Indeed, it is a sign of how deep the problem goes
that neoconservative Republican Laurence Silberman chaired a
presidential commission evaluating the CIA’s failures, since he also
oversaw the Reagan-Bush intelligence transition team in 1980 that struck
one of the first blows against the intellectual integrity of the CIA’s
analytical division. [See below]
The commission’s co-chairman, former Sen. Charles
Robb, represents another part of the problem: the go-along-to-get-along
Democrats who did little to stop the Reagan-Bush-era politicization of
But the crisis goes deeper still. The Silberman-Robb
report, which faults the CIA for providing “dead wrong” intelligence
about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, was delivered to George W.
Bush, who has built his presidency on an unprecedented use of
pseudo-facts over a wide range of issues, from the federal budget to
global warming to the Iraq War.
Bush’s contempt for information that went against
his preconceived notions was the chief warning from Bush’s first
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill as recounted to author Ron Suskind in
the 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty.
O’Neill, who served in the Nixon and Ford
administrations and later ran Alcoa, was startled to find Bush setting
policies that “were impenetrable by facts” and based on little more than
his ideological certainties. O’Neill also said the Bush administration
had been planning a war with Iraq since Bush’s first days in office.
Some mid-level CIA analysts may not have fully
grasped this central reality about how the Bush administration
functioned. But CIA Director George Tenet certainly did, explaining why
he allegedly brushed aside warnings about dubious intelligence, such as
the false claims about Iraqi mobile weapons labs from a source codenamed
In February 2003, on the night before Secretary of
State Colin Powell’s WMD speech to the United Nations, a senior
intelligence officer warned Tenet that the source’s information was
suspect, the Silberman-Robb report said. “Mr. Tenet replied with words
to the effect of ‘yeah, yeah,’ and that he was ‘exhausted,’” according
to testimony cited in the report. Tenet has denied receiving such a
But regardless of exactly what was said about
Curveball and other unreliable sources, the bigger hole in the
commission’s 600-plus-page report is that Silberman and Robb failed to
put Tenet’s purported reaction into the larger political context of a
president who had his mind made up and had a low regard for
countervailing information anyway.
The closest the report came to admitting this
overriding reality was in an understated observation that “it is hard to
deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment
that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.”
But the Silberman-Robb commission, handpicked by
Bush, didn’t delve further into how the president helped create and
sustain the Washington “group think.”
Even after the invasion, Bush continued to freely
misrepresent the facts about Iraq. In speech after speech, he revised
the pre-war history by falsely claiming that he had no choice but to
invade because Saddam Hussein wouldn’t let U.N. arms inspectors in, when
the truth was Bush had forced the inspectors out.
Bush’s self-justifying distortion began in July
2003, just four months after the invasion, when he said about Hussein,
“we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let
them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to
remove him from power.” Bush continued to make similar assertions right
through Campaign 2004, including in the Sept. 30 presidential debate.
[See Consortiumnews.com “Bush:
Deceptive or Delusional.”]
But the problem of corrupted information goes
beyond the government, to a Washington press corps that credulously fell
for Bush’s bogus case about Iraqi WMD. The journalists and columnists
who joined in misleading the American people also benefit from the
Silberman-Robb report because it lays most blame for the WMD mess at the
CIA’s door. The journalists can claim they were just deceived, too.
The real story of the Iraq-WMD disaster, however,
wasn’t just that the CIA fell down on the job. It’s that virtually the
entire Washington political-media establishment failed the American
people and particularly the U.S. military by buying into the pro-war
“conventional wisdom” in 2002-2003, rather than thinking independently
and asking tough questions
Given the pro-war hysteria – much of it generated
by the Bush administration and the conservative news media – it
certainly made career sense for journalists as well as politicians to go
along. The few public figures who challenged Bush’s policies – such as
former Vice President Al Gore – were pummeled and ridiculed. [See
The Silberman-Robb commission said it didn’t take a
broader look at the political climate that surrounded the WMD
intelligence because the panel was “not authorized” by Bush to do so.
But a truly serious examination of how the nation
got to this place where American soldiers can be sent off to war for
bogus reasons and because of “dead wrong” intelligence would require
even a deeper look back at the crumbling of institutions that Americans
count on for supplying accurate information.
That change began in earnest more than a quarter
century ago when U.S. conservative leaders decided to invest heavily in
building a new infrastructure of media outlets and think tanks that
would shift Washington’s “conventional wisdom” to the right.
The conservatives called their strategy “the war of
ideas,” but it was really a battle over the control of information. The
principal targets were the Washington press corps – which was blamed for
exposing Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal and revealing the Pentagon
Papers history of the Vietnam War – and the CIA’s analytical division.
By the mid-1970s, aging Cold Warriors and younger
intellectuals known as “neoconservatives” banded together to argue that
the CIA’s analytical division was grossly underestimating both Soviet
power and Moscow’s determination to destroy the United States.
In 1976, trying to appease this right-wing
pressure, then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush allowed these critics to
review the highly classified CIA intelligence on the Soviet Union and
present an alternative analysis, which became known as the “Team B”
experiment. Though Team B found no hard evidence to support its alarmist
theories, it still produced a report asserting that its dire Soviet
assessments were correct.
The Team B analysis became the basis for a
sustained assault on President Jimmy Carter’s arms control efforts
during the late 1970s. By 1980, some Republican hardliners, including
Laurence Silberman and William Casey, had convinced themselves that
Carter had to be ousted to protect the future of the nation.
During Campaign 1980, Silberman and Casey both
played roles in secretive back-channel contacts with Iranian emissaries
at a time when Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government was holding 52
U.S. hostages, a crisis that was sapping Carter’s political strength.
Some witnesses – including former Iranian officials
and international intelligence figures – have claimed the Republican
contacts undercut Carter’s hostage negotiations, though others insist
that the Silberman-Casey initiatives were simply ways to gather
information about Carter’s desperate bid to free the hostages before the
[For the latest and most thorough account of this
“October Surprise” mystery, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Whatever the Republican intentions were – whether
informational or conspiratorial – Carter did lose to Ronald Reagan, who
then opened the doors of power to the neoconservatives. Silberman served
as Reagan’s top intelligence adviser before the Inauguration and oversaw
the Republican transition team that prepared a report on the alleged
shortcomings of the CIA’s analytical division.
Accusing the CIA
Renewing the assault that had begun with the Team B
analysis, Reagan’s transition team accused the CIA’s Directorate of
Intelligence of “an abject failure” to foresee a supposedly massive
Soviet buildup of strategic weapons and “the wholesale failure” to
comprehend the sophistication of Soviet propaganda.
“These failures are of such enormity,” the
transition report said, “that they cannot help but suggest to any
objective observer that the agency itself is compromised to an
unprecedented extent and that its paralysis is attributable to causes
more sinister than incompetence.”
In other words, the Reagan-Bush transition team
implied that CIA analysts who didn’t toe the neoconservative line must
be Soviet agents. In reality, however, it was the transition team that
wasn’t being objective. The evidence now is clear that the Soviet Union
was in rapid decline, falling farther behind the West in technology and
struggling just to maintain a modern military.
But the neoconservatives were learning an important
lesson. By exaggerating an enemy’s strength and then questioning the
patriotism of anyone who disagrees, they could win policy battles and
silence any meaningful dissent.
Even anti-Soviet hardliners like the CIA’s Robert
Gates recognized the impact that the incoming administration’s hostility
had on the CIA analysts.
“That the Reaganites saw their arrival as a hostile
takeover was apparent in the most extraordinary transition period of my
career,” Gates wrote in his memoirs, From the Shadows. “The
reaction inside the Agency to this litany of failure and incompetence”
from the transition team “was a mix of resentment and anger, dread and
Amid rumors that the transition team wanted to
purge several hundred top analysts, career officials feared for their
jobs, especially those considered responsible for assessing the Soviet
According to some intelligence sources, Silberman
expected to get the job of CIA director and flew into a rage when Reagan
picked Casey instead. Silberman’s consolation prize was to be named a
judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, where he became known
as one of the court’s most strident conservatives.
Under the leadership of Casey and Gates, CIA
analysts found themselves under severe pressure to conform to the
administration’s political desires, especially hyping the Soviet
strategic threat and blaming virtually all acts of terrorism on Moscow.
Analysts also were punished when they pointed out
other unhelpful information, such as Pakistan’s secret program to
develop a nuclear bomb at a time when Casey considered Islamabad’s help
in aiding the Afghan insurgency a higher priority.
By the late 1980s, the internal CIA taboo against
noticing Soviet weakness was so ingrained that the CIA analytical
division largely missed the Soviet Union’s collapse. Ironically, the CIA
analysts got blamed for that intelligence failure, too.
The Reagan-Bush neocons used a similar strategy of
intimidation to bring the Washington press corps to heel in the 1980s.
Many American journalists who reported information that didn’t fit with
the Reagan-Bush propaganda themes were discredited as “liberal” or
“anti-American.” Many lost their jobs or learned to censor themselves.
[For details on both the intelligence and media cases, see Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
In that Reagan-Bush climate of career intimidation,
congressional intelligence staffers, including a young George Tenet,
also learned that playing along with the neoconservatives was the safest
route to advancement.
Tenet earned his spurs with the Bush Family in 1991
when he helped clear the way for Robert Gates to become CIA director,
despite public complaints from former CIA analysts that Gates had
“politicized” U.S. intelligence. Gates was also implicated in a string
of national security scandals, including the Iran-Contra Affair and the
secret arming of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
At the time, Tenet was a Senate Intelligence
Committee staffer working for the panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen.
David Boren, whom Gates thanked in his memoirs for pushing through his
confirmation. Later, Tenet became Bill Clinton’s last CIA director and
was kept on in that post by George W. Bush.
A politically savvy player with renowned
back-scratching skills, Tenet made himself useful to his new bosses –
Bush and the neocons, who had returned to power and were obsessed with
finishing off Saddam Hussein.
As the drums of war grew louder, Vice President
Dick Cheney personally sat in at CIA meetings at Langley where
rank-and-file analysts felt themselves under pressure to adopt the
worst-case interpretations of Iraqi evidence.
By late 2002 and early 2003, the Washington “group
think” was in full swing. Not only was the U.S. intelligence community
giving the neocons the WMD intelligence product they wanted, but that
faulty evidence was reverberating through the national news media,
including leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the
Anyone who dared to raise questions got clobbered.
When former U.S. weapons inspector Scott Ritter questioned the WMD
evidence, he was labeled a traitor. When chief U.N. weapons inspector
Hans Blix asked for more time to search for the supposed weapons, he was
called an incompetent.
After the U.S.-led invasion, the cable news
networks eagerly declared that any 55-gallon drum of chemicals was proof
of Iraq’s WMD and Bush’s vindication. Only gradually did it sink in that
Hussein and other Iraqis had been telling the truth when they said
before the war that they had destroyed their WMD stockpiles.
Still, even as the death toll of U.S. soldiers and
Iraqis mounted, there was almost no accountability in Washington. That
was, in large part, because almost the entire political-media
establishment had been wrong.
Also, since most national Democrats – including
Sen. John Kerry – hadn’t challenged Bush’s rush to war, they had trouble
articulating a coherent case against Bush’s wartime leadership during
In the end, virtually no one was punished for
leading the nation into the disastrous war. Bush got his second term;
Tenet resigned but got the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the pro-war TV
commentators and WMD-believing journalists kept their jobs, too.
Since then, the major recommendations for change
have centered on structural reform within the intelligence community.
Congress created a National Intelligence Director, who supposedly will
work closely with the president in overseeing the intelligence
But adding just another box to the organizational
chart doesn’t address what appears to be the core problem: the
politicization of the U.S. intelligence product over the past quarter
century, while honest intelligence analysts were driven out of the CIA.
The problem is cultural, systemic, even ethical – not structural.
So the need is not to put the intelligence product
more directly under Bush’s control, but rather to restore the CIA’s
analytical commitment to professionalism and objectivity. The CIA’s
ethos again must be to give the policymakers the unadorned truth, not
the rouged-up versions that the neocons demanded in the Reagan-Bush
years and again in George W. Bush’s first term. [For more details, see
But how could this cultural reform of the
intelligence community – and the Washington Establishment – occur?
The hard answer is that many of the government
officials and the journalists, who have thrived under this corrupt
process, would need to go. They would then have to be replaced by people
who stood up for what was right and suffered during this period, the
likes of Melvin Goodman, a CIA Soviet specialist who testified against
Gates in 1991.
The housecleaning would have to include both
Republicans who have been most responsible for the distortion of
intelligence and some Democrats who aided and abetted the process. The
news media would also need to purge many of its top editors, prominent
reporters and leading columnists for failing to perform their
If a reform Congress were elected in 2006,
accountability could be exacted, too, against President Bush and top
officials in his administration. Given the egregious loss of life in
Iraq and the international opprobrium that the misguided war has brought
down on America’s reputation, firings would be in order; investigative
hearings should be held; and potentially even an impeachment resolution
against Bush could be considered.
Yet this accountability could only occur if there
were an informed, energized and incensed American public. Democracy
would have to find a fire that we haven’t seen in the United States for