Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Rockefeller Report: Introduction

My next firsthand document reviewed is the Rockefeller Report by the Senate Intelligence Committee comparing public pronouncements of the Bush Administration to intelligence available at the time. This post is a bit late since the Report was released in June, but better late than never. It is a companion to an earlier report on intelligence failures leading up to the invasion of Iraq (which I admit to not having read, and which would no doubt give the more recent report greater depth).

The Report is useful to people like me who focus obsessively on false information such as Niger uranium forgeries, aluminum tubes, aerial drones, and the fabricator "Curveball" by offering a wider picture. Its basic findings are that Administration reports about Saddam's purported arsenal and ties to non-Al-Qaeda terrorist were substantiated by the intelligence available (though sometimes leaving out caveats and dissents), but statements about Saddam's ties to Al-Qaeda, his hostile intentions, and what could be expected if we invaded Iraq were not substantiated.

Like the earlier earlier report on intelligence failures, however, the Rockefeller Report does not explore the degree to which intelligence reports during the buildup to the war, and especially the October, 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) were the result of political pressure. Instead, it simply accepts intelligence finished product at face value as what the Administration would have known.

But there is ample evidence that the administration was not simply relying on finished product. Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff regularly visited CIA headquarters to argue with mid-level managers and analysts about unfinished work, offer their opinions and urge analysts to use defector sources the CIA generally regarded as unreliable. And the earlier finding that intelligence reports were not politicized simply because no analysts admitted changing their minds because of political pressure simply is not realistic. A veteran analyst explains that the pressure can take more subtle forms as well. The knowledge that the President has already decided on war can lead analysts to accommodate that inevitability. Reports that tell superiors what they want to hear can be more easily approved than ones that superiors would find unwelcome. Unwelcome news can be sugarcoated. And an obsessive focus on one particular topic (such as the threat posed by Saddam Hussein) can create a sort of tunnel vision that exaggerates that particular threat while overlooking others. In short, the Administration decided on a course of action an looked for intelligence to support it.

The Rockefeller Report does not address any of these issues. However, one does not have to read very far between the lines to find evidence of political pressure shaping intelligence. This evidence comes in three main forms.

First and foremost, a sudden shift in assessment during the leadup to war is suspicious. Intelligence reports from 1991 to 2000 may be taken as a baseline of the intelligence community's independent judgment, free from political pressure. Opinions that show increased assessment of the danger from Saddam during the first nine months of the Bush Administration should be treated as at least mildly suspect. The Administration's obsession with Iraq may have begun as early as 10 days after inauguration, but only after 9/11 did it irrevocably decide to invade. Major increases in the assessed danger from 9/11 to the March, 2003 invasion are highly suspect, especially if they continue to escalate with the growing push for war. Of course, changes in assessment may also be the result of changes in Iraqi behavior. However, given post-war findings that Saddam had not been reconstituting his nuclear program or aggressively seeking chemical and biological weapons makes such an explanation unlikely.

The second suspicious sign is in how intelligence reports handle dissents, such as the Department of Energy dissent from the view that aluminum tubes were for enriching uranium, or the Air Force dissent that Saddam's drones were for spraying chemical and biological weapons. Slate columnist Fred Kaplan suggests that this is the most important lesson of the Rockefeller Report. In case of disagreement, the agency with the most expertise or the best track record of being right should be given most weight. Republican members of the Committee, in their minority dissent, argue that the executive summary of the NIE that the President read did not even mention these dissents. But both of these views put the cart before the horse. The real question should be why the agencies with the most technical expertise were ignored, relegated to footnotes and left out of the executive summary altogether, while the views of less knowledgeable agencies that told the President what he wanted to hear were adopted.

Finally, there is the question of what gets approved. The Rockefeller Report repeatedly chides Administration officials for making speeches implying without directly stating that Saddam had ties to Al-Qaeda. The Republican minority dissent shows itself remarkably obtuse in taking these speeches at face value and refusing to see what was implied. They also repeatedly point out that the CIA had approved these speeches, so it must have endorsed them. More realistically, this shows the CIA, under pressure, adopting the same narrow literalism as the Republicans and being wilfully blind to what was being implied.

So, using these three criteria as evidence of politicization, my next post will review the Rockefeller Report and read between the lines to see what its real conclusions should be.

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