CIA officers on the cusp of retirement often enroll in a seminar that is supposed to help them adjust to life after the agency — teaching them, for example, how to write a resumé. I’ve begun to wonder if part of that program now includes a writing seminar on how to beat up on the Bush administration. The latest such blast comes from Paul Pillar, who, over the course of his long career, was arguably a central player in the CIA’s analysis of the Middle East, in particular Iraq. But now Mr. Pillar has decided to disclose to the world, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that he thought all along that the war was a bad idea, and that the president and his advisers ignored his intelligence.
Why Mr. Pillar would even attempt to argue that the White House ignored the CIA’s intelligence is beyond me — as innumerable investigations have demonstrated, all of the “intelligence” within his responsibility was 100% in agreement that Iraq posed a serious danger and that it had an active program for acquiring WMD. Over the course of a decade and a half, and thousands of pages of intelligence analysis, it is hard to think of anyone in the government who was more directly involved in reaching the wrong conclusions about what was going on in Iraq than Mr. Pillar himself.
But let’s put all that aside for the moment and conjecture that Mr. Pillar actually did change his mind about all that work he’d done, and that he really did think the intelligence didn’t support the case for war. If that was truly so, no one was better positioned to make the case against war within the government than Mr. Pillar himself. He could have personally drafted a National Intelligence Estimate, or any number of other types of memoranda, for senior readers in government, recording for all in black and white what was really going on in Iraq. He could, furthermore, have shared that analysis with every single member of Congress by writing less-classified summaries of the conclusions, as is often done.
So why did Mr. Pillar fail to take these steps? Again, as the person in charge of assessing Iraq, if he really believed that Iraq posed no threat to the U.S., we’re owed an explanation of why none of the consequences of going to war — economic costs, military and civilian casualties — were important enough for him to do something about it when it mattered. According to Mr. Pillar, it was only a year into the war that such an analysis was even undertaken, and then only at the request of the administration. The other major intelligence estimate performed before the war was the 2002 NIE on WMD, “infamous,” as Mr. Pillar calls it, because it was so wrong.
The fact is, no other issue in the history of the CIA is as deserving of the title “Mother of all Intelligence Failures” as the debacle over the CIA’s analysis of Iraq. Take your pick of the many studies that have tried to understand why the intelligence was so inaccurate, but the basic conclusion underlying all of them is the same: The CIA’s analysis and collection on Iraq was flat-out wrong over the course of many years — first in missing the fact that Iraq had WMD before the Gulf War, and then, well, you know the rest.
Paul Pillar was right in the thick of the process and substance that reached those conclusions. Had he actually written a warning to the administration against going to war before the war, his conclusions could not have rested on any of the CIA’s intelligence analysis, but instead on his own political views against the administration — something which he has made no bones about in discussions with think-tank audiences long before he left the agency. This, incidentally, is prohibited behavior according to the professional practices of the CIA, the equivalent of betraying attorney-client confidentiality.
Not merely content to have played a leading role in the Iraq intelligence failure, Mr. Pillar is now following in the footsteps of others like Michael Scheuer, in undermining whatever credibility and access the CIA still may have with policymakers. By violating his confidences, Mr. Pillar is ensuring that those who succeed him — those who are, I hope, trying to fix the many problems facing the CIA — will be even less likely to see any real impact from their work because the president and his advisers will be loath to trust them.
For decades, there has been a common understanding that CIA analysts play a role roughly analogous, for policymakers, to experts whose opinions are sought in confidence, such as lawyers or accountants. Presidents and their advisers have felt comfortable in relying on analysts, in theory at least, for unbiased information and conclusions — and for keeping their mouths shut about what they learn. Presidents, secretaries of state, and others have given the CIA access into the inner sanctum of policymaking in the belief that the CIA would not use the media or leaks to influence the outcome.
For a CIA officer to discard this neutral role and to inject himself in the political realm is plain wrong. It will end up making the CIA even less relevant than it is today — if that is possible.
17 Feb 2006