National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 7, 2003

Betrayal of trust

A former intelligence officer looks at how the U.S. was misled into supporting a preemptive war


To an intelligence analyst, Sad-dam’s strategy prior to the second Gulf war was extremely puzzling. It now appears that he destroyed Iraq’s nuclear capabilities in the 1990s and maintained only an embryonic chemical and biological weapons program. While Iraq’s military was lacking in usable weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s actions and propaganda seemed designed to give the impression that he had robust WMD capabilities.

On the U.S. side, after the terrorist attack of 9/11, it appears that the current Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq because of the belief that Saddam would supply terrorists with WMD. The administration could not -- or would not -- trust the analysis of its own intelligence community that did not show a tie between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government.

The long-standing divergence of views between current U.S. policy makers and the CIA is now well-known. As James Risen wrote Oct. 6 in The New York Times:

  • “Before the first Gulf war, the CIA did not believe that Iraq was close to building a nuclear bomb. But when United Nations inspectors went in after the war and discovered that Iraq had, in fact, been close to developing nuclear arms, the CIA was stunned.”
  • The CIA’s pre-war failure to uncover Iraq’s nuclear program would come back to haunt the agency “hurting its credibility with top officials who returned to power under George W. Bush.”
  • It was the desire of these administration “officials to have the intelligence reporting from the CIA correspond to their policies.”

Although the U.N. inspections in 2002 did not find any WMD, there was no proof of elimination. Thus, no respectable intelligence analyst, at the beginning of 2003, would have advised any policymaker that Iraq did not still have significant, hidden WMD capabilities.

Yet, despite the belief Iraq had WMD, there was no reason for anyone to assume that “massive retaliation” -- the fear that any use of WMD by Iraq against its neighbors would not be countered by massive retaliation by the West -- would not have deterred Saddam from using these weapons.

Nonetheless, the current Bush administration asserted that not only did Iraq have nuclear weapons but these could be supplied to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda -- who would use them against the United States. This was a gross overstatement. However, since administration spokes-persons presented the case in terms that made it appear to reflect valid intelligence, it persuaded me and many others to write that the threat was real and a U.S. pre-emptive attack was justified.

The director of the CIA was recently criticized for not correcting this assertion when the administration originally made the charge public. A Sept. 25 letter to CIA Director George Tenant by the leaders of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence criticizes the judgment that there was sufficient information to link Iraq with al-Qaeda and “that if public officials cite intelligence incorrectly, the intelligence community had a responsibility to go back to that policymaker” -- those in the Bush administration -- “and make clear that the public statement mischaracterized the available intelligence.”

In addition to making a false connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the Bush administration worked hard to inflate Iraq’s potential to develop nuclear weapons.

In the most bizarre event in my over 40 years of working in national intelligence or writing about it after retirement, the administration betrayed one of its own undercover agents because her husband, retired Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, had exposed the misstatements of the president in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

  • There were reports prior to Gulf War II that Niger had been supplying uranium ore to Iraq. Early in 2002, the CIA sent Wilson, who had long experience in the area, to Niger to check it out. He disclosed that there was no truth to the reports. Nonetheless, the president -- in circumstances that are still unclear -- asserted it in his State of the Union speech. Last July, Wilson, in an op-ed column in The New York Times, wrote that he had little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the threat and he had so reported it to the government in 2002 (New York Times, Oct. 5).
  • In retribution, newspaper reports say some person (or persons) in the administration called six reporters to say that Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA, in an attempt to intimidate analysis such as Wilson’s from appearing in print.
  • It turns out that Wilson’s wife has been a clandestine CIA agent for years. This revelation has resulted in her cover being blown and any clandestine networks that she and her colleagues developed have probably collapsed. In addition, lives may have been placed in jeopardy.
  • To me, it is one thing to have had the KGB and the CIA revealing each other’s spies during the Cold War. For officials of this administration to have done so to one of its own agents in an effort to discredit her husband is as dishonorable as it is unbelievable.

The upshot of revelations of the politicization of intelligence and the retaliation of the administration against one of its own clandestine agents and her husband -- an act which administration spokespersons seem blithely to refer to as a “leak” -- have almost certainly estranged the intelligence community against current U.S. policymakers.

The Washington Post’s editorial of Oct. 5 concerning the report of David Kay, the leader of the current U.S. hunt for Iraq’s WMD, said the following: “The Bush administration and Congress have a more urgent task: to discover and explain why some of the most significant estimates of Iraq’s weapons were false. The task is crucial not just because the United States stands to suffer a major loss of credibility and influence if governments around the world conclude that the president made his case against Iraq on the basis of faulty or falsified intelligence. It is also important because the U.S. intelligence community, which developed and stood behind many of the assessments, cannot afford to be so wrong about a country as important as Iraq. In an era of large dangers and small weapons, will the CIA know when a threat is next developing? And when Mr. Bush says such a threat exists, will other nations or his own people believe him?”

To this day, some in the administration are trying to keep alive a tie between al-Qaeda and Saddam in the mind of the public. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times writes: “Even after the president was forced to admit after Mr. Cheney’s last appearance on ‘Meet the Press’ last month that the link the vice president drew between Saddam and 9/11 did not actually exist, that did not deter Mr. Cheney.” In a speech given on Oct. 19, Cheney “repeatedly tied Saddam and 9/11 and said, all evidence to the contrary, that the secular Iraqi leader ‘had an established relationship with al-Qaeda.’ ” In her Oct. 12 op-ed in The New York Times, Dowd called the vice president’s speech “a masterpiece of demagogy.”

Despite the politicization of intelligence, we need to stay the course. The United States betrayed the Iraqi people at the end of the first Gulf war by giving them the impression that it would back them if they were to rise up to overthrow Saddam. A U.S. pullout now would allow the country to revert to the tender mercies of the survivors of Saddam’s regime -- a second betrayal. It would also detract from our capacity to affect other pressing security situations in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.

But for the American people to continue to try to win the peace, they “need to see a pragmatic, strategically optimistic, morally serious plan to get behind” (Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, Sept. 28).

So far, this has been lacking.

A footnote: David E. Sanger writes that “new intelligence estimates that North Korea may have produced one or two nuclear weapons in recent months -- or perhaps more -- have immersed the administration in another internal debate about the quality of intelligence about illegal weapons” (The New York Times, Oct. 14).

Here we go again.

Charles N. Davis served in the Defense Intelligence Agency and on the National Intelligence Council from 1962 through 1992.

National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 2003

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