I know, it’s hardly a revelation that the Bush administration, especially Dick Cheney, distorted the assessments of the intelligence community in order to build a dishonest case for war in Iraq. But one of the members of the CIA team that briefed Cheney on the subject just wrote an article for Wired about her experiences. Notice how completely reversed the process was:
Specifically, I was a CIA analyst working in the Counterterrorism Center in the overburdened days after 9/11. As analysts, we spend most of our time identifying burgeoning issues based on communications intercepts, reports from CIA case officers, imagery from satellites, accounts from other governments, and piecing together a story.
What we don’t do routinely is tie one catastrophe to another. But that was exactly what I was asked to do in November 2002, shortly after Congress voted to authorize war with Iraq. That war was predicated on Saddam Hussein’s (ultimately nonexistent) stockpiles of deadly weapons, but lurking in the background was the assertion that he’d pass them on to al-Qaida. At the CIA’s Iraq Branch in the Counterterrorism Center, we didn’t think Saddam had any substantial ties to al-Qaida. But soon we found ourselves fielding questions from determined Bush administration officials about whether Saddam was tied to 9/11.
That’s how my team ended up in a windowless room with my branch chief, “Karen,” who was pretending to be Dick Cheney or his chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
That month, Vice President Cheney scheduled a meeting with our Branch to discuss our assessment of Iraq’s relationship with al-Qaida and 9/11. It was his second visit to the Branch; there always seemed to be more questions. The Branch Chief called us together for a practice session in a bland conference room a few days before their arrival. At this so-called “murderboard” session, we weren’t stripping down our analysis to find data we’d missed. We were practicing how to defend our perspective when questioned by the Vice President of the United States.
Cheney didn’t go to the CIA to find out what the evidence said, he went there to find a way to make it say something it did not to the professionals who actually gathered and analyzed it. The result was inevitable:
In the abstract, challenging CIA’s analysis is a good thing: agency analysts get stuff wrong, as evidenced by Saddam’s non-WMD. But in this case, it was problematic. The nature of intelligence analysis is to gather as much information as possible to assist a policymaker in making difficult choices. If a policymaker has a preference for what the intelligence product should say, that pollutes the objectivity of the intelligence — and diminishes its value.
On Sunday, March 16, 2003, I watched Cheney on “Meet The Press” contradict our assessment publicly. “We know that he [Saddam] has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups,” Cheney said, “including the al-Qaeda organization.” I was basically watching Cheney field-test arguments that we would have to anticipate — and rebut — at CIA. Except instead of asking us questions behind closed doors, Cheney was asserting to the public as fact something that we found to be anything but. I found myself yelling at the TV like I was contesting a ref’s blown call in a football game.
The agency’s intelligence collection on Iraq’s relationship with al-Qaida was thin — Iraq’s connections to terrorist organizations were so minute it wasn’t a priority for us — so it was difficult to even construct a chart showing connections, as if we were mapping the Barksdale crew on The Wire.
Ironically, it was Cheney himself who provided a cogent argument for why the first President Bush chose not to push into Baghdad and depose Hussein after we ejected them from Kuwait in the early 90s. Bush 41 was right to make that decision, Cheney argued, because “we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq.” And guess what? He was right about that. But somewhere along the line he flipped positions so vehemently that he thought it was worth lying about repeatedly. Of course, that’s an easy decision to make when it’s only someone else’s children in the line of fire as neither Cheney nor his children ever were.