When the CIA Got It Right

By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Central Intelligence Agency celebrated its 60th birthday last week, its public standing seemingly at an all-time low. The agency is viewed as having gotten it wrong on Iraq and nearly everything else over its six decades of unlovableness.

A new book that purports to be a history of the CIA, "Legacy of Ashes," argues that it is indeed a nearly unbroken chain of error. The United States "has failed to create a first-rate spy service," writes Tim Weiner. "We are back where we began six decades ago, in a state of disarray."

In some respects, the agency is as messed up as its critics contend. Years of presidential arm-twisting, congressional second-guessing and public disdain have taken their toll. As Weiner says, the agency has made too many mistakes -- from the old days of flamboyant prep-school arrogance to the modern era of button-down mediocrity. The truth is that America -- a democracy that is uncomfortable with spying and that treats its spies badly -- has the intelligence service it deserves.

But the catalogue of catastrophe isn't the whole story. As a 60th-birthday surprise, it's worth considering an example of how the agency got it right. This particular case study involves Iraq -- an area where the public (thanks to some dirty tricks by the Bush administration) wrongly thinks the agency messed up totally -- and a career CIA intelligence analyst named Paul R. Pillar.

Pillar told his story at a seminar at Georgetown University last week and in the current edition of the National Interest. He recounted the details of Iraq intelligence estimates that the agency produced in January 2003 -- not the famous one that wrongly embraced the Bush administration's jeremiads about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction but two others that warned in stark terms about the dangers of a U.S. invasion.

Pillar, who retired in 2005 after a 28-year career at the CIA, was the government's top Middle East analyst during the run-up to the invasion. Knowing that President Bush was pushing for war, Pillar felt a duty to warn of the likely consequences. So in late 2002, he prepared two quick estimates -- one on the likelihood of domestic turmoil in postwar Iraq and another on the risky consequences for the region. He arranged for the Policy Planning bureau at the State Department, which shared his worries, to commission the studies.

The estimates were circulated in January 2003. You don't have to take my word or Pillar's for what they said: They are posted on the Web site of the Senate intelligence committee. They make haunting reading now, to put it mildly -- because nearly every setback we have seen in Iraq was forecast by Pillar and the analysts in their effort to break through the administration's happy talk.

The opening paragraph of the estimate on "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" made this stark prediction: "The building of an Iraqi democracy would be a long, difficult and probably turbulent process, with potential for backsliding into Iraq's tradition of authoritarianism." The next paragraph warned more explicitly that "a post-Saddam authority would face a deeply divided society with a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict."

The second estimate, on "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq," rightly warned that an invasion could spawn more Muslim terrorism, rather than less. Here's how Pillar and the analysts summarized the danger on the first page: "A U.S.-led war against and occupation of Iraq would boost political Islam and increase popular sympathy for some terrorist objectives, at least in the short term."

The CIA's prewar cautions were ignored, and so was the consistent flow of intelligence after the March 2003 invasion about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A July 2004 assessment prepared by Pillar predicted that Iraq faced, at best, "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months and could slide into civil war. A White House spokesman dismissed a leaked account of the estimate as the work of "pessimists and naysayers."

When Pillar gave a summary of the situation in Iraq during a private, off-the-record gathering in California in September 2004, a normal part of his job as a national intelligence officer, he was attacked publicly. Robert D. Novak denounced him by name in his syndicated column and stated that Bush and the CIA were "at war with each other." To his credit, Pillar kept trying to sound the alarm until the day he retired.

What's the point of this story? Sometimes, as in most of its Iraq reporting, the CIA has gotten it dead right. And when we assess the CIA, we should understand that many of its supposed failures really have another address -- the White House.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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