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Paul Pillar Speaks, Again

The latest CIA attack on the Bush administration is nothing new.

3:15 PM, Feb 10, 2006 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IN A BREATHLESS front-page, above-the-fold article in today's Washington Post, Walter Pincus reports that a former senior CIA official named Paul Pillar accuses the Bush administration of "misusing" intelligence to take the country to war in Iraq. According to the Post account, Pillar uses a forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs to claim that the Bush administration "politicized" the intelligence on Iraq.

Bush administration policymakers did this subtly, Pillar says, by repeatedly asking the CIA questions about Iraq, its weapons programs, and its support for terrorism. This "politicization" was apparently so subtle that it escaped the notice of both the Robb/Silberman Commission and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, which both found that no such politicization took place. If Pillar entertains the possibility that Bush administration officials asked tough questions because after September 11 they were genuinely concerned about the threat from Iraq, the Post article nowhere mentions it.

Pillar making claims about politicized intelligence is rich. In a column published September 27, 2004, Robert Novak identified Pillar as a speaker at a private dinner in California. Pillar's "management team" at the CIA, where he was employed as the national intelligence officer on the Near East/South Asia desk, approved the appearance. According to Novak, the ground rules for the speech were based on the "Lindley Rule," which holds that the speaker, his audience and the event are not to be disclosed, "but the substance of what he said can be reported." That substance, apparently, was a harsh assessment of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq.

Think about that: A senior, unelected CIA official--Paul Pillar--was given agency approval to anonymously attack Bush administration policies less than two months before the November 2, 2004, presidential election. That Pillar was among the most strident of these frequent critics--usually in off-the-record speeches to gatherings of foreign policy experts and business leaders--was well known to his colleagues in the intelligence community and to Bush administration policymakers. His was not an isolated case; CIA officials routinely trashed Bush administration policy decisions, often with official approval, in the months leading up to the Iraq War and again before the election. Pillar, who had complained to a CIA spokesman that someone had violated the ground rules by providing his name to Novak, simply got caught.

According to the Washington Post, Pillar's forthcoming critique will be "the first time that such a senior intelligence officer has so directly and publicly condemned the administration's handling of intelligence." Nonsense. In recent weeks, Pillar has trashed Bush administration policies to the Los Angeles Times and reporters for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. And before that, Pillar put many of these condemnations in a book. The relevant sections were published more than two years ago. Not exactly breaking news.

The book is called Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, and it was originally published in 1999 by the Brookings Institution. A new edition, with an updated introduction, was published on January 1, 2004. Pillar uses the new introduction to accuse the Bush administration of misleading the U.S. public by dishonestly conflating the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. It is exactly the kind of critique one might expect from an analyst who had long sought to downplay the role of states in terrorism. Terrorism, in Pillar's view, is something to be managed, not something to be fought and certainly not something to be defeated. From this follows Pillar's conclusion that military force is usually a counterproductive in managing terrorism. Reasonable people can agree or disagree with these views, but even as he articulated them in 1999, they are plainly odds with Bush administration policies and the global war on terror.

PILLAR USES HIS 2004 introduction to accuse the Bush administration of misleading the public to war in Iraq. The American public developed a mistaken sense about Iraq and al Qaeda, Pillar argues, through its "exposure to repeated mention of the two subjects in the same breath, to the many hints and suggestive references to links, and to the larger conceptual blurring that resulted from applying the term 'war on terrorism' to the fights against both al Qaeda and Iraq." Pillar cites polls showing that a majority of the American public believed Saddam Hussein had a role in 9/11. This misperception, he claims, was "the consequence of efforts to manipulate public perceptions to sell a policy undertaken for other purposes." Pillar does not say how President Bush's specific rejection of an Iraq-9/11 connection in the January 31, 2003, issue of Newsweek magazine--two months before the war--fit into this effort to manipulate public perception.

Pillar points to "a series of increasingly deadly vehicle bombs" in the summer of 2003 to criticize President Bush's postwar claim that Iraq was the central front in the war on terror. Pillar writes:

Such words may have more of an impact on popular perceptions than the fact that the terrorism in question was not anything the Saddam regime would have done if the United States had not gone to war, but instead something that the terrorists were doing because it had.

It is a revealing passage. Pillar confuses his analysis with "facts" and proffers a stunningly categorical claim about Iraqi intentions. How does Paul Pillar know what Saddam Hussein would or would not have done without a U.S. invasion of Iraq? For a conclusion as definitive as the one Pillar offers--a "fact" he calls it--Pillar must have had a lot of confidence in the quality of the intelligence he was seeing. This confidence was misplaced, according to the conclusions of the bipartisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee's report on pre-war intelligence on Iraq, which concluded:

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did not have a focused human intelligence (HUMINT) collection strategy targeting Iraq's links to terrorism until 2002. The CIA had no [redacted] sources on the ground in Iraq reporting specifically on terrorism.

(It is worth pointing out that Iraq's 1993 attempt to assassinate President George H.W. Bush included plans to use vehicle bombs. When Jabir Salim, the Iraqi ambassador to the Czech Republic, defected in December 1998, he told British intelligence that the Iraqi regime had provided $150,000 so that he might recruit and Islamic terrorist to detonate a truck bomb at Radio Free Europe headquarters in Prague.)

THE POST ARTICLE also tells us that Pillar accuses the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" intelligence to make its case. Others have made similar claims, not entirely without justification. Still, it is an especially odd charge coming from Pillar.

In his book, Pillar explores the U.S. missile strikes against the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant near Khartoum, Sudan. The Clinton administration attacked the plant on August 20, 1998, in response to the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa on August 7, 1998. In one lengthy paragraph, Pillar lays out the evidence:

Certain aspects of the security of the plant and public information about it suggested that it was engaged in more sensitive activity than just the production of pharmaceuticals; that a sample of soil collected outside the plant--unlike samples collected at other suspicious sites in Sudan--contained a chemical that is a precursor to the nerve agent VX (there are other conceivable reasons for the chemical to exist, but none that was a plausible explanation for it to be present at this location in Sudan); that there were reasons to believe the al Shifa plant was part of Sudan's larger Military Industrial Corporation, the center of Sudanese work on the development of weapons, including unconventional weapons; that bin Laden contributed financially to this corporation (part of his substantial ties with the Sudanese regime dominated by Hasan al Turabi's National Islamic Front); that there were other, more direct links between bin Laden and the management of the al Shifa plant; and that there were other intelligence reports that bin Laden's organization was attempting to acquire a chemical weapons capability (not to mention bin Laden's public statements suggesting the same thing).

Pillar omits several significant facts: the U.S. intelligence community had evidence that suggested the VX precursor (known as EMPTA) was of Iraqi provenance; the U.S. government had intercepted phone calls between administrators of that plant and an Iraqi chemical weapons expert named Emad al Ani; the CIA had intelligence that Iraqis had worked with the Sudanese, and through them bin Laden, to develop chemical weapons at several sites throughout Sudan.

Consider: In a January 23, 1999, article in the Washington Post, then-National Security Council counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, no friend of the Bush administration, defended the Clinton administration strikes on al Shifa and said that "intelligence exists linking bin Laden to al Shifa's current and past operators, the Iraqi nerve gas experts and the National Islamic Front in Sudan." In an email he sent on November 4, 1998, to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and made public by the 9/11 Commission, Clarke concluded that the presence of Iraqi chemical experts in Sudan was "probably a direct result of the Iraq-Al Qaeda agreement," whereby bin Laden promised not to agitate against the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein pledged assistance on weapons development.

Senior Clinton administration and intelligence officials defend the strikes to this day by citing Iraqi connections to the plant. President Clinton's secretary of Defense, William Cohen, testified before the 9/11 Commission that there were "multiple, reinforcing elements of information ranging from links that the organization that built the facility [al Shifa] had both with bin Laden and with the leadership of the Iraqi chemical weapons program." Said Cohen: "The owner of the plant had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program."

In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD in October 2004, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, John Gannon said: "The consistent stream of intelligence at that time said it wasn't just al Shifa. There were three different [chemical weapons] structures in the Sudan. There was the hiring of Iraqis. There was no question that the Iraqis were there."

9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean made the same points in a separate interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "Top officials--Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger, and others--told us with absolute certainty that there were chemical weapons of mass destruction at that factory, and that's why we sent missiles." Kean added: "We still can't say for certain that the chemicals were there. If they're right and there was stuff there, then it had to come from Iraq. They're the ones who had the stuff, who had this technology."

How is it that Paul Pillar could write about the al Shifa attacks without making mention of the facts of Iraqi involvement with the plant? Simple: They are inconvenient to his theories about the relationships between states and terrorists.

Paul Pillar's political attacks on the Bush administration's use of intelligence are not particularly surprising. They are not entirely accurate and, given that he has leveled the same charges for years--both in private and in public--they hardly qualify as news.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.