consortiumnews.com

Why U.S. Intelligence Failed, Redux

By Robert Parry
February 13, 2006

Paul Pillar, the CIA's senior intelligence analyst for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, has written a critique of the Bush administration's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq that, in effect, corroborates the British “Downing Street Memo” in accusing the Bush administration of rigging the evidence to justify the invasion.

The British memo recounted a July 23, 2002, meeting in which Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, told Prime Minister Tony Blair about discussions in Washington with George W. Bush's top national security officials. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove said, according to the minutes.

After the “Downing Street Memo” was revealed in Great Britain in 2005, Bush's spokesmen heatedly denied its claims and major  U.S. news outlets dismissed its significance. But in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Pillar offers a matching account. He wrote that the administration didn't just play games with the traditional notion that objective analysis should inform responsible policy, but “turned the entire model upside down.”

“The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made,” Pillar wrote. “The Bush administration deviated from the professional standard not only in using policy to drive intelligence, but also in aggressively using intelligence to win public support for its decision to go to war. This meant selectively adducing data -- 'cherry-picking' -- rather than using the intelligence community's own analytic judgments.”

These two accounts -- which are further bolstered by first-hand statements from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson -- reveal an administration long determined to invade Iraq and assembling reasons that would scare the American people into supporting an unprovoked war.

Yet, while the American public has a right to be furious about getting tricked into a war that has killed nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, there are other concerns about why the U.S. intelligence community let itself be so manipulated, staying silent when a strong protest to Congress might have derailed Bush's scheme.

On Oct. 23, 2003, Consortiumnews.com addressed this longer-range question of why U.S. intelligence failed. That story, which is reprinted in an updated form below, shows that the politicization of intelligence has been a goal of neoconservative operatives for three decades. They have long understood the value of turning the principle of objective analysis on its head:

In Tom Clancy’s political thriller “Sum of All Fears,” the United States and Russia are being pushed to the brink of nuclear war by neo-Nazi terrorists who have detonated a nuclear explosion in Baltimore and want the Americans to blame the Russians.

CIA analysts have pieced together the real story but can’t get it to the president. “The president is basing his decisions on some really bad information,” analyst Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) pleads to a U.S. general. “My orders are to get the right information to the people who make the decisions.”

Though a bit corny, Ryan’s dialogue captures the credo of professional intelligence analysts. Solid information, they believe, must be the foundation for sound decisions, especially when lives and the national security are at stake. The battle over that principle is the real back story to the dispute over Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. It is a story of how the CIA’s vaunted analytical division has been corrupted – or “politicized” – by right-wing ideologues over the past quarter century.

Some key officials in George W. Bush’s administration – from former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Vice President Dick Cheney – have long been part of this trend toward seeing intelligence as an ideological weapon, rather than a way to inform a full debate. Other figures in Bush’s circle of advisers, including his father, the former president and CIA director, have played perhaps even more central roles in this transformation. [More on this below. Also see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

For his part, the younger George Bush has shown little but disdain for any information that puts his policies or “gut” judgments in a negative light. In that sense, Bush’s thin skin toward contradiction can’t be separated from the White House campaign, beginning in July 2003, to discredit retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson for publicly debunking the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. That retaliation included the exposure of Wilson’s wife as an undercover CIA officer.

Dating Back to Watergate

Though one cost of corrupting U.S. intelligence can now be counted in the growing U.S. death toll in Iraq, the origins of the current problem can be traced back to the mid-1970s, when conservatives were engaged in fierce rear-guard defenses after the twin debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate. In 1974, after Republican President Richard Nixon was driven from office over the Watergate political-spying scandal, the Republicans suffered heavy losses in congressional races. The next year, the U.S. –backed government in South Vietnam fell.

At this crucial juncture, a group of influential conservatives coalesced around a strategy of accusing the CIA’s analytical division of growing soft on communism. These conservatives – led by the likes of Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, William Van Cleave, Max Kampelman, Eugene Rostow, Elmo Zumwalt and Richard Allen – claimed that the CIA’s Soviet analysts were ignoring Moscow’s aggressive strategy for world domination. This political assault put in play one of the CIA’s founding principles – objective analysis.

Since its creation in 1947, the CIA had taken pride in maintaining an analytical division that stayed above the political fray. The CIA analysts – confident if not arrogant about their intellectual skills – prided themselves in bringing unwanted news to the president’s door. Those reports included an analysis of Soviet missile strength that contradicted John F. Kennedy’s “missile gap” rhetoric or the debunking of Lyndon Johnson’s assumptions about the effectiveness of bombing in Vietnam. While the CIA’s operational division got itself into trouble with risky schemes, the analytical division maintained a fairly good record of scholarship and objectivity.

But that tradition came under attack in 1976 when conservative outsiders demanded and were granted access to the CIA’s strategic intelligence on the Soviet Union. Their goal was to contest the analytical division’s assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions. The conservatives saw the CIA’s tempered analysis of Soviet behavior as the underpinning of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s strategy of détente, the gradual normalizing of relations with the Soviet Union. Détente was, in effect, a plan to negotiate an end to the Cold War or at least its most dangerous elements.

This CIA view of a tamer Soviet Union had enemies inside Gerald Ford’s administration. Hard-liners, such as William J. Casey, John Connally, Clare Booth Luce and Edward Teller, sat on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Another young hard-liner, Dick Cheney, was Ford’s chief of staff. Donald Rumsfeld was then – as he is today – the secretary of defense.

Team B

The concept of a conservative counter-analysis, which became known as “Team B,” had been opposed by the previous CIA director, William Colby, as in inappropriate intrusion into the integrity of the CIA’s analytical product. But the new CIA director, a politically ambitious George H.W. Bush, was ready to acquiesce to the right-wing pressure.

“Although his top analysts argued against such an undertaking, Bush checked with the White House, obtained an O.K., and by May 26 [1976] signed off on the experiment with the notation, ‘Let her fly!!,” wrote Anne Hessing Cahn after reviewing “Team B” documents that were released more than a decade ago. [See “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.]

The senior George Bush offered the rationale that Team B would simply be an intellectual challenge to the CIA’s official assessments. The elder Bush’s rationale, however, assumed that Team B didn’t have a pre-set agenda to fashion a worst-case scenario for launching a new and intensified Cold War. What was sometimes called Cold War II would demand hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money for military projects, including big-ticket items like a missile-defense system. [One member of Team B, retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham, would become the father of Ronald Reagan “Star Wars” missile defense system.]

Not surprisingly, Team B did produce a worst-case scenario of Soviet power and intentions. Gaining credibility from its access to secret CIA data, Team B challenged the assessment of the CIA’s professional analysts who held a less alarmist view of Moscow’s capabilities and intentions. “The principal threat to our nation, to world peace and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance based upon an unparalleled military buildup,” wrote three Team B members Pipes, Nitze and Van Cleave.

Team B also brought to prominence another young neo-conservative, Paul Wolfowitz. A quarter century later, Wolfowitz would pioneer the post-Cold War strategy of U.S. preemptive wars against countries deemed  potential threats by using the same technique of filtering the available intelligence to build a worst-case scenario. In 2001, George W. Bush made Wolfowitz deputy secretary of defense under Rumsfeld.

Though Team B’s analysis of the Soviet Union as a rising power on the verge of overwhelming the United States is now recognized by intelligence professionals and many historians as a ludicrous fantasy, it helped shape the national security debate in the late 1970s. American conservatives and neo-conservatives wielded the analysis like a club to bludgeon more moderate Republicans and Democrats, who saw a declining Soviet Union desperate for arms control and other negotiations.

Reagan's Rise

Scary assessments of Soviet power and U.S. weakness also fueled Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980, and after his election, the Team B hard-liners had the keys to power. As Reagan and his vice presidential running mate, George H.W. Bush, prepared to take office, the hard-liners wrote Reagan’s transition team report, which suggested that the CIA analytical division was not simply obtuse in its supposed failure to perceive Soviet ascendancy, but treasonous.

“These failures are of such enormity,” the transition team 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.” [For details, see Mark Perry’s Eclipse.]

With Reagan in power, the Team B analysis of Soviet capabilities and intentions became the basis for a massive U.S. military buildup. It also was the justification for U.S. support of brutal right-wing governments in Central America and elsewhere.

Since Soviet power was supposedly on the rise and rapidly eclipsing the United States, it followed that even peasant uprisings against “death squad” regimes in El Salvador or Guatemala must be part of a larger Soviet strategy of world conquest, an assault on the “soft underbelly” of the U.S. southern border. Any analysis of these civil wars as primarily local conflicts arising from long-standing social grievances was dismissed as fuzzy thinking or worse.

In the first few months of the Reagan administration, the hard-liners’ animosity toward the CIA’s analytical division intensified as it resisted a series of accusations against the Soviet Union. The CIA analysts were obstacles to the administration’s campaign to depict Moscow as responsible for virtually all acts of international terrorism, including the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1981.

With William Casey installed as CIA director and also serving in Reagan’s Cabinet, the assault on the analytical division moved into high gear. Casey put the analytical division under the control of his protégé, Robert Gates, who had made his name as an anti-Soviet hard-liner. Gates then installed a new bureaucracy within the DI, or Directorate of Intelligence, with his loyalists in key positions.

“The CIA’s objectivity on the Soviet Union ended abruptly in 1981, when Casey became the DCI [director of central intelligence] – and the first one to be a member of the president’s Cabinet. Gates became Casey’s deputy director for intelligence in 1982 and chaired the National Intelligence Council,” wrote former CIA senior analyst Melvyn Goodman. [See Foreign Policy magazine, summer 1997.]

Analysts Under Fire

Under Gates, CIA intelligence analysts found themselves the victims of bureaucratic pummeling. According to several former CIA analysts whom I interviewed, analysts faced job threats; some were berated or even had their analytical papers thrown in their faces; some were subjected to allegations of psychiatric unfitness.

The Gates leadership team proved itself responsive to White House demands, giving serious attention to right-wing press reports from around the world. The Reagan administration, for instance, wanted evidence to support right-wing media claims that pinned European terrorism on the Soviets. The CIA analysts, however, knew the charges were bogus partly because they were based on “black” or false propaganda that the CIA's operations division had been planting in the European media.

The attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981 was viewed as another opportunity to make propaganda points against what Reagan called the “evil empire.” Though the attack had been carried out by a neo-fascist extremist from Turkey, conservative U.S. writers and journalists began to promote allegations of a secret KGB role. In this case, CIA analysts knew the charges were false because of the CIA’s penetration of East Bloc intelligence services.

But responding to White House pressure in 1985, Gates closeted a special team to push through an administration-desired paper linking the KGB to the attack. Though the analysts opposed what they believed to be a dishonest intelligence report, they couldn’t stop the paper from leaving CIA and being circulated around Washington.

As the CIA’s traditions of analytical objectivity continued to erode in the 1980s, analysts who raised unwelcome questions in politically sensitive areas found their jobs on the line.

For instance, analysts were pressured to back off an assessment that Pakistan was violating nuclear proliferation safeguards with the goal of building an atomic bomb. At the time, Pakistan was assisting the Reagan administration’s covert operation in Afghanistan, which was considered a higher priority than stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. In Afghanistan, the CIA’s operations division and the Pakistani intelligence service were helping Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, battle Soviet troops.

One analyst involved in the Pakistan nuclear-bomb assessment told me that the CIA higher-ups applied almost the opposite standards that were used two decades later in alleging an Iraqi nuclear program. In the Pakistani case, the Reagan administration blocked warnings about a Pakistani bomb “until the last bolt was turned” while more recently on Iraq, speculative worst-case scenarios were applied, the analyst said.

One consequence of giving Pakistan a pass on proliferation was that Pakistan did succeed in developing nuclear weapons, which have contributed to an escalating arms race with India in South Asia. It also has created the potential for Islamic extremists to gain control of the Bomb by taking power in Pakistan.

Missing the Fall

The politicization of intelligence in the 1980s had other effects. Under pressure always to exaggerate the Soviet threat, analysts had no incentive to point out the truth, which was that the Soviet Union was a decaying, corrupt and inefficient regime tottering on the brink of collapse. To justify soaring military budgets and interventions in Third World conflicts, the Reagan administration wanted the Soviets always to be depicted as 10 feet tall.

Ironically, this systematic distortion of the CIA’s Soviet intelligence assessments turned out to be a political win-win for Reagan and his supporters.

Not only did Congress appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars for military projects favored by the conservatives, the U.S. news media largely gave Reagan the credit when the Soviet Union “suddenly” collapsed in 1991. The CIA did take some lumps for “missing” one of the most significant political events of the century, but Reagan’s success in “winning the Cold War” is now enshrined as conventional wisdom.

The accepted version of events goes this way: the Soviets were on the ascendance before Reagan took office, but thanks to Reagan’s strategic missile defense program and his support for right-wing insurgencies, such as arming contra rebels in Nicaragua and Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union fell apart.

A more realistic assessment would point out that the Soviets had been in decline for decades, largely from the devastation caused by World War II and the effective containment strategies followed by presidents from Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The rapid development of technology in the West and the lure of Western consumer goods accelerated this Soviet collapse.

But the U.S. news media never mounted a serious assessment of how the Cold War really was won. The conservative press corps naturally pressed its favored theme of Reagan turning the tide, while a complacent mainstream press offered little additional context.

'Politicization'

The plight of the CIA analysts in the 1980s also received little attention in Washington amid the triumphalism of the early 1990s. The story did surface briefly in 1991 during Gates’s confirmation hearings to become President George H.W. Bush’s CIA director. Then, a group of CIA analysts braved the administration’s wrath by protesting the “politicization of intelligence.”

Led by Soviet specialist Mel Goodman, the dissidents fingered Gates as the key “politicization” culprit. Their testimony added to doubts about Gates, who was under a cloud for his dubious testimony on the Iran-Contra scandal and allegations that he had played a role in another covert scheme to assist Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But the elder George Bush lined up solid Republican backing and enough accommodating Democrats – particularly Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren – to push Gates through.

Boren’s key staff aide who limited the investigation of Gates was George Tenet, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Gates’s behalf won the personal appreciation of the senior George Bush. Those political chits would serve Tenet well a decade later when the younger George Bush protected Tenet as his own CIA director, even after the intelligence failure of Sept. 11, 2001, and embarrassing revelations about faulty intelligence on Iraq’s WMD.

In the early 1990s. with the Cold War over, the need for objective intelligence also seemed less pressing. Political leaders apparently didn’t grasp the potential danger of allowing a corrupted U.S. intelligence process to remain in place. There was a brief window for action with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, but the incoming Democrats lacked the political will to demand serious reform.

The “politicization” issue was put squarely before Clinton’s incoming national security team by former CIA analyst Peter Dickson, who wrote a two-page memo on Dec. 10, 1992, to Samuel “Sandy” Berger, a top Clinton national security aide. Dickson was an analyst who suffered retaliation after refusing to rewrite a 1983 assessment that noted Soviet restraint on nuclear proliferation. His CIA superiors didn’t want to give the Soviets any credit for demonstrating caution on the nuclear technology front. When Dickson stood by his evidence, he soon found himself facing accusations about his psychological fitness.

Dickson urged Clinton to appoint a new CIA director who understood “the deeper internal problems relating to the politicization of intelligence and the festering morale problem within the CIA.” In urging a housecleaning, Dickson wrote, “This problem of intellectual corruption will not disappear overnight, even with vigorous remedial action. However, the new CIA director will be wise if he realizes from the start the dangers in relying on advice of senior CIA office managers who during the past 12 years advanced and prospered in their careers precisely because they had no qualms about suppressing intelligence or slanting analysis to suit the interest of Casey and Gates.”

The appeals from Dickson and other CIA veterans were largely ignored by Clinton and his top aides, who were more interested in turning around the U.S. economy and enacting some modest social programs. Although Gates was removed as CIA director, Clinton appointed James Woolsey, a neo-conservative Democrat who had worked closely with the Reagan-Bush administrations. Under Woolsey and Clinton’s subsequent CIA directors, the Gates team sans Gates consolidated its bureaucratic power.

The old ideal of intelligence analysis free from political taint was never restored. Clinton’s final CIA director was George Tenet, who was kept on by George W. Bush in 2001. In violation of the CIA’s long-standing tradition of avoiding even the appearance of partisanship, Tenet happily presided over the ceremony that renamed the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters the George Bush Center for Intelligence, after George Bush senior.

The Iraq Debacle

Tenet also has proved himself a loyal bureaucrat to the second Bush administration. For instance, in February 2003 when Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations Security Council about Iraq’s alleged WMD program, Tenet was prominently seated behind Powell, giving the CIA’s imprimatur to Powell’s assertions that turned out to be a mixture of unproved assertions, exaggerations and outright lies. At one point in his speech, Powell even altered the text of intercepted conversations between Iraqi officials to make their comments appear incriminating. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Bush's Alderaan."]

“If one goes back to that very long presentation [by Powell], point by point, one finds that this was not a very honest explanation,” said Greg Thielmann, a former senior official in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in an interview with PBS Frontline. “I have to conclude Secretary Powell was being a loyal secretary of state, a ‘good soldier’ as it were, building the administration’s case before the international community.” [For details, see Frontline’s “Truth, War and Consequences.”]

In the Foreign Affairs article, Pillar noted that Powell's U.N. speech also compromised the objectivity of the CIA on Iraq because “the intelligence community was pulled over the line into policy advocacy -- not so much by what it said as by its conspicuous role in the administration's public case for war. This was especially true when the intelligence community was made highly visible (with the director of central intelligence literally in the camera frame) in [Powell's] intelligence-laden presentation.”

Pillar added that the CIA also was compromised “in the fall of 2002, when, at the administration's behest, the intelligence community published a white paper on Iraq's WMD programs -- but without including any of the community's judgments about the likelihood of those weapons' being used.”

Though Tenet’s primary responsibility should have been to the integrity of the intelligence product, he was helping Powell and the White House present a largely bogus case before the U.N.

After the March 2003 invasion, as the case for Iraq’s possession of trigger-ready WMD fell apart, the Washington debate turned to who was at fault for the shoddy intelligence.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 25, 2003, Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid offered a clue when he compared the accuracy of tactical intelligence in the Iraq war versus the faulty strategic intelligence.

“Intelligence was the most accurate that I have ever seen on the tactical level, probably the best I’ve ever seen on the operational level, and perplexingly incomplete on the strategic level with regard to weapons of mass destruction,” said Abizaid, who heads the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq.

In other words, the intelligence handled by low-level personnel was excellent. It was the intelligence that went through senior levels of the Bush administration that failed.

The WMD issue really came down to two questions: Was the CIA’s intelligence analysis that bad or did the White House cherry-pick the intelligence that it wanted to march the country off to war? The answer appears to be that both points were true. A thoroughly politicized CIA slanted the intelligence in the direction that Bush wanted and the White House then trimmed off any caveats the CIA may have included.

The CIA’s internal complaint that it was just the victim of administration ideologues was undercut by its own analytical products, including a post-invasion report claiming that two captured Iraqi trailers were labs to produce chemical or biological weapons. That claim later collapsed as evidence emerged to show that the labs were for making hydrogen for artillery weather balloons. [For an early critique of this CIA report, see Consortiumnews.com’s "America's Matrix."]

Plus, while Tenet and other CIA officials noted that they objected to other bogus administration claims, such as the assertion that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium from Niger, those protests were mostly half-hearted and made behind closed doors. Bush was only forced to back off the yellowcake claim, which he cited in his 2003 State of the Union Address, after former Ambassador Wilson went public with evidence that the allegation was a fraud.

'Stovepipe'

Yet it's also true that the Bush administration didn't want to chance having its Iraqi WMD allegations vetted by any serious intelligence professionals. So, at the State Department, Pentagon and White House, senior political officials created their own channels for accessing raw or untested intelligence that was then used to buttress the charges.

In a New Yorker article about CIA analysts on the defensive, journalist Seymour Hersh described this “stovepiping” process of sending raw intelligence to the top. Intelligence agencies have historically objected to this technique because policy makers will tend to select unvetted information that serves their purposes and use it to discredit the more measured assessments of intelligence professionals.

 “The analysts at the CIA were beaten down defending their assessments,” a former CIA official told Hersh. “And they blame Tenet for not protecting them. I’ve never seen a government like this.” [See Hersh’s “The Stovepipe,” The New Yorker, Oct. 27, 2003]

Pillar wrote that the battle between the intelligence analysts and the policymakers came to a head over the White House desire to assert that Saddam Hussein was connected to al-Qaeda, a claim that the intelligence analysts had rejected despite repetitious demands from Vice President Cheney's office that the CIA corroborate the supposed link.

“The administration's rejection of the intelligence community's judgments became especially clear with the formation of a special Pentagon unit, the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group,” Pillar wrote. “The unit, which reported to Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, was dedicated to finding every possible link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, and its briefing accused the intelligence community of faulty analysis for failing to see the supposed alliance.”

But the intelligence analysts weren’t the only ones coming under attack for pointing out evidence that didn’t conform to the Bush administration’s propaganda. From the start of its drive to invade Iraq, the administration treated going to war like a giant public relations game, with the goal of manufacturing consent or at least silencing any meaningful opposition.

Evidence that undermined Bush’s conclusions was minimized or discarded. People who revealed unwanted evidence were personally discredited or intimidated. When former Ambassador Wilson reported that he had been assigned by the CIA to investigate the Niger yellowcake claims and found them bogus, administration officials leaked the fact that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA officer. The leak destroyed Plame's career and may have put at risk agents who worked with her.

'Slime and Defend'

Though Bush publicly denounced the leak, an unnamed Republican aide on Capitol Hill told the New York Times that the underlying White House strategy was to “slime and defend,” that is to “slime” Wilson and “defend” Bush. [NYT, Oct. 2, 2003]

The “slime and defend” strategy has been carried forward by conservative news outlets with the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times attacking Wilson's motives, even as Wilson’s debunking of the Niger allegations has been borne out by other investigations.

“Joseph C. Wilson IV, the man accusing the White House of a vendetta against his wife, is an ex-diplomat turned Democratic partisan,” declared a front-page article in the Washington Times. “Mr. Wilson told the Washington Post he and his wife are already discussing who will play them in the movie.” [Washington Times, Oct. 2, 2003]

The Washington Times returned to its anti-Wilson campaign several days later. “As for Mr. Wilson himself, his hatred of Mr. Bush’s policies borders on the pathological,” wrote Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro on Oct. 6, 2003. “This is a far-left Democrat who has been relentlessly bashing the president’s Iraq war policies. … The mystery behind this dubious investigation is why this Bush-hater was chosen for so sensitive a mission.”

The Wall Street Journal also raised questions about Wilson’s motives. “Joe Wilson (Ms. Plame’s husband) has made no secret of his broad disagreement with Bush policy since outing himself with an op-ed,” the Journal wrote in a lead editorial on Oct. 3, 2003.

Strangely, these attacks on Wilson’s alleged bias (which he denies) continued even as Bush’s hand-picked Iraqi weapons inspector David Kay was confirming Wilson’s findings. In his report to the CIA and Congress, Kay acknowledged that no evidence has been found to support the stories about Iraq seeking African uranium.

“To date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material,” Kay said.

The disconnect between fact and spin apparently has grown so complete among Bush’s allies that they can’t stop attacking Wilson’s findings as biased even when the facts he uncovered are being confirmed by one of Bush’s own investigators.

The clumsy attempt to discredit or punish Wilson eventually led to disclosures that Bush's chief political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney's chief of staff Lewis Libby took part in revealing Plame's identity to reporters. In 2005, Libby was indicted on charges of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about the leak. Rove apparently remains under investigation.

'Freedom Fries'

But the attacks on Wilson do not stand alone. In the drive to limit debate about Bush’s case for war, his allies ostracized virtually all major critics of the administration’s WMD claims, including the U.N.’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix and former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter.

Blacklisting campaigns also were mounted against celebrities, such as actor Sean Penn and the music group Dixie Chicks, for criticizing Bush’s rush to war. When France urged more time for U.N. weapons inspections, Bush’s supporters organized boycotts of French products, poured French wine in gutters and renamed “French fries” as “Freedom Fries.”

As with the Wilson case, Bush and his supporters didn't let the failure to find the alleged trigger-ready WMD stop their efforts to discredit these critics. Instead of apologies, for instance, Ritter continued to suffer from conservative smears about his patriotism.

In one particularly smarmy performance on June 12, 2003, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly teamed up with Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., to air suspicions that Ritter had been bribed by the Iraqis to help them cover up their illegal weapons. Neither O’Reilly nor Pence had any evidence that Ritter accepted a bribe, so they framed the segment as a demand that the FBI investigate Ritter with the purported goal of clearing him of any suspicion of treason.

The segment noted that a London newspaper reporter had found Iraqi documents showing that Ritter had been offered some gold as gifts for his family. “I turned down the gifts and reported it to the FBI when I came back,” Ritter said in an interview with Fox News.

Though Ritter’s statement stood uncontradicted, O’Reilly and Pence demanded that the FBI disclose what it knew about Ritter’s denial. “Now, we want to know whether that was true,” said O’Reilly about whether Ritter had reported the alleged bribe. “The FBI wouldn’t tell us.” O’Reilly then asked Pence what he had done to get the FBI to investigate Ritter.

“After that report in the British newspaper, many of us on Capitol Hill were very concerned,” Pence said. “Candidly, Bill, there’s no one who’s done more damage to the argument of the United States that Iraq was in possession of large stores of weapons of mass destruction leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom other than Scott Ritter, and so the very suggestion that … there’s evidence of treasonous activity or even bribery, I believe, merits an investigation. I contacted the attorney general about that directly.”

Pence’s point was clear – that Ritter’s role as a skeptic about Bush’s WMD claims made him an appropriate target for a treason investigation. [Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” June 12, 2003]

Backward Filter

Time and again, Bush and his administration have replaced the principle that good intelligence makes for good policy with the near-opposite approach: you start with a conclusion and then distort all available information to sell the pre-ordained policy to a gullible, ill-informed or frightened public.

The WMD intelligence was pushed through a kind of backward filter. Instead of removing the imprecision that comes with raw intelligence, the Bush administration’s intelligence process shoved through the dross as long as it fit with Bush’s goal of bolstering political support for the war and removed the refined intelligence that undercut his desired actions.

Unlike the fictional president in Tom Clancy's “Sum of All Fears” – who was tricked into that “really bad information” – Bush and his team have actively sought out the bad information and assembled it as justification for going to war. This administration, which can sometimes act in a manner stranger-than-fiction, didn't just peer into the fog of war. It set up the fog machine.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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