMichael, PhD, is a historian and a former analyst for U.S. government agencies and lives near Washington, D.C. He is currently a steering committee member of "Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity" (VIPS).

He regularly contributes to

David MacMichael/ 2005

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