By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006
The former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year has accused the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" intelligence on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war, and of ignoring warnings that the country could easily fall into violence and chaos after an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Paul R. Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, acknowledges the U.S. intelligence agencies' mistakes in concluding that Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he said those misjudgments did not drive the administration's decision to invade.
"Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war," Pillar wrote in the upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. Instead, he asserted, the administration "went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq."
"It has become clear that official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between [Bush] policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized," Pillar wrote.
Pillar's critique is one of the most severe indictments of White House actions by a former Bush official since Richard C. Clarke, a former National Security Council staff member, went public with his criticism of the administration's handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and its failure to deal with the terrorist threat beforehand.
It is also the first time that such a senior intelligence officer has so directly and publicly condemned the administration's handling of intelligence.
Pillar, retired after 28 years at the CIA, was an influential behind-the-scenes player and was considered the agency's leading counterterrorism analyst. By the end of his career, he was responsible for coordinating assessments on Iraq from all 15 agencies in the intelligence community. He is now a professor in security studies at Georgetown University.
White House officials did not respond to a request to comment for this article. They have vehemently denied accusations that the administration manipulated intelligence to generate public support for the war.
"Our statements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein were based on the aggregation of intelligence from a number of sources and represented the collective view of the intelligence community," national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in a White House briefing in November. "Those judgments were shared by Republicans and Democrats alike."
Republicans and Democrats in Congress continue to argue over whether, or how, to investigate accusations the administration manipulated prewar intelligence.
Yesterday, the Senate Republican Policy Committee issued a statement to counter what it described as "the continuing Iraq pre-war intelligence myths," including charges that Bush " 'misused' intelligence to justify the war." Writing that it was perfectly reasonable for the president to rely on the intelligence he was given, the paper concluded, "it is actually the critics who are misleading the American people."
In his article, Pillar said he believes that the "politicization" of intelligence on Iraq occurred "subtly" and in many forms, but almost never resulted from a policymaker directly asking an analyst to reshape his or her results. "Such attempts are rare," he writes, "and when they do occur . . . are almost always unsuccessful."
Instead, he describes a process in which the White House helped frame intelligence results by repeatedly posing questions aimed at bolstering its arguments about Iraq.
The Bush administration, Pillar wrote, "repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war," including information on the "supposed connection" between Hussein and al Qaeda, which analysts had discounted. "Feeding the administration's voracious appetite for material on the Saddam-al Qaeda link consumed an enormous amount of time and attention."
The result of the requests, and public statements by the president, Vice President Cheney and others, led analysts and managers to conclude the United States was heading for war well before the March 2003 invasion, Pillar asserted.
They thus knew, he wrote, that senior policymakers "would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. . . . [They] felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious."
Pillar wrote that the prewar intelligence asserted Hussein's "weapons capacities," but he said the "broad view" within the United States and overseas "was that Saddam was being kept 'in his box' " by U.N. sanctions, and that the best way to deal with him was through "an aggressive inspections program to supplement sanctions already in place."
"If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication," Pillar wrote, "it was to avoid war -- or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath."
Pillar describes for the first time that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that, he wrote, indicated a postwar Iraq "would not provide fertile ground for democracy" and would need "a Marshall Plan-type effort" to restore its economy despite its oil revenue. It also foresaw Sunnis and Shiites fighting for power.
Pillar wrote that the intelligence community "anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam."
In an interview, Pillar said the prewar assessments "were not crystal-balling, but in them we were laying out the challenges that would face us depending on decisions that were made."
Pillar wrote that the first request he received from a Bush policymaker for an assessment of post-invasion Iraq was "not until a year into the war."
That assessment, completed in August 2004, warned that the insurgency in Iraq could evolve into a guerrilla war or civil war. It was leaked to the media in September in the midst of the presidential campaign, and Bush, who had told voters that the mission in Iraq was going well, described the assessment to reporters as "just guessing."
Shortly thereafter, Pillar was identified in a column by Robert D. Novak as having prepared the assessment and having given a speech critical of Bush's Iraq policy at a private dinner in California. The column fed the White House's view that the CIA was in effect working against the Bush administration, and that Pillar was part of that. A columnist in the Washington Times in October 2004 called him "a longstanding intellectual opponent of the policy options chosen by President Bush to fight terrorism."
Leaked information "encouraged some administration supporters to charge intelligence officers (including me) with trying to sabotage the president's policies," Pillar wrote. One effect of that, he said, was to limit challenges to consensus views on matters such as the Iraqi weapons program.
When asked why he did not quit given his concerns, Pillar said in the interview that he was doing "other worthwhile work in the nation's interest" and never thought of resigning over the issue.
Pillar suggests that the CIA and other intelligence agencies, now under Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, remain within the executive branch but "be given greater independence."
The model he cites is the Federal Reserve, overseen by governors who serve fixed terms. That, he said, would reduce "both the politicization of the intelligence community's own work and the public misuse of intelligence by policymakers."