This report in the Guardian belies all the claims of "Ba'athist dead-enders," "foreign fighters," and "Islamic militants". Brighter portions of the U.S. military now believe the Iraqi "insurgency" runs as high as 22,000 and is overwhelmingly secular nationalist in character. I suspect its even larger than that and growing, despite car-bombing Prime Minister Allawi's new powers of martial law.
New York Times Still Carrying Water for the Bush Administration
In the unhallowed world of American journalism, there is a special category of story that, while hardly non-existent pre-9-11, seems to have become increasingly more prevalent as fear of terrorism (or more accurately, fear of being labeled unpatriotic) engenders a debased deference to government officials amongst members of the fourth estate, a deference that has rightfully earned them the label "stenographers to power.". The New York Times, the American "paper of record," one of the worst perpetrators of this "officials say" style of journalism, was recently so worried about the damage to its reputation done by Judith Miller and other reporters' pieces on the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, that it issued a (back-paged and half-hearted) mea culpa admitting that there were "a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been." Yes, I'd say stovepiping WMD allegations directly from Ahmad Chalabi, once (and future?) pretender to Saddam Hussein's throne, to the front page was "not as rigorous as it should have been."
The Times' reporting following the mea culpa has unfortunately confirmed that they haven't learned much of a lesson. Case in point, Tuesday's article by James Risen titled, appropriately enough, "C.I.A. Held Back Iraqi Arms Data, Officials Say." The crux of Risen's article:
"In hindsight, the Senate [Select Committee on Intelligence] and many other intelligence officials now agree that there was little effort within the American intelligence community before the war to question the basic assumption that Mr. Hussein was still seeking to produce illicit weapons. Evidence that fit that assumption was embraced; evidence to the contrary was ignored or seen as part of a clever Iraqi disinformation campaign."
The article should be seen in the context of ongoing efforts to pin the entire blame for the WMD fiasco on the CIA and its soon-to-be-departed head George Tenet and deflect the attention from the role of Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, et.al. in a clever American disinformation campaign.
Before getting into some of the details of Risen's piece, it should first be noted that there is no reference the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which as Seymour Hersh details in the New Yorker:
"was conceived by Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, has brought about a crucial change of direction in the American intelligence community. These advisers and analysts, who began their work in the days after September 11, 2001, have produced a skein of intelligence reviews that have helped to shape public opinion and American policy toward Iraq. They relied on data gathered by other intelligence agencies and also on information provided by the Iraqi National Congress, or I.N.C., the exile group headed by Ahmad Chalabi. By last fall, the operation rivalled both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency, the D.I.A., as President Bush’s main source of intelligence regarding Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction and connection with Al Qaeda."
The glaring ommission of the Office of Special Plans aside, let's get to the substance of the Times' article. The impression given is that high officials in the Bush administration were unfortunate, passive victims of a CIA hell-bent on proving that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction.
"Among the many problems that contributed to the committee's harsh assessment of the C.I.A.'s prewar performance were instances in which analysts may have misrepresented information, writing reports that distorted evidence in order to bolster their case that Iraq did have chemical, biological and nuclear programs, according to government officials," reports Risen, later telling us "the committee has not found any evidence that the analysts changed their reports as a result of political pressure from the White House, according to officials familiar with the report." At this point Risen could have mentioned the numerous visits by Dick Cheney to Langley, labeled "unprecedented" by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. And he could have added information regarding Cheney's founding membership in the Project for a New American Century, which has been calling for the invasion of Iraq years before Bush was selected for the presidency, including in a 1998 letter to President Clinton, signed by such Bush adminstration figures as Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, Richard Armitage, Richard Perle, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad. Does political pressure have to come in the form of signed memos saying "you will lie for the President," before its possibility is admitted?
Later in the article Risen describes how Charlie Allen, the CIA's assistant director for collection, began developing contacts with relatives of Iraqi scientists thought to have been involved in WMD programs.
The relatives told the agency that the scientists had said that they were no longer working on illicit weapons, and that those programs were dead. Yet the statements from the relatives were never included in C.I.A. intelligence reports on Iraq that were distributed throughout the government. C.I.A. analysts monitoring Iraq apparently ignored the statements from the family members and continued to issue assessments that Mr. Hussein was still developing unconventional weapons, Senate investigators have found.
The clear implication here is that if only the CIA had given more credence to these reports, the hysterical cries of the "smoking gun coming in the form of a mushroom cloud" would at least have been somewhat mitigated. There's ample reason to doubt this conclusion. Risen doesn't tell us about the case of Hussein Kamal, Saddam's son-in-law, who after his defection in 1995, admitted involvement in WMD programs to the UN and the CIA, but crucially said that he had ordered the weapons destroyed in 1993. Dick Cheney, in a speech delivered August, 2002 used these interviews to claim:
But we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Among other sources, we've gotten this from the firsthand testimony of defectors -- including Saddam's own son-in-law, who was subsequently murdered at Saddam's direction.
Now, if Cheney was willing to distort Kamal's testimony in order to hype the nonexistent threat, what makes Risen and his Committee sources think that the testimony of some scientists' relatives would have turned this administration around?
Speaking of defectors, let's consider this tidbit by Risen:
There were problems with the handling of the other defectors used to buttress the biological weapons case. Information from one was used even though the Defense Intelligence Agency had warned in the spring of 2002 that he had fabricated information. The C.I.A. took statements that another defector had given to German intelligence without knowing his identity or learning that he had ties to the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi exile group led by Ahmad Chalabi. Mr. Chalabi, until recently a close ally of the Pentagon, fell into disfavor with the Bush administration after it became clear that his organization had provided disinformation to the United States and had exaggerated the threat posed by Mr. Hussein.
Let's pass over the fact that Chalabi did not fall into disfavor after it became clear that he had provided disinformation, but only after the administration realized that he was playing both sides of field by chumming it up with the Iranians and examine the claims here about the defectors' reports. The first defector was apparently a primary source for charges of biological weapons. The New York Times reported in another "officials said" article, this time by Douglas Jehl, that this fellow was the subject of a "fabrication notice" delivered by the Defense Intelligence Agency to other intelligence agencies, but that this information was "repeatedly overlooked," according to our ubiquitous "senior intelligence officials." Why should the CIA take the entire blame for this? Clearly, if the DIA issued the "fabrication notice," this information was available to Donald Rumsfeld and his underlings involved in crafting the NIE and one might assume that "other intelligence agencies" would include those at Powell's State Department, Rice's National Security Agency, and possibly even Ashcroft's Federal Bureau of Investigation. Furthermore, this defector was "provided to U.S. intelligence officials by Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi" Notice how Risen glosses over this fact for our first defector, while implicitly admitting that such a source would be dubious for the second, codenamed "Curveball" whom they "took statements from...without knowing his identity or learning that he had ties to the Iraqi National Congress."
Curveball, the brother of one of Chalabi's top aides, has been reported to be the primary source for the "Winnebagos of Death" described in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and in Colin "this-is-evidence-not-conjecture" Powell's UN presentation. In this case, Risen implies, the acceptance of Curveball's testimony is unfortunate, but not deception, because they didn't know who he was! Are we to believe that the inclusion of unknown single-sourced information is standard practice for U.S. National Intelligence Estimates? Documents, it should be noted, that are put together by senior figures from a range of intelligence agencies, not just the CIA. Additionally, according to the British nespaper The Guardian "German officials said that they had warned American colleagues well before the Iraq war that Curveball's information was not credible - but the warning was ignored." Yet, in May 2003, we have George W. Bush:
We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories. You remember when Colin Powell stood up in front of the world, and he said, Iraq has got laboratories, mobile labs to build biological weapons. They're illegal. They're against the United Nations resolutions, and we've so far discovered two.
And as late as last January, after the CIA had backed off claims that the trailers constituted "proof," Dick Cheney told NPR:
We know for example that prior to our going in that he had spent time and effort acquiring mobile biological weapons labs, and we're quite confident he did, in fact, have such a program. We've found a couple of semi trailers at this point which we believe were, in fact, part of that program.
Anyone that has followed the "intelligence failure" story outside of the narrow terms of the debate set by "official sources" knows that the CIA does indeed deserve a heap of blame for allowing Bush and his cronies to carry this country into a disastrous war based on manufactured scare tactics, but they know that the CIA's crime consisted of carrying water for the administration, a subject the New York Times should know something about.