Saturday’s NYT had a piece bylined by James Risen about the Ghosts of Iraq Haunting CIA in Tackling Iran. It’s a Captain Obvious story in conception: anyone who pays attention knows that the CIA that saw no weapons in Iraq (wrong, 1991), tons of weapons in Iraq (wrong, 2002), and now sees no weaponization of nuclear material in Iran (wrong 2007, 2012) spends all of its time re-fighting the last war. Still, it’s always interesting to get the skinny from the belly of the beast, so I dove into Risen’s piece. And, boy, did I come out smelling like, well, the belly of the beast.
Greg Thielmann begins the bidding with the deep insight that “for a lot of people in the intelligence community, there is a feeling that they don’t want to repeat the same mistake.” Thanks, Greg. The rest of us in the real world community like to repeat the same mistake. Who’s Greg? Oh yes, he resigned his State Department analyst job to protest the Bush administration’s “politicization” of prewar Iraq intel.
Segue to Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, recent author of “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran,” and all-round Bush hater. (Here’s my recent take on him.) He’ll have an objective take.
We are then reassured that the IC now gets more dope on human sources so they can, you know, discount stuff they think isn’t worthwhile. But back to Risen’s sources: Next we have Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares, devoted enemy of nuclear weapons—but mostly those in America, less those in Iran. Joe gives us his take on past history and on Iran: “The intelligence was so heavily politicized on Iraq,” he comments dispassionately. “The higher up the chain in the government the intelligence reporting went, the more it got massaged, and the doubts and caveats got removed.” Uh, what? The bipartisan Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction reported that: “[a]fter a thorough review, the Commission found no indication that the Intelligence Community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. What the intelligence professionals told you about Saddam Hussein’s programs was what they believed. They were simply wrong.” Having watched the intel closely from 1992-2002, I can confirm no “massaging” was ever necessary.
Finally, we get an opposing view from AEI’s own John Bolton, who speaks for the “some conservatives” mentioned in the piece. (“Some liberals” aren’t mentioned, presumably because at the NYT, liberalism is mainstream, and conservatism is worthy of special annotation.) But Risen moves quickly back to favored topics and sources: He revisits the highly politicized 2007 NIE that claimed Iran had ceased its nuclear weaponization work in 2003, revising the actual narrative (then National Security Adviser Steve Hadley was told that if he tried to in any way alter the outrageously politicized conclusions of that NIE, the agency would leak his demand and create a scandal) to one that reflects favorably on the agency and on the NIE’s authors, one of whom, Tom Fingar, is the next source quoted in this balanced bit of reporting. “Learning from past mistakes is imperative,” Fingar confides to Risen. “Worrying about them is pointless.” Gotcha.