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David Ignatius

Fooling Ourselves

By David Ignatius
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page A27

To the literature on deception in war we must now add a new chapter -- on self-deception. For that is the ultimate explanation for how the American military went to war in Iraq in March 2003 equipped with gas masks and chemical-biological suits to protect itself against weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist.

The presidential commission that released its report yesterday was scathing about this intelligence failure. It described an intelligence community that is "headstrong," "too slow" and "a 'Community' in name only." It dissected intelligence reports that were "riddled with errors," "disastrously one-sided" and that relied on information from "sources who were telling lies." The commission's conclusion was simply worded but devastating: "The harm done to American credibility by our all too public intelligence failings in Iraq will take years to undo."

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The report blamed everyone involved in the WMD fiasco except the Bush administration officials who actually made the decision to go to war. "[W]e were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received," the commission explained. That omission is unfortunate. If there's one thing that has become clear in the history of U.S. intelligence over the past 50 years it is that the CIA is not in fact a rogue agency. It is shaped, often to a fault, by the priorities and pet projects of whoever is in the White House. Intelligence supports policy, but it doesn't make it.

The Bush administration must examine its role in the process of self-deception over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, above all to guard against future mistakes. It wasn't Saddam Hussein who deceived American leaders; he claimed repeatedly that he had no WMD. It was America that deceived itself. The commission said it didn't find evidence of any direct political pressure on analysts to skew their judgments. But it hints at the real-life Washington atmosphere in which the disastrous mistakes were made: "[I]t is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

As the commission tells the story, the self-deception began with the intelligence community's failures before the 1991 Persian Gulf War in assessing how far Iraq had advanced in its nuclear and chemical weapons programs. "Shaken by the magnitude of their errors," the report notes, "intelligence analysts were determined not to fall victim again to the same mistake." So they made a new one, which was to assume the worst possible case about Iraq's WMD. They wove together suppositions, preconceptions and shreds of real information. Incredibly, in the egregious case of a defector to Germany code-named "Curveball," who had provided fabricated "intelligence" about Iraqi mobile biological labs, the CIA passed the information to policymakers without ever confirming it independently.

When it came time to write the decisive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD in October 2002, the analysts took their assumptions "and swathed them in the mystique of intelligence, providing secret information that seemed to support them but was in fact nearly worthless, if not misleading." Philosophers describe this process as "reification" -- turning soft information into what appears to be hard fact.

The intelligence community is bruised and demoralized these days, and not without reason. Its mistakes have spawned a kind of reform-mania, and a frantic drive to rejigger the bureaucratic boxes under a new director of national intelligence (DNI), in the hope that this can improve collection and analysis. So far, alas, the restructuring has mainly produced confusion. One of the valuable services of the WMD report is that it offers a clear plan for the new DNI-designate, John Negroponte, in how to put the pieces together coherently.

The commission's most important recommendation is to create at the CIA a Human Intelligence Directorate (with the felicitous acronym "HID"). The present Directorate of Operations would be subordinate to the HID, which would have an "Innovation Center" to study unconventional ways to gather information beyond the DO's traditional reliance on case officers in U.S. embassies. This recommendation seems to be an attempt to break the DO's cultural hegemony within the intelligence community, and I'm afraid it's necessary. These secret warriors have served the country bravely, but as the commission notes, they have "an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations." That must stop.

Spying, in the end, is about real spies. The agency's first great spymaster, Allen Dulles, made that point in his memoir, "The Craft of Intelligence," by quoting the 2,400-year-old admonition of Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: "What is called 'foreknowledge' cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation." That's precisely what America lacked in Iraq.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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