Some former intelligence officers and historians say they are seeing a worrisome pattern of Vietnam-style politicization of intelligence, with pressure to play up the threat from Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and to minimize the potential for Iraqi resistance and the threat the war poses to regional stability.
They note complaints from current CIA analysts as well as glimpses of deeply flawed evidence used by the administration to make the case for war, including documents purporting to show Iraq’s attempts to buy uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons. The documents turned out to be forgeries, as CIA analysts had warned before the alleged uranium quest was used by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to illustrate the looming danger from Iraq.
More recently, as American and British troops were targeted by Iraqi irregulars, some news organizations were tipped to a secret CIA report prepared in February that detailed the threat from Hussein’s fedayeen and paramilitary units. The leak was a sign that intelligence officers do not want to be blamed for underestimating the resistance U.S. troops could face.
Yesterday, a dispute broke out over intelligence analysis of Hussein’s recent television appearances to determine whether they prove he survived the missile strikes that began the war. A Defense Department official told reporters all the video appearances were recorded before the war – but the CIA immediately disputed that, saying it had reached no such conclusion, according to the Associated Press.
The problem of intelligence being distorted or ignored is an old one, but it is particularly acute during crises, says Loch K. Johnson, an intelligence expert at the University of Georgia. “The intelligence people can spin their reports to get along with the White House,” says Johnson, who has served as a congressional intelligence staff member. “Or the White House can ignore the intelligence estimates. Either way, the danger is that the country can delude itself. When you start bending the facts, you can make very bad decisions.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence agencies came under fire for failing to put together the clues in time to thwart the terrorist attacks. Now some critics are saying the agencies have gathered relevant information about Iraq, but it has been overwhelmed by the strong convictions of the president and his top advisers.
Patrick G. Eddington, a former CIA analyst, said current agency officers have contacted him and other agency veterans in recent weeks with complaints of political influence.
“We’ve heard from multiple sources inside the agency about the pressure to conform,” says Eddington, who resigned from the agency in 1996 after accusing superiors of covering up evidence of possible causes of gulf war syndrome. “They say they feel pressure to shape estimates to support the administration’s positions – or at least not contradict the administration’s positions.”
Eddington is an organizer of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of former U.S. intelligence officers formed in January that has posted articles on the Internet charging that the war has corrupted the process of information-gathering and analysis.
While the intelligence veterans group has received little attention from U.S. media, members have been interviewed by Dutch, French, German and Spanish television networks, says 27-year CIA veteran Ray McGovern, another of the group’s leaders. A five-member steering group has signed its articles, but McGovern said about 25 former officers have joined the new group.
McGovern says the tussles over reporting on Iraq recall debates he witnessed in 1964 inside the CIA over the Tonkin Gulf incident, in which two reported North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. ships were used by President Lyndon Johnson to justify bombing North Vietnam. Historians doubt the second attack cited by Johnson ever occurred; Johnson later said, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
“It’s a problem whenever a U.S. administration sets its heart on a policy that cannot be supported by intelligence,” says McGovern, who retired from the CIA in 1990.
Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, said the critics are misinformed and the criticism is misplaced. Of the intelligence veterans’ group, he said, “They left the agency years ago, and they’re hardly in a position to comment knowledgeably on current analysis.”
While it is true that CIA analysts face pressure, Mansfield said, that’s not a sign that anything is amiss. “There’s always going to be pressure when dealing with matters of great import,” he said. “That pressure can come from various agencies, from congressmen, from pundits. The point is not to succumb to such pressure, and we haven’t succumbed.”
On occasion, aware of the dangers of spin, presidents have gone out of their way to be sure intelligence officers are indeed telling it like it is, says J. Ransom Clark, a retired CIA officer. “John Kennedy used to pick up the phone and call the desk officers in the CIA or state department,” Clark says. “It drove the supervisors crazy, but Kennedy was trying to reduce the number of times the information he got went through a strainer.”
But the debate that preceded the war in Iraq created unusual problems for intelligence agencies, because top administration officials strongly stated their belief that Iraq’s weapons were an imminent threat to the United States, partly because of ties between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorists.
Rick Francona, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who served as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s Arabic-language interpreter in the first gulf war, says he thinks the administration stretched the intelligence.
“Why drag out this tenuous connection to al-Qaida? I just don’t buy it,” Francona says.
In addition, key officials predicted that overturning Hussein’s regime would be relatively easy. “It will be quicker and easier than many people think,” Richard Perle, then chairman of the Defense Policy Board, told the PBS television network in July. “He is far weaker than many people realize.”
Francona says he fears such predictions may create undue pressure to enter Baghdad too quickly, before adequate troops are on hand. “The politics ended the gulf war in 1991” without the removal of Hussein, he says. “In this case, I think the politics could push the war too fast.”
When he worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Francona says, the director had a slogan on his wall meant to remind subordinates to resist the temptation to spin their findings: “It said, ‘Tell ‘m what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.'”