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Spy vs spy

By Marc Erikson

During the 1974 US Senate Watergate hearings that led to the resignation of president Richard Nixon, Tennessee Republican senator Howard Baker (later, the US ambassador to Japan) famously asked witnesses time and again, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Will another senator soon be asking what President George W Bush and top officials of his administration knew (and when) about Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? I doubt it.

The Bush administration has now conceded that one key intelligence element to justify war on Iraq, alleged uranium purchases from Niger to restart a nuclear-weapons program, was "flawed" (actually, plain bunkum). Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday: "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit" of weapons of mass destruction. "We acted because we saw the evidence in a dramatic new light - through the prism of our experience on [September ] 11." And, of course, 10 weeks now after the war, no WMD have been found.

The Armed Services Committee is conducting (mainly closed) hearings and the Senate and House Intelligence committees have started their own inquiries behind closed doors on whether intelligence was manipulated or misused to justify military action in Iraq. The hearings will likely run through the summer. But the public won't be any the wiser as a result of it all. Neither Republicans nor most opposition Democrats seem to have the stomach for a high-profile, open airing of the issue. The political payback is uncertain at best. Polls show that most Americans think it was right to fight the war and boot out Saddam Hussein even if no WMD are ever found.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to watch - or at least to get glimpses of - what's playing out among different intelligence organizations and oversight organs in the blame game. And more than just bureaucratic infighting and settling of scores is involved. The Iraq war was a test case for the doctrine of strategic preemption. Accurate and reliable intelligence are essential in warfare of any kind. When it comes to preventive attack, its very political justification is at stake.

On June 2, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) boss George Tenet put out a statement that "integrity and objectivity are hallmarks of the intelligence profession". No one had asked him; but it's a catchy phrase. A bit more interesting was Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) head Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby's June 6 statement that, "as of 2002, in September, we could not reliably pin down - for somebody who was doing contingency [meaning attack] planning - specific facilities, locations or production that was underway at a specific location at that point in time". He was commenting on a DIA report last September that said the agency did not have enough "reliable information" that Iraq had chemical weapons. Not enough for contingency planning, but presumably enough for Donald Rumsfeld to have told the House Armed Services Committee on September 18, "We do know that the Iraqi regime has chemical and biological weapons." And why not? After all, knowing that someone's got something doesn't mean knowing where it is.

Around and around this goes. To the best of my ability to piece it together, here's what happened last year. The Afghanistan war over, some time in late spring/early summer 2002 a decision was reached at the highest levels of the Bush administration to go after Saddam Hussein and bring about regime change in Iraq. Preventing WMD from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization was only part of the reason - albeit the only publicly stated one. More broadly, eliminating Saddam's regime was regarded as crucial in getting to the roots of the Islamist terrorist problem. A defiant Iraq in the center of the Middle East - even if it wasn't directly collaborating with the terrorists - would always lend encouragement to their pursuits, not least to militant Palestinians bent on the elimination of Israel and unalterably opposed to peace with the Jewish nation. Such peace, in turn, was (and is) regarded as essential to pacifying the region and "draining the terrorist swamp". Ironically, this argument mirrors that of Arab militants and most Arab governments: that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the root cause of all Middle Eastern unrest.

But the broader US agenda went slyly unspoken. The task now was to prove a case against Saddam based on WMD possession charges alone or in combination with evidence on his collaboration with al-Qaeda. The problem was that neither the CIA nor the DIA nor anyone else could come up with proof positive of either. Enter the by-now-infamous Pentagon Office of Special Plans (OSP) set up shortly after September 11, 2001, under the direction of under secretaries of defense Douglas Feith and William Luti and led by Abram Shulsky. This small group of a handful of analysts had no first-hand intelligence resources of its own. It relied on CIA and DIA reports and its good connections with Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC). In particular, the OSP was persuasive in giving weight to INC intelligence distrusted by the CIA and the State Department's intelligence unit. The upshot is that the OSP's analyses were found credible by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. CIA cautions were set aside.

This is not to say that the OSP deliberately distorted intelligence findings to suit the administration's political purpose. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, "If there's a problem with intelligence ... it doesn't mean that anybody misled anybody. It means that intelligence is an art and not a science," adding that the intelligence assessments on Iraq "reflected a broad consensus of the intelligence community". He's right as far as he goes - on both counts. There was a US intelligence consensus that Iraq possessed WMD, as evident from a National Intelligence Estimate last October that harmonized the views of different agencies. Indeed, even the German foreign intelligence service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND) concurred with that finding. There can also be no doubt that intelligence assessments are not about certainty but probability, and involve subjective judgment. But it is equally clear that in the chain of evidence, evaluation and command, from CIA analysts (allegedly sat upon by Cheney) to Shulsky, Feith, Luti, Wolfowitz, and then Rumsfeld, Cheney, and ultimately Bush, what they saw was what they needed to see to justify action they were determined to take.

Oddly, the CIA has now been tasked to "investigate" just exactly how the October Intelligence Estimate was actually arrived at. And the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) is also looking into this whole mish-mash. They won't find anything new or useful. No one will. Determined to act, persuaded of the righteousness of their cause, impatient with the vagaries of international law, and unrestrained by physical obstacles, the superpower's leaders acted, to the overwhelming support and acclaim of those who elected them. There remain only the nagging questions asked by perplexed former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix: What was Saddam up to? If he didn't have these weapons, if he had destroyed them, why not come clean? Why give the impression he had them?

Short of catching the man alive, we'll likely never know. And even if he's caught, would he tell? Did he really know what he was doing, what awaited him? Per chance, did he act on flawed intelligence?

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