At Large

The Intelligence Game

When Washington is buying, it is usually told what the weaker players think it wants to hear.

By 3.16.04

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Intelligence is a game anyone can play, and in Washington any number of people play it, although they make their own rules up as they go along. Consider the recent threat-assessment briefing by the heads of the CIA, FBI, and Defense Intelligence Agency for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee has been getting threat-assessment briefings for the last ten years or so, but this one was different. For the first time since the hearings began, the head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, was not a participant. Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate committee, had told him to get lost.

Roberts did not say why he did not want the State Department man to appear before the committee, but he didn't have to. Other players knew. Roberts does damage control for the Administration, and he did not want some Democratic senator to ask why INR was more right about Iraq than the CIA, DIA, or the White House itself.

At issue was the National Intelligence Estimate of October, 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq war. It was entitled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction," and it was surely the dumbest NIE in years, even if the CIA and DIA did sign off on it. INR, however, had reservations.

For example, the State Department analysts said, correctly, that the famous aluminum tubes were not, as Condoleezza Rice had insisted, for uranium enrichment; they were for conventional artillery. INR also dismissed as "highly dubious" the notion that Iraq was trying to get uranium from Niger.

And worse, from the Administration perspective, INR declined to predict when Iraq might be able to build a nuclear device. In fact, it could find no real evidence that Iraq had an ongoing "nuclear weapons program," even though Vice President Cheney had declared that Iraq's old nuclear weapons program had been "reconstituted."

So why was INR more right than the other members of the intelligence community? I offer now a reason: Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other prominent hawks had fallen in love with Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. Actually, it was a match made in heaven. Chalabi and the congress told the hawks what they wanted to hear, and so the enamored hawks believed everything they heard. The State Department, though, distrusted Chalabi and the congress, and so it ignored their reports about what was going on in Iraq.

But the hawks, especially those clustered around Rumsfeld, swore by Chalabi and the congress, and they still decline to renounce them, no matter how badly they have behaved. As the New York Times has just reported, the Pentagon is paying Chalabi's congress $340,000 a month, for "intelligence collection," even though the DIA itself and the National Intelligence Council concluded earlier this year that little of the information provided by the congress had any value.

Indeed the DIA now says that at least one Iraqi defector the congress introduced to American officials before the war was an outright liar; other defectors were coached by the congress to tell the American hawks what they most wanted to hear. Well, so what? In a stunning display of chutzpah, Chalabi disclaimed all responsibility for the bogus reports during a recent interview on 60 Minutes. The American intelligence agencies, he said, should have done a better job screening the congress's informants.

BUT THAT'S HOW THE intelligence game goes; participants hardly ever admit they were wrong as they jockey for a new advantage. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld makes no secret of his belief that he, and not CIA director George Tenet, should be our intelligence czar. Rumsfeld has also made it clear that he thinks the Pentagon should have an expanded, and probably unfettered, role in covert actions. After all, the CIA has no more than 600 or 700 covert operators. But the Pentagon can field many more than that, the Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron, and super-secret Gray Fox unit among them.

Whether the Pentagon should be running its own covert actions, however, is questionable, and in fact some special forces personnel think it is a very bad idea. They say they are soldiers, not spies; they also do not want to fight out of uniform, which they would have to do in covert actions. (For an intelligent discussion of Rumsfeld's thinking, see "The Rise of the Shadow Warriors," by Jennifer D. Kibbe, in the new issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs.)

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has now discovered Africa as a rich venue for the intelligence game, and presumably a logical place for one or more of Rummy's covert actions. At least three senior military figures have visited Africa in the last month or so, the most recent being Gen. Charles F. Wald, the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command.

Wald, who stopped off in eleven nations in seven days -- if it's Tuesday, it must be Togo -- said on his return that al Qaeda was definitely in Africa, and that the U.S. "can't wait for the problem to get larger." He also said the African nations he visited agreed with him, and that they all wanted to cooperate with the U.S.

Well, perhaps, but it was more likely, I think, that some of the African leaders he spoke to were just being polite, while others saw an opportunity to make money off the U.S. military, and still others were wondering how they could use Wald's visit to their own political advantage. But mostly, I think, like Chalabi and the congress, they were telling Wald and his colleagues what they thought they wanted to hear.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.