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Why U.S. Intelligence Failed, Redux

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Paul Pillar, the CIA's senior intelligence analyst for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, has written a critique of the Bush administration's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq that, in effect, corroborates the British "Downing Street Memo" in accusing the Bush administration of rigging the evidence to justify the invasion.

The British memo recounted a July 23, 2002, meeting in which Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, told Prime Minister Tony Blair about discussions in Washington with George W. Bush's top national security officials. "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," Dearlove said, according to the minutes.

After the "Downing Street Memo" was revealed in Great Britain in 2005, Bush's spokesmen heatedly denied its claims and major U.S. news outlets dismissed its significance. But in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Pillar offers a matching account. He wrote that the administration didn't just play games with the traditional notion that objective analysis should inform responsible policy, but "turned the entire model upside down."

"The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made," Pillar wrote. "The Bush administration deviated from the professional standard not only in using policy to drive intelligence, but also in aggressively using intelligence to win public support for its decision to go to war. This meant selectively adducing data -- 'cherry-picking' -- rather than using the intelligence community's own analytic judgments."

These two accounts -- which are further bolstered by first-hand statements from former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson -- reveal an administration long determined to invade Iraq and assembling reasons that would scare the American people into supporting an unprovoked war.

Yet, while the American public has a right to be furious about getting tricked into a war that has killed nearly 2,300 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, there are other concerns about why the U.S. intelligence community let itself be so manipulated, staying silent when a strong protest to Congress might have derailed Bush's scheme.

On Oct. 23, 2003, addressed this longer-range question of why U.S. intelligence failed. That story, which is reprinted in an updated form below, shows that the politicization of intelligence has been a goal of neoconservative operatives for three decades. They have long understood the value of turning the principle of objective analysis on its head:

In Tom Clancy's political thriller "Sum of All Fears," the United States and Russia are being pushed to the brink of nuclear war by neo-Nazi terrorists who have detonated a nuclear explosion in Baltimore and want the Americans to blame the Russians.

CIA analysts have pieced together the real story but can't get it to the president. "The president is basing his decisions on some really bad information," analyst Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) pleads to a U.S. general. "My orders are to get the right information to the people who make the decisions."

Though a bit corny, Ryan's dialogue captures the credo of professional intelligence analysts. Solid information, they believe, must be the foundation for sound decisions, especially when lives and the national security are at stake. The battle over that principle is the real back story to the dispute over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. It is a story of how the CIA's vaunted analytical division has been corrupted - or "politicized" - by right-wing ideologues over the past quarter century.

Some key officials in George W. Bush's administration - from former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Vice President Dick Cheney - have long been part of this trend toward seeing intelligence as an ideological weapon, rather than a way to inform a full debate. Other figures in Bush's circle of advisers, including his father, the former president and CIA director, have played perhaps even more central roles in this transformation. [More on this below. Also see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]

For his part, the younger George Bush has shown little but disdain for any information that puts his policies or "gut" judgments in a negative light. In that sense, Bush's thin skin toward contradiction can't be separated from the White House campaign, beginning in July 2003, to discredit retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson for publicly debunking the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger. That retaliation included the exposure of Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA officer.

Dating Back to Watergate

Though one cost of corrupting U.S. intelligence can now be counted in the growing U.S. death toll in Iraq, the origins of the current problem can be traced back to the mid-1970s, when conservatives were engaged in fierce rear-guard defenses after the twin debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate. In 1974, after Republican President Richard Nixon was driven from office over the Watergate political-spying scandal, the Republicans suffered heavy losses in congressional races. The next year, the U.S. -backed government in South Vietnam fell.

At this crucial juncture, a group of influential conservatives coalesced around a strategy of accusing the CIA's analytical division of growing soft on communism. These conservatives - led by the likes of Richard Pipes, Paul Nitze, William Van Cleave, Max Kampelman, Eugene Rostow, Elmo Zumwalt and Richard Allen - claimed that the CIA's Soviet analysts were ignoring Moscow's aggressive strategy for world domination. This political assault put in play one of the CIA's founding principles - objective analysis.

Since its creation in 1947, the CIA had taken pride in maintaining an analytical division that stayed above the political fray. The CIA analysts - confident if not arrogant about their intellectual skills - prided themselves in bringing unwanted news to the president's door. Those reports included an analysis of Soviet missile strength that contradicted John F. Kennedy's "missile gap" rhetoric or the debunking of Lyndon Johnson's assumptions about the effectiveness of bombing in Vietnam. While the CIA's operational division got itself into trouble with risky schemes, the analytical division maintained a fairly good record of scholarship and objectivity.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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