The Magazine

If Michael Moore Had a Security Clearance

How did the rabid ideologue Richard Immerman get put in charge of the 'standards and integrity' of the intelligence community?

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

How do we explain the bizarre recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, which stated in its opening sentence that the ayatollahs had halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003, even as, tucked away in a footnote, the same document noted that the most critical component of such a weapons program--uranium enrichment--was proceeding at full tilt?

Even Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, the man who presides over the 16 agencies that comprise the U.S. "intelligence community," was compelled to back away from the assessment issued by his own subordinates. In retrospect, he said in testimony before Congress on February 5, "I probably would have changed a thing or two" in the way the intelligence was presented to the public. The "halt" referred to in the NIE, he conceded, involved the "least significant part" of the program, which was "the only thing" in the Iranian nuclear effort that actually may have stopped.

McConnell's repudiation of the work of his own staff raises some obvious questions about the organization of his office. One such question: Is anyone in charge of quality control in the cockpit of the most pivotal intelligence position in the United States?

There is in fact a bureaucratic unit designed for such a task. Back in September, McConnell appointed an "assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards." The occupant of this position is to ensure that intelligence products--reports like the NIE--are created according to accepted norms and are vetted properly for accuracy and lack of bias. The same official also serves as the "analytic ombudsman" of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In other words, he is the individual who investigates complaints by others of shortcomings in the production of intelligence analyses.

Who holds this critical job? The present incumbent is one Richard H. Immerman, who up until his appointment was a professor at Temple University and the author of a number of books, including one about CIA depredations in Guatemala. Immerman has an essay in the current issue of Diplomatic History, the scholarly journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and it makes for interesting reading.

Titled "Intelligence and Strategy," Immerman's article is a survey of the various ways that intelligence has been distorted for political purposes across the history of the CIA. It ranges over a great many issues of historical importance, including Vietnam and the Soviet-American arms race, and also more recent controversies, like the Bush administration's decision to depose Saddam Hussein.

Immerman, it emerges quite rapidly in the article, is not a dispassionate student of these matters, but a combatant in the political intelligence wars himself. He traces a fair amount of the CIA's present troubles back to George H.W. Bush, who served as agency director under Gerald Ford. Once ensconced at Langley, writes Immerman, the future president "kowtowed to apoplectic conservatives," who were accusing the CIA of minimizing the pace and scale of the Soviet nuclear arms build-up. This led him to establish a group of outside analysts--dubbed Team B and headed by the "rabid anti-Soviet ideologue Richard Pipes"--to examine critically CIA findings. Team B "predictably ravaged" the existing CIA estimates and "undermined the agency's credibility" even though all of its findings, according to Immerman, were themselves just plain "wrong."

When George W. Bush became president in 2000, he brought with him a coterie of advisers from the same pernicious school of thinkers responsible for Team B. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the "ersatz Straussian" Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz--"abetted" by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice--were convinced that, just as in the 1970s, the United States faced grave threats that the CIA entirely failed to appreciate. The "near-theological conviction" of these high-ranking administration officials, writes Immerman, quoting James Risen of the New York Times and David Corn of the Nation, was that the CIA was in thrall to a conventional wisdom that "obscured the sinister plottings of America's enemies."

With "insidious" intent, these morbidly suspicious "Bushites" leaned on the CIA to find a nuclear program in Iraq when there was none. Indeed, Cheney, Immerman writes, "went so far as to camp out at Langley to watch over analysts' shoulders" as they performed their work. Though the CIA had biases of its own that led to its erroneous prewar assessment that Iraq was acquiring WMDs, Bush and his subordinates ultimately caused the larger scandal. Indeed, they made "every effort to 'cook the books,' they 'hyped' the need to go to war, and they lied too often to count." What drove the policies of these government officials was not intelligence but sheer "dogma."

One especially dangerous consequence of an administration in the grip of ideological delusions, writes Immerman, is that it has rendered the benefits of intelligence reform almost completely nugatory. While the radical reorganization undertaken since September 11 might have been expected to produce "dramatic and positive" results, the fact is that "the effect on policy is likely to be slight so long as the makers of that policy remain cognitively impaired and politically possessed."

This is but a sampling of the scholarship of Professor Immerman. What are we to make of such Michael Moore-like thinking coming from the lips of a ranking U.S. intelligence official, the very official in charge of maintaining the "integrity and standards" of our intelligence community? And, more important, what does Mike McConnell make of it?

The problem is not merely that someone who is himself so clearly a "rabid ideologue" might have been responsible for vetting the Iran NIE and then letting a skewed declassified summary of it out the door. Given how recently Immerman took his job, his precise role in the fiasco is unclear, although it is suggestive that his direct supervisor is Thomas Fingar, one of the authors of the controversial document. The real problem is that someone like Immerman, nakedly contemptuous of the administration in which he nonetheless sought a job, was appointed to a position of such high responsibility--or any responsibility--in the first place. Who made that decision and why?

The Bush administration has been repeatedly condemned for politicizing intelligence. But the shoe is being tied on the wrong foot. The politicization of the intelligence community comes from within. Indeed, those responsible for maintaining analytic integrity are themselves generally lacking in the very quality. We can reform and reshuffle the intelligence community from now until kingdom come, but, as long as such types remain fixed in place, the politicization of intelligence will persist.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of Commentary, writes daily at connectingthedots.us.com.