Have you noticed? Neither President George W. Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney have cited any U.S. intelligence assessments to support their fateful decision to send 21,500 more troops to referee the civil war in Iraq. This is a far cry from October 2002, when a formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was rushed through in order to trick Congress into giving its nihil obstat for the attack on Iraq.
Why no intelligence justification this time around? Because there is none.
Having successfully cooked intelligence four years ago to get authorization for war, the Bush administration has zero incentive to try a repeat performance. Nor is there any sign that the new Democratic chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees will even think to ask the intelligence community to state its views on the likely effect of the planned “surge” in troop strength. This, even though an NIE on Iraq has been “almost ready” for months.
For the Bush administration, it has been difficult enough whipping its fickle but ultimately malleable generals into line. The civilian intelligence chiefs have proven more resistant. So the White House is playing it safe, avoiding like the plague any estimate that would raise doubts about the wisdom of the decision to surge. And that is precisely what an honest estimate would do. With “sham-dunk” former CIA director George Tenet and his accomplices no longer in place as intelligence enablers, the White House clearly prefers no NIE to one that would inevitably highlight the fecklessness of throwing 21,5000 more troops into harm’s way for the dubious purpose of holding off defeat for two more years.
From Mushroom Cloud to Lead Balloon
The NIE, which leaned so far forward to support the White House’s warnings of a made-in-Iraq “mushroom cloud,” remains the negative example par excellence of corrupted intelligence. The good news is that Tenet and his lackeys were replaced by officers who, by all indications, take their job of speaking truth to power seriously. Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis, Tom Fingar, is a State Department professional not given to professionally selling out. And his boss, John Negroponte, is too smart to end his government career by following the example of his servile predecessors in conjuring up “intelligence” to please the president—not even for a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Unvarnished NIEs sent to the White House by the Negroponte/Fingar team have not shied away from unwelcome conclusions undercutting administration claims, and have gone over like proverbial lead balloons. An estimate on Iran completed in early 2005, for example, concluded that the Iranians will not be able to produce a nuclear weapon before “early to mid-next decade,” exposing Cheney’s fanciful claims of more proximate danger. And an NIE produced in April ‘06 on global terrorism concluded that the invasion of Iraq led to a marked increase in terrorism, belying administration claims that the invasion and occupation had made us “safer.”
Worse still from the administration’s point of view, patriotic truth-tellers (aka leakers) inside the government apparently decided that administration rhetoric on both of these key issues had deliberately misled the American people, who were entitled to know the truth.
The two unwelcome estimates meant two strikes on Negroponte. Then the White House learned of an impending strike-three—this one an NIE assessing the future in Iraq and apparently casting doubt on the advisability of U.S. escalation. In a classic Cheneyesque pre-emptive strike, the estimate was put on hold; Negroponte was given a pink slip and assigned back to the State Department. There are rumors that Fingar is clearing out his desk as well.
NIEs Can Be Important
National Intelligence Estimates are the most authoritative genre of analytical product, embodying substantive judgments on key national security issues. They are coordinated throughout the 16-agency intelligence community and then signed by the Director of National Intelligence in his statutory capacity as chief intelligence adviser to the president. In times past, presidents and their senior advisers actually read them and often took their judgments into account in the decision making process.
There have been good estimates, and bad ones. In the latter category, an NIE of Sept. 19, 1962, entitled “The Military Build-Up in Cuba” estimated that the Soviet Union would not introduce strategic offensive missiles into Cuba (even while such missiles were en route). Embarrassing, but an honest mistake. The NIE issued on Oct. 1, 2002, 10 days before the congressional vote on the war, was dishonest from the get-go. It was prepared by spineless functionaries eager to please their boss (Tenet) and his boss (Bush) by parroting the faith-based analysis of senior analyst Dick Cheney. It is by far the worst NIE ever produced by the U.S. intelligence community. But, hey, it achieved its primary purpose of scaring Congress into approving a war of aggression.
In the wake of that debacle, few of us intelligence alumni harbored much hope that honesty could be re-introduced into the estimative process any time soon. Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner went so far as to tell a TV host that he thought the CIA should be “dismantled.” Thus, it was a very welcome surprise to learn, thanks to patriotic truth-tellers, of the gutsy judgments of more recent NIEs—and to discover that a remnant of analysts of the old truth-to-power school have been able to ply their trade unencumbered under Fingar and Negroponte.
Some History: Estimates on Vietnam
As one of the intelligence analysts watching Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, I worked on several of the NIEs produced before and during the war. All too many bore this title: “Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to North Vietnam.” Typical of the kinds of question the president and his advisers wanted addressed: Can we seal off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing it? If the U.S. were to introduce X thousand additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay, how about XX thousand?
Our answers regularly earned us brickbats from the White House for not being “good team players.” But in those days we labored under a strong ethos dictating that we give it to policymakers straight, without fear or favor. We had career protection for doing that. And—truth be told—we often took a perverse delight in it.
Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway) were pooh-poohed as negativism; and policymakers, of course, were in no way obliged to take them into account. The point is that they continued to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon would be likely to decide on a significant escalation without seeking our best guess as to how U.S. adversaries would likely react to this or that escalatory step
What About Now?
As noted above, an intelligence estimate on Iraq has been in process for months—and months—and months. It is not that the analysts are slower these days; it is that the White House has decided that, for political reasons, no estimate at all is better than an unwelcome one. The White House thought process seems to be this:
With Fingar and Negroponte and their benighted ideas about fact-based, rather than faith-based, intelligence analysis, it is far better to duck the issue altogether—at least for as long as the congressional oversight committees continue to slumber. Besides, if Cheneyesque pressure were again to be applied to intelligence analysts, there is a growing risk that this might turn some of them into patriotic truth-tellers. Besides, we already have the needed authorization—and even enough funding to send 21,500 additional troops.
It seems quite clear that the additional troop decision was made without any formal input from the intelligence community. There would be no NIE on “Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to Iraq”—no formal paper that could make the president’s decision appear highly questionable. Let the on-again-off-again NIE on prospects for Iraq languish.
And let former CIA director, now Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pretend, as he did on Jan. 12 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, that he is “unaware” of the existence of an NIE draft on prospects for Iraq. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., raised the subject with Gates, saying that Negroponte had assured him the NIE would be issued at the end of the month.
Don’t hold your breath.
Ray McGovern chaired NIEs and prepared the President’s Daily Brief during his 27-year career as a CIA analyst. He now works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.
This article was first published at TomPaine.com