June 10, 2003

June 10, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Shaken, Not Spun

A small chorus of disgruntled intelligence analysts from the CIA and the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) are claiming that senior Bush administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, bullied them into manipulating intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to bolster support for a war against Iraq. This is likely to be nonsense.

A Washington Post article last week quoted one senior CIA official's claim that Cheney and his chief of staff, during visits to the agency, "sent signals, intended or otherwise, that a certain output was desired" in the intelligence related to a possible conflict with Baghdad. Others say they felt pressure to write intelligence reports in a way that would help the administration make the case for a final showdown with Saddam Hussein.

Why didn't these stouthearted spooks speak up before the war began? The likelihood is that the analysts never agreed with the Bush policy of confronting Saddam. And since the WMD haven't been found yet, they finally have the guts to speak out - anonymously, of course.

The responsibility of the intelligence community is to provide senior government officials - including the president - with accurate, comprehensive and timely national-security reporting. Intelligence assessments are supposed to serve as an independent, objective source of information for those who make the big decisions, such as going to war.

Briefing the vice president is a tough job for any intelligence official, especially when the end result could be the commitment of troops to battle. Cheney likely asked some very difficult questions, as he should have.

The number of visits Cheney made to the CIA to meet with analysts surprised some. But the matter of war and peace is certainly important enough to warrant laser-like questioning and multiple trips to Langley.

On critical matters, it is quite helpful for policymakers to look an intelligence analyst in the eye and ask: who, what, where, when and how? The give-and-take is certainly more meaningful than reading an intelligence report that is often a consensus document, and may not contain dissenting views or identify the sources of the information.

Like a good cross-examination in a courtroom, direct questioning can also flush out flawed analysis. I would have been disappointed if the likes of Cheney and Wolfowitz had not been delving into these matters with vigor.

When Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was widely credited with saying to his military intelligence briefers: "Tell me what you know; tell me what you don't know; tell me what you think; and make sure I know the difference." You can't get that sort of interaction by reading an intelligence report or sitting in your mahogany-lined office.

The intelligence official's job is to tell it like it is, not as they perceive the senior official wants to hear it. Doing anything else would be unprofessional, unethical and potentially tragic. The failures of the Vietnam War come immediately to mind as an example of the costs of fairy-tale intelligence.

Analysts have ways to resist pressure and intimidation. The intelligence agencies have ombudsman offices to whom analysts can turn if they are feeling compelled to manipulate their findings. The discontented intelligence officials who have suddenly found their voice for anonymous media tips had this option as well.

Only the intelligence analyst knows whether he or she distorted, hyped or spun the intelligence to please policymakers. It is incumbent upon these professionals that when they say, "Yes, sir," to a senior official that it is "yes" because it's "yes." Not "yes" because it's "sir."

The stakes for the nation are just too high.

Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense and CIA officer, is now a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

Reprinted with permission by New York Post