Devil in the Details

Five questions for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

| Tue Jul. 13, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

By almost any standard, the recently released Senate Intelligence Report (PDF), outlining intelligence failures in Iraq, was an out-and-out disaster for the Bush administration. We now know that CIA intelligence never suggested the existence of a serious connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq, even as President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to hype the link as a prime casus belli. We can now, without qualms, call them liars. Furthermore, we know that, back in 2002, the administration hawks consistently accused the CIA of understating the Iraqi threat. So if, as it turns out, the CIA was wrong, doesn't that mean the neoconservative group was doubly wrong?

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War supporters, of course, see things differently. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal's editorial page gladly exonerated the Bush administration of all misdoings. The Senate report, in the editors' opinion, proves once and for all that all the blame rests on the CIA, and that the Bush administration had nothing to do with intelligence failures.

But many skeptics have wondered why the report reached such counterintuitive conclusions about administrative pressure on analysts. After all, had not highly credible reporters such as Mother Jones' own Jason Vest and Robert Dreyfus, as well as Walter Pincus, Seymour Hersh, John Judis, and Spencer Ackerman, amassed a sackful of evidence that the administration leaned heavily on the intelligence community to hype the case for war? How could the Senate committee fail to find any evidence of undue arm-twisting? One explanation is that the committee was rigged from the get-go, stocked with Republicans intent on protecting the president. But another reason, as we shall see, was that the Senate committee may have been looking for proof in all the wrong places.

Indeed, there are far too many unanswered questions about the administration's role in the intelligence debacle. Some of these questions may be taken up in the second Senate report on Iraq, which will look into how the Bush administration used and misused the intelligence to make its case for war. That report should have all the goods on the Office of Special Plans, Ahmed Chalabi, and the private intelligence shop that the Pentagon set up to circumvent the CIA. Unfortunately, that second report won't come out until after the election.

So until then, here are five questions that the Senate Intelligence Report fails to address fully and honestly:

1. Did administration create situations causing the intelligence community to under-analyze its faulty intelligence?

The Senate committee asked a number of intelligence analysts whether they felt any pressure from the administration to reach certain conclusions on Iraq. Although a few analysts did report some minor badgering from the Pentagon, the committee found that none of the analysts changed any intelligence as a result of that pressure. Although this is certainly significant, it's far from clear that the committee asked all the right questions.

Most of the questioning seems to have focused on whether any substantive changes were made to intelligence. A chemical weapons analyst told the committee, "They didn't tell us what to say or anything like that." A Senior Intelligence Officer with DIA noted that William Luti, the Deputy Under-Secretary for Special Plans, never "coerced [analysts] to alter statements."

But the Senate committee seemed to overlook the possibility that a laserlike focus on certain "useful" intelligence may have forced analysts to spend less time going over dissenting intelligence. Indeed, Kenneth Pollack made this allegation in an essay on WMD intelligence that he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in January:

On many occasions Administration officials' requests for additional information struck the analysts as being made merely to distract them from their primary mission. Some officials asked for extensive historical analyses—a hugely time-consuming undertaking, for which most intelligence analysts are not trained.

What was the result? Pollack had earlier told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh: “[Administration officials] were forcing the intelligence community to defend its good information and good analysis so aggressively that the intelligence analysts didn’t have the time or the energy to go after the bad information.” Clearly this constitutes a very different type of pressure on analysts, one that requires a bit more digging to uncover. Why didn't the Senate Committee do that digging?

2. Did INR Director Greg Thielmann change his story, and if so, why?

Greg Thielmann, the former director for strategic proliferation and military affairs at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), seems to stand in the center of every journalism piece documenting how the Bush administration distorted Iraq intelligence. Thielmann told CBS that "contrary arguments were ignored." He told The New Republic that the administration dismissed INR intelligence on those infamous aluminum tubes -- tubes that Colin Powell claimed could be used for an Iraqi nuclear program. And perhaps most critically, Thielmann told Seymour Hersh that he was eventually excluded from intelligence meetings with John Bolton, the Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control. Thielmann alleged that Bolton bypassed the entire intelligence vetting process. Bolton himself explained his actions to Hersh: "I didn’t want [the intelligence] filtered. I wanted to see everything—to be fully informed. If that puts someone’s nose out of joint, sorry about that."

Some of this is corroborated in the Senate report. On page 278, an unnamed INR analyst is quoted as saying that Bolton's office was not listening to INR, but receiving information only from the CIA. After that, however, the report gets very interesting. Presumably, Thielmann is the unnamed "Former INR Office Director" quoted on page 279. As the Committee reports, Thielmann testified that "he did not feel pressure from the Secretary [Colin Powell], the Under-Secretary [Bolton], or Director of INR on Iraq WMD issues."

Really? If this speaker is indeed Thielmann -- as it seems to be -- why did he do a complete about-face from his earlier allegations? Did the Senate Committee at all explore the ramifications of his previous statements? Why or why not?

3. Did the White House tell the CIA not to declassify the original DIA analysis on Iraq?

In summer 2002, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, received a classified analysis from George Tenet of the Iraqi threat. The report was cautious and stressed the fact that much evidence on Iraq's weapons stockpiles was inconclusive. That September, as the Senate report notes, Graham and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) requested a full and public National Intelligence Estimate on the Iraqi threat. Based on early drafts, Graham and Durbin had hoped that the NIE would provide a careful, balanced assessment of the threat. But on October 4, 2002, as everyone now knows, the CIA released a wildly overblown declassified "white paper", which omitted many of the qualifications in the original NIE, and presented a grim report of Iraq's weapons capabilities. For instance, in a section on Iraq's chemical weapons, the white paper removed a crucial qualification, "Although we have little specific information on Iraq's CW stockpiles…"

The story doesn't end there. According to The New Republic, Graham was "outraged" after the release of the white paper, and asked Tenet to declassify more of the original, more cautious DIA analysis. Tenet initially agreed. But "later that evening, Graham received a call from the CIA, informing him that the White House had ordered Tenet not to release anything more."

Why wasn't Graham's account included (or dismissed) anywhere in the Senate's report? And more importantly, who in the White House prevented the CIA from declassifying its most accurate report?

4. Who ordered the white paper?

Why did the declassified white paper contain virtually none of the qualifications of the intelligence community's NIE report? And most importantly, who inserted language into the white paper indicating that Iraq could strike "the U.S. homeland" with its weapons? That phrase was completely false, unsupported by any intelligence, and a crucial point in pressing the case for war. According to the LA Times, committee aides told reporters on Friday that no one seems to know who inserted the phrase. Why not? This seems like something an investigation should be able to uncover, no?

It may be worth delving deeper into the origins of the white paper. On page 287, we find that, in May 2002, the Deputy Director Central Intelligence requested the paper as a result of a "meeting at the White House" between members of the National Security Council (NSC). So, the white paper was originally conceived by the NSC as a separate entity, to be crafted independently of the CIA report. Did this affect what was put in and what was left out? Did the NSC suggest the language on weapons that could strike "the U.S. homeland"?

5. What, exactly, got redacted in the Senate report sections concerning Bush administration pressures on the intelligence community?

On page 284, the report reads:

Conclusion 83. The Committee did not find any evidence that administration officials attempted to coerce, influence, or pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

This is followed by five redacted paragraphs. The same occurs with Conclusion 84, which declares, "The Committee found no evidence that the Vice President's visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure analysts." All of the supporting paragraphs received the black-marker treatment.

In light of the sensitive and politically crucial nature of these two conclusions, the supporting paragraphs should be declassified to the fullest extent possible. In their press conference, committee chairmen Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) both announced that they would try to persuade the CIA to declassify more of the report. These important sections should certainly be a priority.

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