The Iraq WMD Intel Fiasco: An Epilogue

This past week, the National Security Archive released a partially declassified CIA post-mortem on the Iraq WMD fiasco. The Archive notes that “The CIA’s post-war review faulted agency analysts for not looking at events in Iraq from the standpoint of ‘a paranoid dictatorship.’ From the CIA document:

Analysts tended to focus on what was important to us–the hunt for WMD–and less on what would be important for a paranoid dictator to protect. Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved. Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread.

All of that may be true, but nowhere in the report does it address probably the major reasons why it happened. It’s telling that in this CIA report there is not a single word of criticism of then-Director George Tenet, then DDI John McLaughlin, or anyone else in CIA management whose job it was to help ensure analysts were always reevaluating their judgments. I saw this in spades during the GWS fiasco, as detailed in LSJ

But what many in the press seem to have forgotten are some rather telling passages from the Robb-Silberman report from 2005:

In fact, the DOE intelligence analyst who participated in the coordination meetings for the NIE—while maintaining that there was no political pressure on DOE, direct or indirect, to agree with the reconstitution conclusion at the NIE coordination meeting—conceded to this Commission that “DOE didn’t want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting.” (p. 75)

That managerial mindset was rampant inside CIA itself:

Moreover, the analysts who raised concerns about the need for reassessments were not rewarded for having done so but were instead forced to leave WINPAC.  One analyst, after presenting his case in late 2003 that Curveball had fabricated his reporting, was “read the riot act” by his office director, who accused him of “making waves” and being “biased.” The analyst told Commission staff that he was subsequently asked to leave WINPAC. Similarly, a WINPAC CW analyst who pressed to publish a reassessment of Iraq’s CW program in late 2003 was also, according to the analysts, “told to leave” WINPAC.  Although managers must be able to overrule subordinates once an issue has been debated, managers must also create an atmosphere in which such debate is encouraged rather than punished. (pp. 193-194)

And who was putting pressure on CIA and other IC managers to “find” WMD in Iraq? The Robb-Silberman Commission claimed there was no political pressure on IC analysts, but that was a demonstrable lie, as former CIA analyst Paul Pillar noted in his 2006 Foreign Affairs piece:

In its report on prewar intelligence concerning Iraqi WMD, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said it found no evidence that analysts had altered or shaped their judgments in response to political pressure. The Silberman-Robb commission reached the same conclusion, although it conceded that analysts worked in an “environment” affected by “intense” policymaker interest. But the method of investigation used by the panels — essentially, asking analysts whether their arms had been twisted — would have caught only the crudest attempts at politicization. Such attempts are rare and, when they do occur (as with former Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s attempts to get the intelligence community to sign on to his judgments about Cuba and Syria), are almost always unsuccessful. Moreover, it is unlikely that analysts would ever acknowledge that their own judgments have been politicized, since that would be far more damning than admitting more mundane types of analytic error.

The actual politicization of intelligence occurs subtly and can take many forms. Context is all-important. Well before March 2003, intelligence analysts and their managers knew that the United States was heading for war with Iraq. It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. Intelligence analysts — for whom attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success — felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious.

The question today is this: how strong are those winds blowing vis a vis Iran’s nuclear program? 

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