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Take bad intel, twist it, and run with it

An administration eager to attack Iraq tapped a pipeline of bad information. Now the White House and the CIA are trying to avoid blame.

November 20, 2005|David Wise | David Wise, who writes frequently about intelligence, is the author of "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

LIKE AN ALBATROSS that castaways hope will not alight on their raft, the question of who misled America into the war in Iraq hovers above Washington, flapping its wings, but so far choosing not to land on either CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., or the White House.

The debate over prewar intelligence reemerged with last month's indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who is accused of lying about his role in the leak of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of an administration critic. Democrats pounced on the indictment, saying the real issue it raised was the administration's manipulation of intelligence.

President Bush, facing record-low approval ratings and public discontent over the war, escalated the controversy on Veterans Day, when he attacked those who charge that his administration "manipulated the intelligence" to go to war. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) fired back, assailing Bush for attempting "to rebuild his own credibility by tearing down those who seek the truth."

The intelligence issue has always been intensely political. To the extent that the president, with the loyal support of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), can shift the blame to the CIA, it deflects responsibility from the White House. But the debate has been framed the wrong way from the start.

Congress and the public were persuaded to back the war because the president asserted that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States. In the months after the quick U.S. military victory in 2003, however, it became clear there were no WMD in Iraq. As the argument over the roots of the war evolved, it has taken a simplistic either/or form: Did the CIA provide bad intelligence, or did the Bush administration exaggerate and shape the intelligence to build the case for war?

In fact, both things happened.

That can be demonstrated in several ways. The intelligence about nuclear weapons provides the most dramatic example. The now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002 claimed that Iraq "is reconstituting" its nuclear weapons program. It wasn't. The CIA's experts did not predict, however, that Hussein, absent outside help, would have the bomb before the close of the decade. Yet in the months before the invasion, both then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Bush warned of a looming "mushroom cloud." Bad intelligence that the administration took and ran with and exaggerated.

Another startling example of the administration's use of bad intelligence to promote its cause originated with the Iraqi defector aptly codenamed "Curveball." The defector, though discredited as being a fabricator, claimed he was an eyewitness to Iraq's production of biological weapons in mobile labs. The "intelligence" found its way into then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech to the United Nations in February 2003 that helped build the case for war.

Once again, the intelligence was wrong, but the administration seized on it to ballyhoo its arguments. Had the White House bothered to ask, it would have learned that the CIA had never talked to "Curveball" before Powell's speech. When the agency did seek to interview the source, whose reports were provided by the German intelligence service, it was told, "You don't want to see him because he's crazy." Yet "Curveball" was the principal source that the administration relied on in claiming to the world that Iraq had biological weapons.

The attempt to link Hussein to Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, an effort led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Libby, was yet another example of the warping of bad intelligence. Cheney and his staff retailed a report, since widely discredited, that Mohammed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer. Cheney and Libby pushed hard to persuade Powell to include this "intelligence" in his U.N. speech, but the secretary, to his credit, refused.

Only moments before Powell addressed the U.N. on Feb. 5, 2003, Libby was frantically trying to reach the secretary's chief of staff, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, by cellphone to persuade Powell to include the supposed link between Hussein and 9/11 in his speech.

Because the Iraq intelligence was mostly wrong, one may ask, why? Was it mere incompetence on the part of the CIA or did the agency tell the president what George Tenet, then the agency's director, knew Bush wanted to hear?

That still unanswered question leads to another: Did the CIA's Iraq analysts succumb to pressure from the White House?

Despite pious assurances to the contrary by two official inquiries, there was pressure. Why else did Cheney, often accompanied by Libby, pay at least 10 visits to the CIA and meet with the analysts in the run-up to the war? Richard J. Kerr, the former deputy director of the CIA for intelligence, who investigated the Iraq debacle, concluded that there was indeed pressure on the analysts, in the form of repeated requests for rewrites.

The intelligence, though mostly bogus, was not entirely wrong. Buried in footnotes and passing references in the National Intelligence Estimate, for example, were dissents by the State Department and the Air Force. And Tenet cautioned both the White House and Congress that Hussein was unlikely to use his supposed weapons of mass destruction unless the U.S. backed him into a corner by invading. The dissents and Tenet's caveat were lost amid the rhetoric leading to war.

But for the most part, the intelligence was atrocious, yet embraced and inflated by a White House determined to march on Baghdad.

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