The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Air Force general Michael Hayden is by all accounts a good man and a good officer. He has certainly done yeoman’s work since leaving government in defending controversial Bush administration interrogation and detainee policies. He didn’t have to say one word and speaking out has not benefited him personally in any way—quite the opposite—so he deserves the nation’s thanks on that score and many more.
Nonetheless, his Washington Post piece today on the simmering controversy over the intelligence community’s handling of the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar does not add up.
To recap briefly: About two weeks ago, Bob Woodward published a piece arguing that everyone in the Bush administration had learned the lesson of the disastrously wrong intelligence on Iraq’s supposed WMD. Everyone, that is, except Vice President Dick Cheney, who urged a U.S. strike on the Syrian reactor in the face of what Woodward’s sources insist was uncertain intelligence. The president declined to order a strike and the Israeli military destroyed the reactor in September 2007.
I responded with an analysis of the flaws in Woodward’s account. Four actual participants in the administration’s deliberations gave their account here. Woodward’s attempt to paint Cheney’s view as unreasonable was itself unwarranted.
Hayden now responds to these responses. His overriding concern seems to be to defend the intelligence community from the charge—which Woodward reports approvingly—that it deliberately shaded its analysis to steer policy makers toward a certain conclusion.
Before getting to the Syria case, Hayden makes reference to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The right, he says, attacked this document unfairly. But his defense is hardly a defense at all. “The information,” he writes, “suggested that Iran had stopped the weaponization of fissile material, work that would be required to design a reliable warhead. The more difficult tasks—creating fissile material and developing missile delivery systems—continued unabated, but there appeared to be good evidence that this one aspect had largely been put on the shelf.”
This is precisely the same point that critics of the NIE cite to demonstrate its flawed nature. As Hayden himself acknowledges, weaponization is the (relatively) easy part. If, as he also acknowledges, Iran continued working on the two more difficult parts, how can stopping work (if indeed that work was stopped) on only one be said to have amounted to stopping the program?
Here’s what the NIE actually said: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” A footnote made Hayden’s caveats plain. This, it was clear to more careful readers of the NIE, “key judgment” was not supported by the actual facts presented in the rest of the document. But that’s not how the NIE was portrayed in the press or characterized by America’s adversaries. The emphasis was all on that first key judgment, the footnote was ignored, and the NIE was cited as evidence that the Iranian nuclear threat had receded.
Hayden later regretted the way the report had been received and acknowledged that the wording contributed to the problem. Here is what he said in the spring of 2008: “Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear to be willing to pay for what they are doing now if they did not have, at a minimum, at a minimum, they did not have a desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so that they have already decided to do that?” More: “The other aspects of the Iranian nuclear effort, beyond the weaponization, the development of fissile material, the development of delivery systems, all continue apace.” And this: “The only thing we claimed had been halted in ‘03 was the weaponization. The development of fissile material and the development of delivery systems continued. And one can make the case the development of delivery systems make no sense with just conventional warheads on top of them.” Why Hayden now repeats a criticism of the NIE—one that he once shared—as if it were a defense of NIE is puzzling.
It’s also worth noting that even the judgment that Iran halted weaponization in 2003 was later called into question. The IAEA found evidence that Iran was working on “two-point implosion” technology, which is weaponization pure and simple.
Hayden then turns to Syria. It’s worth recalling the four key judgments he presented to the president: “That’s a reactor. I have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10 years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built that reactor? I have medium confidence. On [the question whether] it is part of a nuclear weapons program, I have low confidence.”
That is word-for-word from the Woodward account and restated in Hayden’s new piece, where he adds: “To be clear about the last point: I told the president that al-Kibar was part of a nuclear weapons program. Why else would the Syrians take such a risk if they were not gambling on such a game-changer? And, besides, we could conceive of no alternative uses for the facility.” Persuasive. So why only “low confidence” that it was part of a weapons program? Because “we could not identify the other essentials of a weapons program (a reprocessing plant, work on a warhead, etc.).”
This is curious. Imagine, say, living next door to man who has in his garage a chassis, an engine block, some rims, a gas tank, a transmission, and a variety of tools. Many of these parts are coming together in a way that suggests he is building a car. In addition, he is a client of longstanding with a well-known auto parts dealer. But there are things you don’t see: seats, spark plugs, a fan belt, and gasoline. Would you derive simply from their apparent absence “low confidence” that he is building a car? Those parts might just be somewhere else. Or perhaps he has not yet procured them. Aren’t these explanations far more plausible than to doubt his purpose in building a car?
Hayden continues: “Woodward describes the intelligence as fact-based but then says it was shaped to discourage a preemptive U.S. strike.” Not exactly. What Woodward actually reports is that Hayden himself “later told others that he stuck to the intelligence facts and intentionally shaped his presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike because the intelligence was weak” (emphasis added). Hayden does not deny saying what Woodward attributes to him.
The most important bit of news in Woodward’s piece had nothing to do with the reactor itself or the intelligence on it but with the behavior of the intelligence community. It bears repeating: “At the CIA afterward, the group of specialists who had worked for months on the Syrian reactor issue were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, ‘No core/No war.’”
Hayden acknowledges that this detail might have generated “confusion” on how the intelligence community sees its role. Shaping presentations to influence policy is “not what intelligence does,” he insists. The coin was misunderstood. “‘[N]o war’ was never taken to mean no kinetic option against al-Kibar. Rather, it referred to the overall policy direction we were following: Whatever we did to make this reactor go away (‘no core’), it could not lead to a generalized conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean (‘no war’).”
This passage is especially puzzling. If the intelligence community is just supposed to present facts, then what policy role could it possibly have? What “policy direction” could it have been following and from whom? Also, who is the “we” here? Certainly not the intelligence community, which properly would have no role whatsoever in “mak[ing] this reactor go away.” That would be the job of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, if called upon. Similarly, while those who opposed a strike on the reactor were concerned that such a strike might lead to a wider war, the intelligence community would probably have had no role in preventing such a war. Unless, that is, it saw itself not as a presenter of facts but as an active shaper of policy.
Beyond this, the phrase, “Whatever we did to make this reactor go away,” is especially curious because “we”—whether defined as the intelligence community or the United States government—did nothing. This is not necessarily to criticize the decision made by President Bush. He has been widely derided for once describing his role as “the decider” but the phrase is exactly right. The call was his to make, for whatever mix of reasons that led him to the decision.
But the intelligence community’s effort to take credit for the eventual outcome is unseemly when the intelligence community not only played no role in making it happen but by its own account did everything it could to make sure it didn’t happen.
Hayden ends by declaring, “we got al-Kibar right.” Yes and no. At least in retrospect, everyone involved seems willing to acknowledge that the al-Kibar reactor was part of a nuclear weapons program. But at the time, by all accounts—including those meant as exculpatory to IC—it’s clear that the community at the very least wanted to have it both ways and at most wanted to use its role to limit the president’s options.