Big Lies, Blind Spies, and Vanity Fair


Last week the Silberman-Robb commission released its scathing report on recent failures of the U.S. intelligence community. Of particular interest was the chapter on the reason the U.S. ostensibly went to war with Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—which turned out not to exist.

A few insights the Voice gleaned from the first chapter:

Lesson 1: It’s not a good idea to go to war based on information provided by someone who hates you so much he won’t even meet with you.

Even before the commission released its report, it was well-known that one of the principal U.S. sources on Iraq’s alleged WMD program was an Iraqi defector code-named Curveball. Hidden from both American policy makers and the American public in the rush to war, however, was that no one from the American intelligence community had any actual contact with Curveball. Though many believed Curveball to be an asset to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the informant—who was desperately seeking asylum in Germany—was in the custody of Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, which, according to the report, “would not . . . provide the United States with direct access to Curveball.” Footnote 274 elaborates, explaining that “when [DIA] pressed for access to Curveball, [BND] said that Curveball disliked Americans and that he would refuse to speak to them.”

Lesson 2: Never, never, never trust Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

Though there’s been much speculation that Curveball was a cousin of aide to Ahmed Chalabi and was doing the biased bidding of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), the commission—in a surprising take-it-on-faith move, given that it impugns just about every other intelligence community endeavor in recent years—lets stand CIA and other “post-war investigations [that] concluded that Curveball’s reporting was not influenced by, controlled by, or connected to, the INC.”

The INC nonetheless fares poorly in the report, particularly with regard to bogus information provided by INC-produced “defectors” that went into the all-important 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). “The October 2002 NIE relied on reporting from two INC sources, both of whom were later deemed to be fabricators,” the report concludes. One, repeatedly referred to as “the INC source,” claimed that “Iraq had decided in 1996 to establish mobile laboratories” to evade inspectors. Another source, whose fake report “on the possible construction of a new nuclear facility in Iraq” also found its way into the NIE, was later discovered by the CIA as being ” ‘directed’ by the INC to provide information to the U.S. Intelligence Community.” Disturbingly, endnote 406 reports that despite being debunked, DIA “has not recalled [this source’s] reporting as of March 3, 2005.”

Lesson 3: Vanity Fair may not be the best source on which to base a National Intelligence Estimate—especially when its reporting is based on sources provided by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

Page 85 of the report notes that even though DIA issued a notice in May 2002 that an INC source was a fabricator and his reporting was “unreliable,” the source’s information “began to be used again in finished intelligence in July 2002, including the October 2002 NIE.” The report explains that this might have happened in part because DIA didn’t take a step beyond issuing an unreliability notice or move to physically recall the reporting. Yet endnote 254 reveals that the intelligence officials who prepared the NIE didn’t base their conclusions on the defense reports exclusively, if at all. The NIE, according to the note, “actually sourced its information to a Vanity Fair article, which quoted the INC source as an unnamed ‘defector.’ David Rose, ‘Iraq’s Arsenal of Terror,’ Vanity Fair (May 2002) (cited in source documents to annotated NIE).”

Lesson 4: No matter how fucked-up the U.S. intelligence community is institutionally, even if it weren’t, the Bush administration probably would have gone to war anyway.

As the report notes in several places, the commission’s mandate did not allow it “to investigate how policy makers used the intelligence they received from the Intelligence Community on Iraq’s weapons programs,” and the commission treated the issue of politicos misusing or subverting intelligence like a third rail. There is, however, at least one place in the report where the commission strays ever so slightly from its mandate. On page 155, the report states that “over the course of 12 years the Intelligence Community did not produce a single analytical product that examined the possibility that Saddam Hussein’s desire to escape sanctions, fear of being ‘caught’ decisively, or anything else would cause him to destroy his WMD.”

According to that line’s endnote, at least one intelligence official put forth that very hypothesis to top Bush officials—who, unlike the intelligence community, actively considered it but shot it down: “The former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research noted that he had discussed this possibility with other senior administration officials before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, but that ultimately they had rejected the possibility. They rejected it because they thought Saddam would have no reason not to come clean with the inspectors if he had truly disarmed. Although they considered the possibility that Saddam’s behavior could be explained by his pride, as well as by his desire to intimidate and deter his adversaries by allowing them to think he had WMD, they ultimately rejected that theory.”