The lack of intelligence of American intelligence

Fulton Armstrong is a former US intelligence officer who sent the following letter to the New York Review of Books and explains how the US intelligence community is close to broken (so remember this when a forthcoming report appears on Iran):

I was a member of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), as national intelligence officer (NIO) for Latin America, from 2000 to 2004. The NIC is the intelligence community’s senior analytical group responsible for preparing National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), including the Iraq WMDNIE. At the time, it reported to the director of the CIA, George Tenet, in his “intelligence community hat” and was located at CIA headquarters. Although the NIC is an interagency body, the CIA has always dominated its staff and work.

The first congressional briefing I ever took part in as an NIO, along with my colleagues, included discussion of WMDs, and it started with fifteen minutes of paeans of praise by Jesse Helms, and other Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for our intelligence work. Several of the NIOs were praised for having embraced the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission, which pressed upon the Clinton administration a hyped analysis of the missile threat (and rationale for an accelerated “missile defense strategy”). The NIOs clearly knew what was going on in that room. Intelligence officers are all trained to remind the recipients of their reports that they are never to take sides in a policy debate. These NIOs, however, said nothing and were clearly happy with the praise by the Republican committee members.

The National Intelligence Estimate produced by these NIOs on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, with the participation of the CIA and other intelligence agencies, was not subjected to the customary “peer review” of the National Intelligence Council because, after delaying the project for months, the NIOs didn’t have a spare hour for the discussion and debate that the council’s review would have provided. But we knew what they were up to. During our closed-door council meetings, they would eagerly report their progress in dividing the fifteen coordinating agencies that had contributed to the NIE. They boasted how, after an obviously extensive search, they finally found an Energy Department employee willing to contradict his agency’s consensus position that Iraq’s missile tubes were not, as the administration and the NIOs asserted, centrifuge tubes.

The NIOs who were preparing the NIE also boasted how they found an Air Force analyst to dissent from his service’s position that Iraq’s little unmanned surveillance planes could not be armed. They were happy that challenges to their and the administration’s assumptions about Iraq’s chemical weapons and biological weapons capabilities were minimal; after all, who’s going to try to prove a negative?

The most back-patting, however, was reserved for their success in forcing the State Department’s intelligence shop, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), to take a “footnote”—a dissent at the bottom of the page—on a lesser judgment in the paper rather than on the overarching judgment that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. One of the NIOs smiled when he reported that INR couldn’t prove that Saddam did not have WMDs and that no one wanted to be seen as defending Saddam anyway. That was exactly the Bush administration’s political strategy as well. Instead of allowing INR to develop an alternative analysis in the main text of the NIE—the proper form for a different view when the information is so obviously weak—the NIOs humiliated the only agency at the table, the State Department’s INR, that dared to question the administration’s preordained conclusions.

When we on the National Intelligence Council finally got a full read of the National Intelligence Estimate on WMDs, after its publication, a couple of us expressed grave reservations about the fatally weak evidence and the obsessively one-sided interpretation of what shreds of information it contained. (We were not told at the time that “Curveball” was a solitary source of obviously questionable credentials, nor that contradictory evidence was actually suppressed from the intelligence collection and dissemination process.) One colleague said it was clearly a paper written to provide a rationale for a predetermined policy decision to go to war. When I challenged the lack of evidence and the lack of alternative explanations, including forcing the questions raised by the INR into a lowly footnote, one of the WMD-promoting NIOs leaned forward and bellowed: “Who are you to question this paper? Even The Washington Post and The New York Times agree with us.” The irony was complete: previously respected reporters, spoon-fed by Bush administration officials, were now being used to provide cover for the NIOs’ similar compromise in accepting the administration’s view.

The National Intelligence Council and director of central intelligence, George Tenet, gave the NIOs concerned with WMDs big cash awards for producing the NIE, and seven years later and seventeen months into the Obama administration they remain in the same or equivalent jobs. The Bush administration left office, and its defenders still claim that the errors in the WMD debacle were innocent, just as the hyperventilation about “yellowcake” from Niger in a State of the Union address—cleared by a careerist in a CIA line office who worked closely with the administration and the NIC on WMD issues—was said to be innocent. Intelligence community spokesmen are rolled out to deny allegations of politicization, even though at least one of them, a former analyst who threatened to resign several times because of political pressures when he was working on Cuba, has witnessed it close up and paid a short-term career price for resisting it.

Covering up or ignoring the problem of politicization won’t make it go away. US intelligence will continue to fail again and again until we resolve it.