TOPICS > Politics

Flawed Judgment

July 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me are: David Kay, who led United Nations nuclear inspectors in Iraq in 1991 and ’92, and more recently led the U.S. effort to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Larry Johnson has served as an intelligence and counter-terrorism official at both the CIA and State Department. And Peter Brookes was a CIA official in the early 1990s and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Bush administration. Welcome to all of you.

Let’s start with the question of what the report calls a collective presumption that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. David Kay, you were there. You had that presumption, correct, why?

DAVID KAY: Well, that’s right, because we started in 1991 by finding weapons, and Iraq’s behavior was relatively consistent throughout the ’90s up until the war. That is they limited inspections, they tried to frustrate the efforts of the U.N., both up to ’98 when the inspectors left but also went Hans Blix returned.

Remember, it was Dr. Blix who reported to the Security Council in December before the war, Iraq has not made a genuine commitment to disarmament as judged by their behavior. The behavior was consistent, the reasons were different, and we weren’t good enough to catch it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the report says that this collective assumption becomes what the senators in Jim’s discussion called “group think,” that essentially blinded everyone. Larry Johnson, how does that happen? How do we get to that group think?

LARRY JOHNSON: I disagree with them. I don’t think it was so much group think. You had one group that was pushing certain positions, but you also had other analysts and other agencies that were raising objections, so it was not one monolith. I think it was more of a fundamental breakdown in the discipline of intelligence analysis. It was the responsibility of the analysts, particularly the branch chiefs, the people who manage analysts and the division chiefs. And let’s put in some names, Jamie Messig, the director of intelligence.

These people know better, that when you have– as an analyst who works– when you write out a national intelligence daily or piece for the president, your responsibility is to identify your sources, according to what, and, you know, if you’re only using one source or multiple sources. And it’s the responsibility of these managers to say “where is this coming from?” And if you’re not asking those questions, that’s not group think, this is dereliction of duty.

PETER BROOKES: There’s an old saying in the intelligence community saying that if everybody around the table agrees somebody’s wrong, and sometimes that doesn’t always happen, one of the major problems here was the failure to challenge assumptions. People sit in these jobs for a long time.

They may start as a junior analyst working on Iraq and move up through the chain and move up the chain of command. And eventually they have certain prejudices and biases that they take with them as they move to more senior management, and somebody or something has to break some pottery and make them challenge their assumptions. Sometimes that’s on outside group, maybe like a red team like the senators were talking about.

DAVID KAY: You know, one of the things, though, there was very little new information coming in during that period of time. The analysts had almost no new information to work on.

PETER BROOKES: The window closed in 1998.

DAVID KAY: In 1998, and they were dishonest reporting that to the policymakers. Essentially they were rewriting old information to make it look like it was new information. The tradecraft was bad, both the analytical…

JEFFREY BROWN: The question is why this was happening. Do we look at central intelligence and other agencies as big bureaucracies, as in the traditional organizational sense?

LARRY JOHNSON: That’s part of the problem. They had become these… let me give you an example. The average newspaper reporter, when they write an article, they’re going to go through probably two levels of review to get that article out. At the Central Intelligence Agency today, the average analyst when they propose a piece in the morning that’s to get out that night, to be put in the presidential daily brief the next morning, are going to go through five or six levels of review.

Now I’m not saying they shouldn’t be reviewed, but when you’ve got so many managers sitting on top, one of the problems you run into with those kinds of managers– and this happened when I was there and I’ve heard this happened during this affair– which is you propose a piece that’s going to go against what the administration’s perspective or position is, and you’re told by your managers, “we’re not going to poke the president in the eye.” So the message gets sent down that we don’t want to send down something uncomfortable.

That did happen in this, and I disagree with Sen. Roberts who said that he didn’t have any evidence of pressure. Analysts have seen what happens to whistle-blowers; these people are not going to come forward and be made sacrificial lambs, but there was pressure. It wasn’t the pressure of someone saying “you’ve got to write this,” but the pressure is out there.

PETER BROOKES: It’s incumbent upon these analysts and management to give dissenting views: “Tell me what you know, tell me what you think, and make sure I know the difference.” That’s very important as somebody who was a policymaker; you often had to press the intelligence analysts, because sometimes these people want to be policymakers as well, but their job is to give you the intelligence facts, what they know, what they think, what they don’t know, so the policymaker can make a decision.

JEFFREY BROWN: So who is supposed to be asking them the questions and getting them to bring out the dissenting views?

DAVID KAY: Well, first of all, every analyst ought to be asking his own questions. We’re overlooking the fact that this show is at the cadre of analysts were writing this were not well-trained themselves. Certainly the managerial layer has a responsibility. The NIC has that– the National Intelligence Council– that produced the NIE.

They didn’t do contrary analysis; they did the lowest common denominator agreement. I think one thing of the political pressure though that we’re overlooking is after 1995, there was only one element of glue that kept us able to keep sanctions in place and have any international allies, and that was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the presumed weapons of mass destruction. So it meant that there were two levels and two standards that were applied.

Any information that showed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was accepted and reviewed and welcomed with very little scrutiny. Evidence that didn’t fit that pattern had a much higher bar to pass, because if the weapons went away, if they weren’t there, the U.S. had no Iraq policy and no allies for an Iraq policy. That’s a vicious type of pressure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another charge here, somewhat connected, is that the intelligence community did not clearly explain its doubts to policymakers. Now, why would that happen? How does that happen?

LARRY JOHNSON: We’ve just seen the terminology and we’ve still seen John McLaughlin, the current CIA director today, talking about Saddam used chemical weapon against his people. Well, that’s true, but let’s explain it as a proper analyst. Number one, those chemical weapons were used in the context of war, and even in the Halabja incident there is still some dispute within the intelligence community because both Iran and Iraq were both launching chemical weapons attacks on each other.

But the impression that’s left by saying that Saddam used it against his people is to create an image of Adolf Hitler setting up Auschwitz and gas chambers and marching the Kurds in there. He didn’t do that. He used the chemical weapons largely as part of self-defense, protecting himself from his neighbors, not launching them as offensive weapons, because they were not very effective offensive weapons.

PETER BROOKES: The important thing is that you cannot put these caveats in footnotes. If you have major dissenting views, they need to be in the main body of the text that’s provided to the policymaker. They cannot be small, little footnotes at the bottom of the page, and I think that’s critical.

DAVID KAY: In this case they were left off actually – which is worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there another question, David Kay, here, about whether policymakers asked the right questions?

DAVID KAY: You know, that’s the missing guest at this table that really shocks me. Where was the NSC during this time? There should have been someone else protecting the president, asking questions about how sound is the intelligence, what are the uncertainties?

I mean, you have in the Bob Woodward book this amazing account of the president himself expressing doubt about the quality of the intelligence. He settles for a tired cliché, a sport’s cliché, “It’s a slam dunk.” I know of no other NSC in modern history in which if that had happened in the Oval Office they would have been down the neck with a tiger team on the intelligence community demanding… that, “look, the boss has concern about this; let’s understand what his concerns are and how good your data is.”

PETER BROOKES: We don’t know everything that happened from the book, I was out of the administration at this point, but that was the portrayed in the book, we don’t know exactly what happened. But we did see Dick Cheney vice president go to the CIA Several times, maybe as many as ten times, to talk to analysts directly, and I’m sure that’s where the secondary and the tertiary questions were asked: How do you know this, who told you this, how old was this information? And that was really digging in, that was…

JEFFREY BROWN: Sen. Roberts said to Jim that that’s perfectly…

PETER BROOKES: That’s legitimate. That’s right. Now the analysts…

LARRY JOHNSON: But that’s an example of the pressure, and let’s be clear about this. You say how could that be pressure? The CIA, the intelligence community, one of the things they were saying all along was there is no operational close tie between bin Laden, al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. That was the intelligence community finding. Has Saddam been involved in terrorism? Yeah, but he was not a key player.

Dick Cheney, George Bush, Don Rumsfeld continued to insist that there is a relationship despite what the intelligence community is saying. 9/11 Commission comes out and says the same thing. The next day, Dick Cheney is out again saying, “oh, no, there’s a relationship.” Now we’ve got Republicans and Democrats on the Senate and the Intelligence Committee saying there is no relationship. That’s the example of the kind of pressure I’m talking about where you get a message from the intelligence analysts and it’s ignored by the policymakers.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s another side of this I want to make sure we get to, that’s the human intelligence question because part of the critique here was that there was nobody on the ground in Iraq. Why is that so hard to do? Why was that missing?

PETER BROOKES: Well, human intelligence is very difficult, and unfortunately it’s a balancer to the technical intelligence we see such as satellite photography or electronic eavesdropping. You know, an intelligence operative, the right spy in the right place at the right time could have made all the difference, but after 1998 when he kicked out the inspectors we had no intelligence assets on the ground in Iraq, and we were relying on exiles and dissidents of questionable reliability for our human intelligence.

DAVID KAY: And even more damning, there’s no evidence we made any attempt to put human agents there. Having attempted and failed, you could say it’s hard to do, but we tried. There’s no evidence that we tried to do it after ’98.

PETER BROOKES: It’s the most difficult aspect of intelligence gathering is the human because it’s dangerous.

LARRY JOHNSON: But also note that in this report they included that the CIA through the director of operations kept information back from the community that they had obtained from family members saying that there was no WMD. So it was not a complete failure, a complete lack of it. And I don’t disagree with what either gentleman are saying, but there was some intelligence that they did have that discounted the WMD thing.

PETER BROOKES: Another problem was that they were not sharing the intelligence between the analysts and the operators. And that’s a problem. You have to have not only vertical integration of information but lateral integration across that, and that’s a systemic problem. The analysts don’t know much about the information they’re getting from the operatives.

DAVID KAY: That’s something I changed during my time at the Iraqi survey group. The operational traffic, the ops traffic, never went to the analysts. The analysts didn’t know a thing about the sources.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you briefly the question that Jim asked the senators: Are we talking about a systemic failure here, David Kay?

DAVID KAY: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what sense?

DAVID KAY: Look, a failure of culture, a failure of management, a failure of tradecraft, both analytical and ops tradecraft, that goes well beyond Iraq, and that’s why it’s important to change it. I actually find this encouraging in the report. Usually a congressional report says “let’s rearrange the deck chairs,” thinking that will solve everything. They don’t recommend a director of national intelligence or another wiring diagram; they say systemic, organic problems; you’ve got to fix those.

PETER BROOKES: That’s the real scary thing because it may not have been just the people working on Iraq, so that would affect what we’re doing on terror, in Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, that’s a real problem.

LARRY JOHNSON: That’s exactly right. We’ve seen the failures in other areas, we saw failures prior to 9/11, we saw failures going back to the bad information on the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. We’ve got an organization that was created in the 1940s, that’s designed for the 1950s and ’60s, and it has to come into the 21st century. And I’m not sure that can be done through just bureaucratic…

PETER BROOKES: You need — we saw in the Defense Department in 1986 which changed everything for the intelligence community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks to all three of you.