July 14, 2003
Lack of Intelligence
The flap over who baked the yellowcake uranium story is so transparently political that it is tempting to ignore. But now that Democrats and other opponents of deposing Saddam Hussein are demanding a full-scale scapegoat hunt, by all means let's consider the uses and abuses of intelligence.
The charge is that 16 of the words that President Bush uttered during his January State of the Union address may have been false. Here's what he said: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." We say this "may" be false, because in fact the British government continues to stand by this assertion even if the CIA does not. So what Mr. Bush said about what the British believe was true in January and is still true today.
Based on this non-lie, then, we are all supposed to believe that the entire case for going to war was false and that -- precisely what? Other than calling for someone's head, and for a Congressional probe that would give free TV time to Democrats running for President, the critics don't seem to be demanding anything specific about policy. Do John Kerry and Joe Lieberman now regret their vote to allow Mr. Bush to go to war in Iraq?
We ask that question because policy decisions are what Presidents are elected to make, and the results of those judgments are what they should be held responsible for. The case for deposing Saddam was based on a dozen years of history, U.N. resolutions and virtual unanimity in the intelligence community that he had weapons of mass destruction and programs to build more. The furor over yellowcake intelligence is a sideshow about process, and even on this point the critics are working under a mistaken assumption about how intelligence ought to work.
Michigan Senator Carl Levin, among others, seems to believe that somewhere "in the bowels of the agency" there are dispassionate analysts who scour the world for evidence and then make Olympian judgments about what is true or false. These judgments in turn are supposed to be binding on policy makers. Two callow writers at The New Republic even quoted with a straight face a CIA analyst who claimed that it was wrong for Vice President Dick Cheney to have visited Langley to inspect the Iraq evidence lest he upset the equilibrium of what is supposed to be an "ivory tower."
Anyone who believes this is naive or mischievous, and dangerously so. Intelligence is supposed to be a tool of policy, not a determiner of it. By its very nature intelligence is fragmentary and ambiguous. Analysts are supposed to look for patterns in the haystacks, form hypotheses about what they mean and then feed their best estimates to policy makers. The job of the users of intelligence is not to accept this as holy writ but to ask questions, challenge hypotheses and prod the spooks to look for other things or in other directions.
The person who has stated this most clearly is none other than Donald Rumsfeld, who included a notable Intelligence Side Letter as part of the report filed by his Commission assessing the ballistic missile threat in 1999. (Mr. Levin could read it in the Green Room awaiting his many TV appearances.)
The Commission's Side Letter found that in U.S. intelligence circles "The ballistic missile and WMD threat are not normally treated as a strategic threat to the U.S., on a par with any other highest priority issues." Specifically, it blamed "senior users of intelligence" for failing "to interact knowledgeably with the producers of intelligence."
Contrary to the Ivory Tower school, the Side Letter added that, "Unless and until senior users take time to engage analysts, question their assumptions and methods, seek from them what they know, what they don't know and ask them their opinions -- and do so without penalizing the analysts when their opinions differ from those of the user -- senior users cannot have a substantial impact in improving the intelligence product they receive."
This adult view of intelligence contrasts with the Levin school, which puts an unfair burden on CIA analysts that most of them really don't want. It makes them the ultimate arbiter of facts that determine policy, turning them into "political" actors. In that sense, Joseph Wilson, the CIA consultant who last week wrote about his trip to Niger over yellowcake, is the one who has "politicized" intelligence. He is a well-known opponent of war with Iraq and clearly now wants to discredit the Bush policy after the fact.
Which brings us back to the current half-baked outrage over yellowcake. The Democratic motive has very little to do with intelligence disputes. The campaign is really about assailing Mr. Bush's credibility, which Democrats realize is his greatest asset. That's why they throw the words "lie" and "untruth" around like loose change, as if Mr. Bush had deceived a grand jury.
That's also why Terry McAuliffe's Democratic National Committee jumped on the yellowcake flap last week with an attack ad. The ad declares that "It's time to tell the truth," but the ad's video clip of Mr. Bush's 16-word State of the Union sentence omits the crucial words: "The British government has learned that..." The Democrats are themselves lying about Mr. Bush's non-lie.
The yellowcake assault is itself an abuse of intelligence, and if it extends to a full-scale probe it has the potential to damage a vital tool of U.S. security in the war on terror. Especially after 9/11 and in a world of WMD, the U.S. needs intelligence analysts willing to question their own assumptions, as well as policy makers willing to help them do it. We wish the Bush Administration would stop playing who baked the yellowcake and start explaining to Americans that intelligence is too important to be politicized.
Updated July 14, 2003