Never ascribe to the former, the saying goes, that which can be explained by the latter. Well, I stayed up most of last night reading all 521 pages of the US Senate Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, and there is plenty of malice and incompetence to go around. I didn’t mean to read it all, but it’s a fascinating document, with flavors ranging from Solzhenitsyn to Catch-22, and I’ve enjoyed browsing around the news stories today that say what it said (for example, here Josh Marshall skewers a Washington Post reporter who wrote without reading). I’d recommend that anyone who cares about war, peace, and truth take a look at it first-hand; herewith a few notes on what I found, including a couple of things that don’t seem to have been covered that much elsewhere; some astonishing and some funny.
[Ed. note: I apologize in advance for the extreme length of this piece, anyone who actually reads it all has earned a beer from me next time I see them face-to-face.]
How the War Happened · This is now pretty obvious. As anyone who read the newspaper then suspected, and as anyone who’s read some of this year’s confessional books now knows, the Bush administration had decided by mid-2002 to attack Iraq for reasons that were all about geopolitics. At that point, they started talking up Al-Qaeda links and Weapons of Mass Destruction and leaning on the intelligence community to dig up the story on both. Anyone with the vaguest understanding of both Iraq (Arab nationalism, lots of palaces for Saddam) and Al-Qaeda (Universal Islam, beards for everyone) knew that they were violently (literally) incompatible, and the most over-eager intelligence service in the world couldn’t possibly scrape together a convincing story. So they didn’t. So, anytime Bush or Cheney talked about Iraq-Al Qaeda links, they were lying and they knew they were lying.
WMDs were more interesting. Nobody doubted that Saddam wanted them, and that he’d used them in the past, and would get them if he could. A spectacularly incompetent and arguably malicious course of intelligence work (see below) managed to scrape together some WMD claims and put earth-shaking falsehoods in Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations.
It is perfectly possible that the Bush administration, which deeply wanted to believe that Saddam had WMDs, came to believe that he had them. That’s still not the reason they started the war—look to geopolitical strategy for that—but just possibly it wasn’t a blatant lie.
The WMD Screw-Up · The “National Intelligence Estimate” of October 2002, entitled Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction was central to the WMD case. The really hot claims were:
Iraq had mobile Biological-Weapons labs and could cook up all sorts of nasties.
They were buying aluminum tubes that were obviously meant for use in concentrating uranium for building bombs.
They were fishing around Africa trying to buy uranium.
They were building unmanned planes equipped with electronic maps of the USA for delivering biological weapons.
Pretty scary stuff, hey? There was more, but this was the meat of the matter. Except for it was all a pack of lies:
The only source on the mobile-labs story, an agent code-named CURVE BALL (one of Ahmed Chalabi’s aides), was being handled by another intelligence service; only one American (a DoD polygraph operator) ever met him—briefly—prior to the start of the war. This American reported that CURVE BALL smelled fishy, had a drinking problem, and that his handler was in love with him and expressed zero skepticism. This suspicion was not communicated up the line, especially not to Colin Powell, who presented the imaginary mobile labs as facts to the UN.
On the aluminum tubes, when they checked with their own experts on uranium refining and bomb-building, those people said that the tubes weren’t appropriate, but were appropriate for the rocket launchers the Iraqis claimed they were building. This second opinion was suppressed.
Apparently the Iraqis had poked around Africa a bit, but there was no credible evidence they’d found any uranium, and the three intelligence services who were reporting this news story to each other were all working off the same set of forged Italian documents.
They asked the US Air Force experts about the unmanned planes; the Air Force said they were more likely observation vehicles than weapons carriers; this second opinion was suppressed.
There was good reason to believe that the electronic US maps were purchased by accident by a clueless agent who only dimly understood what the technology was about. This opinion was suppressed.
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And Cowardice Too · While the UN weapons inspectors were in-country, they provided all sorts of juicy intelligence to the West. When they left in 1998, the United States had exactly zero human intelligent agents stationed in Iraq. Let’s see: world’s richest country, Iraq declared to be part of the “axis of evil”, world’s biggest intelligence infrastructure... and no agents in Iraq.
The Senate Committee asked why and the CIA said “because it’s very hard to sustain... it takes a rare officer who can go in... and survive scrutiny ... for a long time.” Well, yes indeed, but, you cheerfully send in hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced kids and let the Iraqis kill them by the hundreds, but you won’t put a few spies at risk to find out whether or not the war is a good idea? Mind-boggling.
Was There Pressure? · The report is actually pretty good, but in one area goes embarrassingly off the rails. It finds that there was no direct pressure from the Administration on working analysts to get the answers they wanted; and indeed, they tried and failed to find anyone who would stand up and talk.
But in the same report, (see pp. 307-312) there is a detailed description of how the office of Doug Feith, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, put together a PowerPoint alleging that Saddam was in bed with Usama but that the CIA was refusing to see it, got journalists to echo their rah-rahs, stuffed this in the face of George Tenet and the people officially in charge of the Iraq-Al Qaeda file, and when they wouldn’t buy the claptrap, marched into the White House and showed it to a bunch of the key players there.
So obviously there was pressure to come up with the right answer.
But the pressure that really mattered was based on the fact that the Administration had already decided to go to war and everyone knew it and everyone wanted to be a team player. The working analysts didn’t have to be leaned on to cook the books (and they did cook the books, see above), they did it cheerfully, because their management and their management’s management and everyone right up to the Oval Office, wanted them to.
If you have any doubt on this, check the notes from the Democrats on the committee, [pp. 449-464, 470-475, 479-488].
And if you have any doubt after that, get this bit of dialogue; the occasion was when the sole American to have interviewed CURVE BALL discovered to his horror that Colin Powell was going to be taking this shaky/flaky intelligence to the United Nations the next day and tried to shriek up the management pipe; his cri de coeur starts on page 248 and is worth reading. His manager, the Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Iraqi Task Force, responded as follows:
“As I said last night, let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn’t say, and that the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he’s talking about.”
Blackest Secrecy · About 40% of the report’s content is blacked out; “redacted” they say. Apparently the CIA wanted 60%. Parts of it are frustrating, parts of it make for an interesting guessing game as to what was there. Some short single-word deletions are not only particularly irritating but particularly hard to figure out.
There are a couple of things that emerge despite the redactors’ best efforts. I like the following from page 90: The current government of Niger [a few words blacked out] and probably would report such an attempt by the Iraqis, especially because a sale would violate UN resolution 687. My guess for what’s blacked out? “are on our payroll” (or equivalent).
Then, starting on page 157, there’s discussion of another Iraqi informant who was a source for the Biowarfare intelligence, who is obviously still active or in the Iraqi government or something, because the whole sequence is massively blacked out. But just cruise past all that black space to page 159 where it’s made obvious, by inference, that this source failed a polygraph test.
A Student of the World · That’s what I’d like to be, into my grave. I’d like to be more than a student, I’d like to be a scholar. A scholar is defined as one who reads the primary sources and does not make arguments without quoting the evidence.
If you’re a journalist or a commentator or a politician and you’re getting paid for making comments in public on the war and the intelligence failure, and you haven’t read all 521 pages of this report, you’re not a scholar and you’re not a student, you’re a whore.