The controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program has finally precipitated a discussion about the fallibility of U.S. intelligence. Until now, the intelligence community might have one view one year and the opposite view a year or two later, but whatever view it had, that view was supposed to be the authoritative understanding -- as if this country were a nation of bobble-heads.
Thus, CIA Director George Tenet famously assured President George W. Bush that Iraq's proscribed weapons constituted a "slam dunk" case for war. When those weapons could not be found, we were all supposed to believe they never existed -- and not, as former U.N. weapons inspectors who long worked in Iraq have suggested: those involved in that search did not know enough and did not stay long enough to do the job competently.
Indeed, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper (Ret.), who headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency during Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, explained in the fall of 2003 that "satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material 'unquestionably' had been moved out of Iraq." Even the White House did not challenge the CIA's conclusion that Iraq's banned weapons were destroyed in 1991.
Now prompted by the latest NIE, the Washington Post recounts some of the CIA's "biggest bloopers," while the National Interest relates others. Maybe, the failed hunt for Iraq's weapons will eventually be added to those lists?
Meanwhile, if we can now challenge an intelligence conclusion, America should know that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had extensive dealings with terrorists -- including Islamic terrorists -- as captured Iraqi documents reveal. One analyst recalls walking into a Pentagon meeting in 2004 with a stack of papers, explaining that the documents in his hand would justify the war. He was astonished when a senior aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed them as "history." A battle followed about releasing them, but Rumsfeld ultimately sided with those who argued that "intelligence" should not be used for "public diplomacy."
Following that decision, a handful of such documents were leaked to a small, conservative online outfit, Cybercast News Service. Anticipating substantial public interest, CNS increased its website's capacity before posting the documents, but the server crashed anyway. CNS also expected a call from the White House, but none ever came.
On 9/11, relatively few Americans knew much about the greater Middle East beyond Arab-Israeli issues, the preoccupation of the Clinton administration. As Fouad Ajami jokes, on September 10, tens of people could speak knowledgeably about the next day's events; on September 12, there were thousands.
We regularly cite Sun Tzu's famous maxim, "Know the enemy," but we regularly use information only for immediate, tactical advantage. Consequently, we do not have a viable, strategic understanding of Middle Eastern terrorism. During the Reagan years, we recognized that major terrorist attacks against us were basically state-sponsored. That understanding persisted through Bush 41, but was tossed aside one month into Bill Clinton's first term in office, when the World Trade Center was bombed. No less a figure than then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey wrote of that administration's aversion to learning a state, particularly Iraq, might be involved -- "there would be less need to confront Saddam, and perhaps less need to make hard choices, if it didn't finger him as being behind the WTC bombing."
Much speculation about a possible Iraqi role followed the 9/11 assaults, redoubling with the appearance of the extraordinarily lethal anthrax sent to Senators Daschle and Leahy less than a month later (which the FBI has yet to explain.) Most senior administration officials, save Secretary of State Colin Powell, a key figure in promoting the early cease-fire to the 1991 Gulf War, privately expressed suspicions of Iraq's involvement. A year later, when it came time to make the case for finishing the previous war, bureaucratic resistance to linking Iraq to 9/11 or other attacks was enormous -- as Tenet recounts in his book, he actually stopped the Vice President from making a speech suggesting Iraq's complicity in al Qaeda's operations. The administration instead focused on what was nearly-universally believed to be Iraq's retention of proscribed weapons.
Bush has since disavowed any suggestion that Iraq was involved in 9/11, but the administration has also failed to produce a satisfactory explanation for the war -- over 60 percent of Americans think it was not worth fighting. Few things undermine an administration like an unpopular war. Now, its efforts to promote a tough policy to check Iran's nuclear program have been mugged by an NIE.
Most Americans, including perhaps, the president himself, would be astonished to learn that Iraq was involved in 9/11 and that could be demonstrated -- if the administration were willing to take on the intelligence community. Such a demonstration would focus on the extraordinary "family" of terrorist masterminds (pdf) behind the major attacks, starting with the first assault on the Trade Center, culminating in 9/11, and even continuing afterwards.
Might those who want a tough policy toward Iran be ready to help correct the intelligence failure that emerged in the 1990s, when shadowy groups supplanted hostile states as the focus of America's national security policy? Even to take another look at the information suggesting Iraq's role in terrorism, including 9/11? The decision to remove Saddam was entirely justified, but their failure to offer it adequate support now undermines their own cause.
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