The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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).