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Who's Cherry Picking Now?

A less than useful report from the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Jun 11, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 37 • By GARY SCHMITT
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After months of internal wrangling, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its latest report on prewar intelligence on Iraq. This new report covers assessments of what we should have expected, both inside and outside of Iraq, once Saddam was removed from power. To call the committee's effort mediocre would be an injustice to mediocrity everywhere.

The report pales in comparison with the committee's first review of prewar intelligence, completed in July 2004, which examined why U.S. intelligence was so far off the mark on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. That report reflected a serious investigative effort, with a body of analysis that provided a road map of sorts for improving intelligence in the future. Other than scoring political points for the new Democratic Senate majority against the administration, the new report offers few if any real lessons.

Although it is 226 pages long, the new report consists mainly of a simple reprint of two key documents, along with their lengthy internal distribution lists. They are "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq" and "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq," both issued in January 2003 by the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community's college of analytic cardinals. The Intelligence Committee's own "conclusions" run to just seven pages and amount to little more than snippets from the two NIC documents.

The real conclusion--implicit in the who's who of administration officials on the distribution list and made explicit in the "additional views" set out by Chairman Jay Rockefeller and three other Democratic senators--is that if only senior policymakers had listened to the "cautionary judgments" of the intelligence community before the war, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. By ignoring those predictions, "the Bush Administration once again demonstrated its practice of cherry-picking intelligence reports and assessments that supported policy objectives and denigrating or dismissing those which did not." Along with "other missteps," this practice, they conclude, has produced "increased violence in Iraq, a resurgent al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, and a worsening spread of anti-American extremism around the world."

Truth be told, the committee's majority does a bit of cherry-picking of its own. The two NIC documents, which in theory reflected a consensus view across the intelligence community, are a mix of mostly conventional analysis of Iraq and the region. Based not on hard intelligence but on in-house regional expertise, the documents, as one might expect from a largely speculative effort, got some things right and others not.

Moreover, the NIC analysts recognized that developments in Iraq would greatly depend on what the United States and the Coalition actually did there after they overthrew Saddam. Decisions made in Washington, the NIC noted, would have a "dominant influence" on how things turned out. Ignoring this in its conclusions, the Intelligence Committee straight-lines it from the NIC's discussion of possible problems to today's situation--as if the botched occupation of Iraq had never happened.

What the committee highlights from the two reports is its cautions: that establishing a democracy in Iraq would be a hard slog; that the region would be in turmoil and the example of Iraq would do little or nothing to promote reforms elsewhere or to slow WMD programs in other countries; that al Qaeda would use the war to accelerate its terrorist activities and, while we were distracted, reestablish itself in Afghanistan; that a deeply divided Iraqi society would engage in sectarian violence, with Shia reprisal killings likely; and that rogue ex-regime elements could forge an alliance with terrorist organizations or independently engage in guerrilla warfare against Coalition forces or the new Iraqi government.

Certainly, it is true that establishing democracy in Iraq will take time. That said, it actually hasn't been the case that Iraqis have spurned democracy. Given how beaten down civil society and politics were by the Baathist regime, and how extreme the security problems facing Iraqis since Saddam's removal have been, the democratic process has been surprisingly resilient. There has been little or no "backsliding into Iraq's tradition of authoritarianism," as the NIC suggested might happen.