Morning Report 7/29/05National Intelligence Estimate: A New Low


Pre-war plotting on Iraq keeps slipping down the memory hole

Cartoon characters: Above, the Bush regime apparently borrowed this equipment from Dr. Quest over at Hanna-Barbera for Colin Powell‘s U.N. speech in February ’03. Below, lying about Iraq, Powell is flanked by George Tenet and John NegroponteState Dept.

Even with Judy Miller in jail and unable to get more story ideas from Ahmed Chalabi, the New York Times is still getting it wrong on Iraq.

Considering that most of the U.S. media take their cues from the Times, it’s no wonder the American public can’t get exercised about the Bush regime’s pre-invasion lies and what the hell is going on in Iraq now.

This morning’s Page One story by Doug Jehl focuses on House Intelligence Committee testimony yesterday by General Michael V. Hayden. Here’s Jehl’s first paragraph:

John D. Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence, has imposed strict safeguards intended to ensure that the government’s National Intelligence Estimates are based on credible information instead of the kinds of unsubstantiated claims that were the basis for prewar intelligence on Iraq, his top deputy said Thursday.

Where has the Times been? Since that crucial October 2002 NIE on Iraq, scads of journalists—and even a senator—have unraveled many threads of the Bush regime’s high-level twisting of pre-war intelligence.

The problem wasn’t the agents in the field. The “strict safeguards” were needed—and are still needed—to control the White House.

Perhaps the most damaging person in the whole process was George Tenet, who basically sold out his own spies and analysts at the CIA.

Seymour Hersh summed it up best in his October 27, 2003 New Yorker piece “The Stovepipe: How Conflicts between the Bush Administration and the Intelligence Community Marred the Reporting on Iraq’s Weapons”:

In the view of many C.I.A. analysts and operatives, the director was too eager to endear himself to the Administration hawks and improve his standing with the President and the Vice-President. Senior C.I.A. analysts dealing with Iraq were constantly being urged by the Vice-President’s office to provide worst-case assessments on Iraqi weapons issues.

“They got pounded on, day after day,” one senior Bush Administration official told me, and received no consistent backup from Tenet and his senior staff. “Pretty soon you say ‘Fuck it.’ ” And they began to provide the intelligence that was wanted.”

That particular Hersh piece is also a fine refresher course on the Niger saga that’s now consuming the press—the Rove/yellowcake angle, not the famine angle, which the Bush regime and the U.S. press are both ignoring.

In fact, you might want to make sure your own stomach is empty before you check out the New Yorker‘s War in Iraq archive for links to all kinds of great stories that’ll make you laugh and cry.

As for Jehl’s story on the big plans for our new Director of National Intelligence, it’s clear that Negroponte doesn’t have to set up this ludicrous spy bureaucracy that even GOP Representative Mike Rogers—an ex-FBI agent—said was so top-heavy that it made him fall out of his chair.

You won’t read about Rogers’s reaction in Jehl’s story, by the way. You’ll have to go to Katherine Shrader‘s AP story, which the Washington Post ran. Shrader did a better job than Jehl on reporting Hayden’s testimony and the reaction to it. As she noted:

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, questioned whether the intelligence director’s office was simply creating more bureaucracy. Hayden said the staff will total 500 to 700, with many coming from existing organizations the office is absorbing.

Rogers blustered on and on about that during yesterday’s hearing, but at least he hinted at the heart of the problem:

Hayden said the new organization is intended to create speed and ease of decision-making, with one central voice at the top. But not everyone was sold.

“I fell out of my chair” upon hearing the size of the new staff, said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

“We don’t need to get bigger. We need to get leaner,” Rogers said. “We need fewer people in this operational chain of command, and fewer folks looking over people’s shoulders.”

What skewed the October 2002 NIE on Iraq was exactly that: The Bush regime’s top people were not only looking over people’s shoulders, they were also fixing the intelligence.

The senator I mentioned way above whose outing of the pre-war plot was among the crucial info ignored by Jehl as proper context is Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who used to be on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Salon‘s Mary Jacoby, in a September 2004 story, related a key pre-invasion drama involving the October 2002 NIE. Yes, I know it’s long, but please read it anyway:

[In 2002,] Graham was outflanked when he attempted to force the White House to make public the intelligence assessment on Saddam Hussein‘s WMD. Graham has described those events in a new book, Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia and the Failure of America’s War on Terror.

The book describes a closed-door meeting on Sept. 5, 2002, with George Tenet, in which the Senate Intelligence Committee sought to clarify whether the increasingly dire threat painted by Bush, Vice President [Dick] Cheney and other administration officials was real, and whether it justified a preemptive invasion. Graham and senators Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., assumed an NIE on Iraq must already exist, given the gravity of an invasion. (Such assessments can be initiated either by the White House, Congress or the CIA). And the senators asked to see it. Tenet and other intelligence agency representatives replied with “blank stares,” Graham wrote. The Democratic senators demanded that Tenet get to work immediately on the report.

Three weeks later, Tenet turned over to the congressional intelligence committees a 90-page classified NIE that minimized the view, held by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Department of Energy, that Saddam had probably not reconstituted a nuclear program. The NIE buried their many caveats in footnotes even as it also concluded that Saddam had shown little desire to attack the United States, and that Iraq had few contacts with al-Qaida. Graham pushed for its declassification. He got it on Oct. 4, 2002, only a week before the Congress voted on the Iraq war resolution.

The declassified report was 25 pages long and appeared to have been produced in advance, judging by the slick graphics and maps that accompanied it, Graham said. Gone were the caveats that the classified version had included, and gone were the assessments that Saddam didn’t appear interested in attacking the United States. What was left was “a vivid and terrifying case for war,” Graham wrote. And yet, after the invasion, no WMD were ever found in Iraq, and chief weapons inspector David Kay concluded that they did not exist. Greg Thielmann, who headed the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau’s division on proliferation and weapons in 2002 and contributed some of the skeptical views to the last NIE, told Salon that he is “very encouraged” that [a new NIE in 2004] appears “free of political spin.”

Michael Smith of the Sunday Times (U.K.) has of course pointed specifically to the high-level spin back in 2002. In the aftermath of his May 1 revelation of what came to be called the Downing Street Memo, Smith engaged in an e-mail colloquy on the Washington Post‘s website, during which he analyzed the crucial NIE. This, too, is a long passage, but it’s worth it, especially after today’s pap from the New York Times that blamed our spies in the field instead of the schnooks in the White House. Here goes:

I think it is clear from the [Downing Street] documents themselves that the whole [invasion of Iraq] venture was widely viewed as being highly dubious with no certainty of what would come out of it. The administration ensured that it only got the answers it wanted. But they either ignored the advice they were getting on the likely cost or managed to filter it out with this highly pressurized regime of come up with the right answers, or we will be on your back to do so all the time.

That is what resulted in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 which was designed by George Tenet to get a questioning Congress off the President’s back.

Everyone has heard about the British “dodgy” dossiers, but the actual intelligence analysis, the so-called JIC report, on which the main dossier was based spoke mostly of weapons programmes, i.e. production of the agent that would be put into weapons, rather than actual stockpiled weapons. The closest it came to saying there were actually any weapons was to say there “may be” 1.5 tons of VX gas, a conclusion that went back to the conclusions of the UNSCOM weapons inspectors in 1998. The CIA’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on the other hand, said there were probably up to 500 tons of chemical weapons in Iraq. That gives you a feel of the kind of distortion that was going on.

The distortion continues.