During his February 5 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee,
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell backpedaled from the December
2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and its claim that, "in fall
2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."
Not only did McConnell testify that the Islamic Republic was working to
master the enrichment of uranium--"the most difficult challenge in nuclear
production"--but he also acknowledged that, "because of intelligence
gaps," the U.S.
government could not be certain that the Iranian government had fully suspended
its covert nuclear programs. "We assess with high confidence that Iran has the
scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear
weapons," he testified. "In our judgment, only an Iranian political
decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from
eventually producing nuclear weapons--and such a decision is inherently
The NIE was no accident, and McConnell's pirouette does more than confirm
the intelligence community's sloppiness. The 2007 NIE was built on geopolitical
assumptions as much as any hard intelligence, and historians will deem it
important not because it was accurate, but because it made utterly clear the
collapse of the intelligence community. While the crudeness of its assault on
the president's Iran
policy makes it the best example of the intelligence community's agenda
politics, it is far from the only one.
My initiation into CIA policy plays came less than a week after Baghdad's fall to
coalition forces in April 2003. In the months before the war, U.S. government
officials had assessed thousands of Iraqi political activists and technocrats
in order to prepare to fill the Iraqi political -vacuum. Representatives from
State, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council were meeting to vet
invitations for the Nasiriya Conference where Iraqis would discuss
Rather than simply present the biographies of the various Iraqi figures, the
CIA sought to be a privileged policy player. Its representative announced that
not only would Langley
be inviting its own candidates outside the interagency consensus, but the CIA
would not be sharing the names or backgrounds of its invitees. Putting aside
the ridiculousness of the CIA belief that it could invite delegates anonymously
to a public conference, more troubling was the principle. Far from limiting its
work to intelligence, the CIA leadership was unabashedly involving itself in
major policy initiatives.
The reverberations of Langley's
policy games haunted reconstruction. CIA officials would promise governorships
to Iraqis without any coordination. Often, diplomats, military officials, and
Pentagon civilians would learn of such deals only after other Iraqis had been
appointed or elected to such offices. (Some U.S. servicemen surely paid the
price as spurned Iraqis responded to what they saw as betrayal.) Once the son
of a Kurdish leader remarked how ridiculous State-Defense bickering was when
the CIA had implemented and funded a decision on the policy issue months before
without any coordination whatsoever.
Many of the agency's senior analysts are arrogant after years behind their
computers, believing they know far better what U.S. policy should be than the
policymakers for whom they draft reports. The recourse of the disgruntled,
bored, or politicized analyst is the leak--the bread and butter of any national
security correspondent. Journalists who fulfill the leakers' objectives win
ever more tantalizing scoops; those who maintain professional integrity and
question the agenda behind any leak, find their access cut. The result is a
situation in which journalists who might otherwise double-check sources, take a
single intelligence analyst at his word, even if he is using them to fight a
again provides a case study. In order to shield themselves from accountability
over flawed intelligence or to bolster their Iraqi proxies at the expense of
competitors, CIA officials provided a steady stream of leaks to favored
correspondents like the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh or McClatchy's Warren
Strobel. Such leaks ranged from allegations that the Pentagon's Office of
Special Plans--a policy shop--was a rogue intelligence operation to misattributions
of the provenance of prewar intelligence.
It was not uncommon, for example, to see false or exaggerated intelligence
attributed to the Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi when it had
actually come from Kurdish officials. This was never more clear than in a July
17, 2004, New York Times correction. The paper was retracting three
stories which alleged a connection between Chalabi and an Iraqi source
code-named Curveball, whose information later turned out to be bogus. The
editors explained that their correspondent had "attribute[d] that account
to American intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity."
They continued: "Those officials now say that there was no such
established relationship." In other words, intelligence officials lied to
a reporter to achieve a policy aim.
Such behavior is not limited to debates over policies impacting countries
thousands of miles away. W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency
official, told the American Prospect in 2005 that his intelligence
community colleagues used leaks to try to influence the 2004 presidential
election. "Of course they were leaking. They told me about it at the time.
They thought it was funny. They'd say things like, 'This last thing that came
out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won't reelect this man.'?"The
intelligence leadership did not refer the matter to the judiciary, unlike the
leak concerning Valerie Plame.
To deflect criticism of the NIE, intelligence officials reached out to reporters.
"Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn
upon in this report ... making it impossible for any official to overly sway
it," the Wall Street Journal was told. Wayne White, a former
analyst in State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, suggested it was
"absolutely disgusting" that anyone could impugn the professionalism
of lead author (and his former colleague) Thomas Fingar. This is disingenuous.
Personnel are policy. Half of Washington's
battles involve who writes the first and last drafts of any paper or memo.
McConnell's testimony undercut the idea that the intelligence agencies
deserve a reputation for either professionalism or integrity. A tolerance for
political gamesmanship has besmirched the entire community. With the NIE giving
Iran what President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad declared its "greatest victory during the past 100
years," the consequence for U.S. national security is grave.
In the wake of the Iraq
war, many Democrats accused the Bush administration of politicizing
intelligence. It was a false charge, but good politics. But the fact is, the
problem was the opposite: an intelligence community driven by the desire to