IT IS NO SECRET that the Bush administration and the old guard at the CIA have not, in many instances, seen eye to eye over the last several years. Leaks and anonymously-sourced complaints from agency officials have dominated above-the-fold news stories. The rancorous bureaucrats at the agency have been so hostile to the administration, in fact, that Senator John McCain warned, on ABC's This Week, in November 2004, that "This is a dysfunctional agency and in some ways a rogue agency."
Porter Goss, who became the director of Central Intelligence in April 2005, has confronted this highly-politicized bureaucracy. The result has been a staggering amount house cleaning. Various press accounts have discussed the ongoing purge of senior-level officials from Langley. But the bureaucrats who once ran the nation's supposedly super-secret spook organization aren't going down without a fight. Bureaucracies die hard.
Enter Paul Pillar.
Few, if any, old guard bureaucrats have been more vocal in their opposition to the Bush administration than the man who was the former National Intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the CIA from 2000 to 2005.
We still don't know who leaked Pillar's own National Intelligence Estimate, which painted "a dark assessment of Iraq," to the New York Times in September 2004. That leak, which was disclosed just several weeks prior to the presidential election, seemed perfectly timed to discredit the Bush administration and its policies. But it is clear that Pillar long ago discarded his "neutral role" as an intelligence analyst and "inject[ed] himself in the political realm," as Guillermo Christensen, himself a 15-year veteran of the CIA, recently explained in the Wall Street Journal.
It is no surprise, then, that upon departing Langley we find Pillar continuing his career as a critic of the Bush administration in the pages of Foreign Affairs Magazine. With more than a dab of irony, Pillar claims to expose the ways in which the administration "disregarded the community's expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case."
But while there are certainly legitimate, rational criticisms to be made of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and the intelligence that informs its handling of both, you will not find any of them in Pillar's piece. Instead, Pillar demonstrates that he himself is a master of the art of politicizing intelligence. Far from being a dispassionate analyst, Pillar practices the very same "manipulations and misuse[s]" he claims to expose.
CONSIDER, for example, Pillar's discussion of the prewar investigation into Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda. The "greatest discrepancy," Pillar claims, "between the administration's public statements and the intelligence community's judgments concerned not WMD (there was indeed a broad consensus that such programs existed), but the relationship between Saddam and al Qaeda. The enormous attention devoted to this subject did not reflect any judgment by intelligence officials that there was or was likely to be anything like the 'alliance' the administration said existed." Moreover, "The intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion of an alliance between Saddam and al Qaeda."
The only reason analysts investigated the relationship, according to Pillar, was because they were continually peppered with pointed questions by the administration, which was on a pre-determined path to war. And the administration's fixation on this non-existent relationship diverted the CIA's preciously scarce resources. So much so that "It is fair to ask how much other counterterrorism work was left undone as a result."
It would be difficult to construct a more skewed history of events.
TO UNDERSTAND how out-of-step with reality Pillar's narrative is, consider what the Senate's bipartisan investigation into the uses of prewar intelligence had to say about the CIA's investigation into Iraq's al Qaeda ties. Far from being an unjustified concern of the Bush administration alone, Pillar's own division at the CIA was independently investigating the issue as the war approached.
The Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments On Iraq, released July 7, 2004, discusses "five primary finished intelligence products on Iraq's links to terrorism" produced by the CIA. The last two of these, versions of a document called Iraqi Support for Terrorism, are of paramount importance since they were produced in the months leading up to the war.
On September 19, 2002, according to the Senate Intelligence Report, the CIA's first version of Iraqi Support for Terrorism was "disseminated to 12 senior officials by the CIA Directorate of Intelligence." Interestingly, "it was not drafted to respond to a specific request." Instead, "CIA officials decided that new intelligence warranted another look at the issue." (Emphasis added)
That there was "new intelligence" that demanded attention should come as no surprise. On October 7, 2002 George Tenet, then the DCI, reported to Congress that there "growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda," which " suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action." The paper was initially drafted by "a senior analyst from the Near East and South Asia Division," who "worked closely with the Iraq analysts in the Counter Terrorism Center's (CTC) Office of Terrorism Analysis." Was this analyst Pillar himself? We don't know. But at the very least it must have been one reporting to him.
The CTC later took over responsibility for editing and publishing updated versions of the analysis, which included additional "intelligence collected from detainees between September 2002 and January 2003." A second version of Iraqi Support for Terrorism was then disseminated to a wider audience in January 2003, on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations in early February, with "references to highly sensitive sources and methods" edited out.
Thus, contrary to Pillar's claims, his own division at the CIA thought there were good reasons based on "new intelligence" to investigate the matter--without any "specific request" from the Bush administration--in the months leading up to the war.
Why did officials at the CIA think that the issue warranted an additional investigation? The reality of this matter is far more complicated than the quick and dirty narrative Pillar gives us.
ALTHOUGH the Senate Intelligence Report is heavily redacted, the excerpts of Iraqi Support for Terrorism that were made available for public consumption, as well as the Senate Intelligence Committee's own analysis, paint a very different picture than the one Pillar wants us to see. The CIA, we learn, had failed to collect first-hand human intelligence inside either the Iraqi regime or al Qaeda. Despite this poor collection effort, however, the CIA had acquired intelligence on a relationship between the two--primarily from foreign government services and open sources.
The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded, for example that "despite four decades of intelligence reporting on Iraq, there was little useful intelligence collected that helped analysts determine the Iraqi regime's possible links to al-Qaida." In fact, the CIA "did not have a focused human intelligence (HUMINT) collection strategy targeting Iraq's links to terrorism until 2002." The CIA's intelligence collection was so bad that the agency did not have "any unilateral sources that could provide information on the Iraq/al-Qaida relationship" and was "entirely dependent on foreign government services for that information."
It is true that the CIA refrained from concluding that an "operational relationship" existed--a conclusion that was more forcefully echoed by the 9/11 Commission. But, this was because the CIA did not have "credible reporting on the leadership of either the Iraqi regime or al-Qaida, which would have enabled it to better define a cooperative relationship, if any did in fact exist."
PILLAR DOES NOT TELL US about the old guard at the CIA's poor track record in collecting intelligence. That is not surprising. Good bureaucrats, after all, defend the bureaucracy from outside criticism.
Instead, he pretends to dismiss the issue with absolute certainty--as if he had been reviewing concrete intelligence collected by his colleagues over all these years.
Nor does Pillar tell us that when the CIA revisited the issue they did compile evidence of a relationship. Any intelligence analysis, by its very nature, must deal with vagaries and uncertainties. But here we come to the most egregious aspect of Pillar's Foreign Affairs piece. He avoids substantive discussion of the actual intelligence the CIA had amassed from various other sources; evidence that, in many instances, cuts against his out-of-hand dismissal.
Again, we turn to what Pillar's own division at the CIA told the administration on the eve of war. "Our knowledge of Iraq's ties to terrorism is evolving," the CIA wrote in Iraqi Support for Terrorism. "Regarding the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," the CIA assessed, "reporting from sources of varying reliability points to a number of contacts, incidents of training, and discussions of Iraqi safehaven for Osama bin Laden and his organization dating from the early 1990s."
There was evidence that al Qaeda had metastasized inside regime-controlled Iraq. According to the Senate Intelligence Report, "Iraqi Support for Terrorism described a network of more than a dozen al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-associated operatives in Baghdad, and estimated that 100-200 al-Qaeda fighters were present in northeastern Iraq in territory under the control of Ansar al-Islam." Furthermore, "A variety of reporting indicates that senior al-Qaeda terrorist planner al-Zarqawi was in Baghdad between May-July 2002 under an assumed identity." Regarding those hundreds of al Qaeda operatives who set up shop in northeastern Iraq, "it would be difficult for al-Qaeda to maintain an active, long-term presence in Iraq without alerting the authorities or obtaining their acquiescence."
Alarmingly the CIA noted, "The most disturbing aspect of the relationship is the dozen or so reports of varying reliability mentioning the involvement of Iraq or Iraqi nationals in al Qaeda's efforts to obtain CBW training." Elsewhere, the CIA's analysts noted that they could not determine if some of these nationals were working for the Iraqi regime or not. But still, "The general pattern that emerges is of al Qaeda's enduring interest in acquiring, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) expertise from Iraq."
(It is worth remembering that one of Pillar's colleagues, Michael Scheuer, was once able to determine that Iraq was, in fact, aiding al Qaeda's pursuit of CBRN expertise.)
There is much more to this story, of course. There is a vast body of evidence that indicates there was an ongoing relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. Pillar, however, would prefer not to debate the meaning of this evidence. It may turn out that the bureaucracy he served missed quite a bit over the last decade. It may also turn out that Pillar's own understanding of the terror network was inadequate.
In either case, it is safer for Pillar to pretend that the relationship was a fantasy of the administration that decided it was time for his CIA to undergo a radical change.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.