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The White House Plays Extreme Dodge Ball
Unlike the 9/11 Commission, the presidential commission charged to examine pre-Iraq war intelligence failures dodged the ball. On the key, tough issues such as use of the intelligence and White House pressure on analysts, the Silberman Commission avoided asking the tough -- or the right -- questions. So once again, everyone is responsible but no one is accountable.
by James Charles
April 1, 2005

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Standing on a podium Thursday morning as he faced White House reporters, President Bush trotted out his best solemn voice and stern expression to thank the commission he fought against creating for its work. In carefully wordsmithed sentences, each about eight or 10 words long to avoid triggering the president’s dyslexia problem, Bush promised to act on implementing the commission’s 74 conclusions that include breaking down the thick silo walls between Washington’s 15 or so separate intelligence gathering agencies and ensuring that Ambassador John Negroponte, the new Director of National Intelligence, has real authority to drive the change.

At one point, Bush awkwardly held up a copy of the 600-plus page report like an embarrassed first grader at the front of the class during show-and-tell. Then, appearing to be not quite sure why he was gripping the book, the president glanced at its cover self-consciously before sliding the document back onto a shelf under the podium. In a strange, almost comic opera way, his clumsy gesture symbolized the dilemma the report poses for the White House: At one level, it seems to let the Bush administration off the hook, as long as most people don’t bother reading the report too closely. But at a deeper level, it is a classic example of how the administration again manages to play extreme dodge ball by hiding the way its government really works.

Commission chair Judge Laurence H. Silberman said as much in an exchange with Margaret Warner on PBS’s Jim Lehrer NewsHour the night the report was released. On how the president or Congress used faulty intelligence Judge Silberman said, “[W]e duck. That is not part of our charter. We did not express any views on policymakers’ use of intelligence -- whether Congress or the president. It wasn't part of our charter….” Of course it wasn’t in their charter, which was written by loyal apparatchiks buried deep inside the White House. There was no way Karl Rove would expose the administration to genuine public scrutiny of how it misused bad intelligence once the commission finished its work, which he also ensured happened well after the election.

The other, more important issue was whether analysts were pressured to give the administration the answers on Iraq WMDs that it wanted. “[A]s to whether or not there was any policymaker effort to influence the intelligence, we found zip, nothing, nothing to support point made in the report,” according to Judge Silberman, a Republican appointee, who fairly beamed as he spoke. Co-chair Charles Robb, a former Democratic Senator, did say, however, “The intelligence community imposed pressure on itself. There was a conventional wisdom and there certainly was a feeling articulated by some that they did not want to go against the conventional wisdom.”

But where did the conventional wisdom originate?

According to a source who followed the commission’s investigation closely and who, before retiring and moving to California, had been a CIA station chief in several Middle Eastern and European countries as well as a ranking officer at Langley between foreign postings, pressure doesn’t have to be spoken.

“Think about it,” the man, who insisted on confidentiality, said Thursday after the report was released. “On Sunday, Vice President Cheney is on all of the network news shows going on and on about how we -- meaning the intelligence community -- know Iraq is hiding WMDs and probably nuclear weapons. On Monday, Cheney shows up at CIA headquarters where he has an office set up for him and is briefed by senior analysts and (former CIA director) George Tenet and who knows who else. No one ever says a word about it, no one has to, but everyone in the room knows damn well what the Vice President wants to hear.

“I’ve been told by people who were present at some of those briefings,” the source explained, “that when Cheney was given reports that argued against the existence of WMDs, or was shown UN intelligence saying it appeared that WMDs had been destroyed years earlier, he discounted them. And not in a polite way. Nobody wants to have the Vice President of the United States swear at them twice.”

Above all else, CIA analysts are bureaucrats, and one thing bureaucrats know how to do well is protect their backsides. If Cowpuncher -- the Secret Service’s sometimes code name for Pres. Bush -- wanted intelligence proving the existence of WMDs, that’s what civil servants will deliver.

This general take on how things work in Langley was confirmed by another former CIA official, who also insisted on anonymity as a condition of speaking.

“The company is rife with examples where so-called faulty intelligence was used as a cover for times when the White House was only interested in the answers that matched its policy. Iran is an example,” he said recently. “No one in the White House wanted to know what was really going on in the streets of Tehran when the Shah was being ousted by religious fundamentalists. Six months earlier, the president had the Shah of Iran for dinner in the East Room. The west wing didn’t want to hear that he was in deep shit, or that just below the surface of the anger expressed by street demonstrators against the Shah was a deep hatred of America for propping him up for so many years.”

“So by presenting selective bits of intelligence, people around the Oval Office heard what they wanted to hear,” he added.

Indeed, when two analysts studying Iraq’s weapons programs did speak up, saying the information coming in was from a known fabricator, they suffered the worst punishment that can be handed out to a bureaucrat: They were transferred and shunted aside, their careers destroyed for all practical purposes.

The report obliquely admits this and slaps at -- but not on -- the wrists of the president. It notes that the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), a morning summary of intelligence information from the previous 24 hours, left readers with misleading impressions and nuance was omitted completely from the picture being presented. Yet instead of wagging a finger where it should have been directed, the Silberman report scolded the intelligence community for “attention-grabbing (PDB) headlines and drumbeat of repetition… In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be ‘selling’ intelligence in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested.” 

“Oh, there was certainly pressure within the intelligence community,” Judge Silberman meekly conceded.

Where could that pressure originate if not from inside the Oval Office, or at least from people with immediate access to Pres. Bush? Only a foolhardy Las Vegas bookmaker would take odds that it came from anyone other than Mr. Here’s My Conventional Wisdom himself, Vice Pres. Dick Cheney.

Although he had left the CIA by the time Iraq was occupying everyone’s attention, the former station chief told us, “Unless it’s a case where the missiles are already on NORAD’s radar screen and heading for Washington, whenever you read one, one-sided intelligence report after another you know that the analysts figured out for themselves that somebody, somewhere along Pennsylvania Ave. is keen to see a certain set of answers.”

Undoubtedly, the commission and its staff of lawyers asked direct questions, as they might have in court: Did anyone directly pressure you into shading the intelligence findings? Naturally, the answer was a universal “no”. If instead they had asked, “Did you ever hear or read the president’s or the vice president’s public statements about weapons of mass destruction being in Iraq?” they might have received a very different answer. Because then, at least two follow-up questions could be, “What did you think about what they were saying?” and “When you saw the vice president on television constantly talking about how certain the government was about Iraq weapons, how did you and your colleagues avoid having your own perceptions shaped as you look at the raw intelligence data that you’re studying?” Other similar questions would have resulted from the answers.

Judge Silberman never explained why the report did not go into depth on the issue of how the conventional wisdom it criticized came into being. Nor did he explain why the report totally ignores the use of intelligence. Unlike Gov. Tom Keene, the loyal judge refused to push boundaries and challenge authority. All that the judge said was, “it wasn’t in our charter.”

People who conduct intelligence interrogations say that what someone does not tell them can be as informative as what information is revealed. It’s called “taking back bearings,” and by using this well-tested process with the intelligence commission report it is possible to reconstruct what the White House did not want Congress or the public to know.

First, clearly the Bush Administration did not want to reveal how it used the intelligence it received, whether from the CIA or other governmental agencies. For example, it totally ignored Energy Department analysts who said that a raft of aluminium tubes could not be used for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a necessary step in building nuclear weapons, so that Bush could tell Congress there was evidence Iraq was acquiring material to build an atomic bomb. It knowingly used fabricated evidence from sources the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency knew were liars, scoundrels and to support its allegations of biological weapons. And it deliberately lied about the connections that the administration insisted existed between al Qaeda and Iraq. Intelligence from what few legitimate sources existed had to have revealed the truth about these points.

When a CIA source was asked about this, he stated unequivocally that “even if Bush was personally unaware of disparities between what he was saying and what was the truth, people high in the White House, the Pentagon and CIA did. That’s how intelligence flow works, especially in something as critical as going to war. It was their job to make sure the president knew, and they didn’t. Instead, they received medals, cabinet posts and promotions.”

Second, back bearings reveal that there definitely was pressure on the grunts in Langley’s trenches to hew to the party line. The report writes it off as “institutional pressure” to conform to a conventional wisdom, which means no one can be blamed -- a favourite tactic of Bush The Younger. But as anyone who has worked in a bureaucracy of any kind --military, government, corporate, social service -- conventional wisdom does not originate in the air circulated by the heating system. It is spawned and spread from a raised eyebrow, by an ignored memo, from not being invited to a meeting. No one has to say anything, and no one does, because everyone knows what is expected of them.

“Careers are made in two ways at the CIA,” a former employee said. “You can be terribly brilliant or do something incredibly clever, which doesn’t happen very often outside of spy novels. Or, you can go along to get along. Keep your head down, your nose in your work.”

Going along in the CIA means rising up through civil service pay grades by being given increasingly important and visible assignments, foreign postings, running networks or heading up a section. As the two analysts learned who disagreed vehemently with the conventional wisdom that formed around Iraq, not going along means being assigned to some remote and forgotten corner of the massive building that houses the agency.

Third, taking back bearings on the report is informative because it shows that the intelligence community as a whole is like a rudderless ship captained by someone who’s never been to sea. The report is replete with too many examples of how the left hand forgot to tell the right hand what it was doing, or learning. The DIA doesn’t speak to the CIA, and neither of them speaks to the FBI which is fine with the professional heirs of J. Edgar Hoover’s legacy because they have no interest or intention on sharing information, either.

“The biggest thing left unsaid in the commission’s report,” a former intelligence officer states, “is that most if not all of the public statements by the administration on Iranian and North Korean weapons plans are made up out of whole cloth. They have no idea what is going on in Tehran or Pyongyang. But it didn’t have to be that way.”

Without providing specifics, the source claims that sometime in the summer or fall of 2001 Chinese intelligence services approached the CIA through a station chief in Southeast Asia, offering to cooperate with Langley on collecting and sharing intelligence on North Korea. The US had the spiffy electronic toys including satellites, sophisticated eavesdropping equipment and the ability to pluck e-mail and telephone signals from the air. The Chinese had agents on the ground through its embassy, spies posing as reporters for New China News Agency, agents working as employees of Chinese airlines flying into North Korea and various trade agencies. Working together, Beijing thought that the two services could get a much better picture of what was going on inside a tightly closed country that worried both China and the US. Reportedly, the Chinese offer went up through the CIA hierarchy and was vetoed by the White House.

Why turn down an offer of cooperation that could produce lucrative results? One legitimate reason could be not wanting to let the Chinese know exactly what the quality of US electronic intelligence was in 2001. More likely, given everything that has been learned since, a cooperative intelligence mission could turn up inconvenient facts that might undercut “conventional wisdoms” official Washington held about North Korea.

So once again, the Bush Administration has managed to play a game of extreme dodge ball, sidestepping both accountability for its actions and responsibility for its misdeeds. If the Senate Intelligence Committee ever finished and publishes its report on the handling of Iraq intelligence, chances are the Republican leadership will ensure that its document is as timid and mealy-mouthed as the report issued by the Silberman Commission. There are truths that the White House does not want revealed, not because of any national security reason but because its very hold on power and the remaining, increasingly thin veneer of legitimacy of the Iraq war, will be erased.

The question is whether opponents can organize themselves quickly enough to put sufficient pressure on Congress to begin a thorough examination of what the president knew and when did he know it.

James Charles is a Toronto writer. His next book is Life In The Dominion: An Ex-Pat American’s Affectionate Look At Living In Canada. He can be reached at:

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