MARGARET WARNER: From Pearl Harbor to the Bay of Pigs to 9/11 and now Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction. The last 60 years have seen a number of big-time U.S. intelligence failures. Is there a common thread? And how successful have investigating commissions been in figuring that out?
To explore all this, we're joined by presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He's written widely on the Cold War, including a book on the downing of the American U-2 spy plane in 1960. Ted Gup, a long-time investigative journalist and author of "The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives." And Roy Godson, a Georgetown University professor who runs a think tank called the Consortium for the Study of Intelligence. He's also been a consultant to the U.S. and other governments on intelligence matters.
Welcome to you all. In that roster of intelligence failures, usually, Ted Gup, the problem has been the U.S. underestimating a threat. Is the Iraq case the first time we've overestimated a threat to the degree that it's been used as a rationale for war?
TED GUP: It certainly is unusual and a case apart. I think that it's interesting to refer to the recent history of some slip-ups in intelligence because they may shed light on how we got there. I'm thinking of the attack on a pharmaceutical plant in al Shafah in Sudan as well as the underestimating the missing of the Pakistan bomb, the underestimating of Korea's development, North Korea's development of the bomb. I think that the agency was hypersensitive to underestimating, to coming up with false negatives, and I think that that might have ... they were smarting from criticism from missing those and I think that might have predisposed them to being willing to take the risk with a false positive, which Iraq would represent as the mother of all false positives, potentially, when it comes to WMDs.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you say, Professor Godson, that this is a stand-out case?
ROY GODSON: It's unusual because of the implications for war. I mean, I don't think this was the only premise for the war, the missing WMD. But I think I'd say another time that strikes me that one would say intelligence was a contributing factor would have been in the War in Vietnam and the whole notion that the Communist Party of Indochina was not only strong, but it was an imperialist in the peninsula and would have set in train other events into China. So I would say that was a contributing factor. So I think there are other examples, but on the whole, I do think it's an unusual case.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Even more basically in Vietnam, look at the way we got into it deeply '64 and '65, the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Lyndon Johnson went on TV one night in August of 1964 saying an American ship has been attacked by North Vietnamese; we're striking back. We now know what had happened was, earlier that day, Johnson had gotten ambiguous intelligence. Maybe there was an attack. He had said go on and find out what you can find out. Late in the day, he got a call. There's a press leak, there's been an attack and you're not doing anything about it. You're running against Barry Goldwater this fall. You know, his advisors said don't make yourself politically vulnerable; you'd better do something.
So Johnson gave a speech saying there was an attack, retaliated. That led to the big escalation. And the problem there was ... was that that was the basis for our escalation. He went to Congress, got a Gulf of Tonkin resolution -- which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used as the entire basis of fighting that war for the next nine years.
MARGARET WARNER: So Ted Gup, that would be a case of...
TED GUP: Margaret...
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, go ahead.
TED GUP: If I might just jump in here. There's another analogy or comparison with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from 1964 and the current situation. And that is the near unanimity in which both situations were dealt with by Congress. In the Gulf of Tonkin, I believe there were just a couple of lone dissenting votes. In the authorization of the use of force against terrorism, post 9/11, there was one lone vote cast against, and in the going to war with Iraq there was a very, very strong consensus. Sometimes the conventional wisdom based on faulty intelligence can be wrong.
MARGARET WARNER: But in this case that Michael just gave us, professor, he's saying that intelligence wasn't faulty. The intelligence was accurate, which was it was ambiguous and it was manipulated by the political leadership.
ROY GODSON: In the case of Iraq there was a clear-cut consensus on the....
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, I was talking about the Gulf of Tonkin.
ROY GODSON: On the Gulf of Tonkin. Right, fair enough. On the Gulf of Tonkin. But, as we're making the analogy here to this particular case, it should be sort of clear that this time there was ten or more years of intelligence pointing in the same direction -- that there was the production of these weapons, that there had been these weapons, they hadn't been destroyed. They were there. They had the delivery system, et cetera. That kind of consensus didn't really exist in the past, I would agree.
MARGARET WARNER: Ted Gup, the question I was going to ask you is if you broaden it out now and you look at both overestimations and underestimations, where has the fault tended to lie? Has it been in the intelligence gathering, or has it been in the analysis of that raw data, or has it been in the political ... the use to which the political masters or consumers of the intelligence put it?
TED GUP: I think that there is a real danger of looking for a single cause, a single problem, a single culpable person or agency. I think that it's the integration of all the elements that you asked about. I mean, intelligence really would fall into four stages: There's the collection of intelligence, the gathering of it is one; the second is the analysis; the third is the application by those in power; and the fourth, which you left out, is oversight. And I think that massive intelligence failures, oftentimes, involve failures of all four stages.
MARGARET WARNER: You want to give us an example?
TED GUP: Well, I mean, if we look at the current situation, we don't have the facts yet and that's the problem. But if you look, for example, at the Bay of Pigs in '61, there were ... there was bad intelligence in terms of the estimates of what sort of support troops landing at the Bay of Pigs could expect in helping them topple Castro. That was at the intelligence- gathering level. There were errors in analysis that were provided then. The political application there were problems because Kennedy withdrew air support at the last moment which left them largely defenseless. The oversight tended to aim at the CIA's failings and not at the Oval Office because of political considerations. So there you have, you know, a package of failings that crosses the entire arc of intelligence.
MARGARET WARNER: Give us another example, Michael, that you think illustrates where the failures have tended to lie in these different levels.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, the greatest sin, I think, is when you have a president misrepresenting intelligence, as Johnson did with the Gulf of Tonkin, or go all the way back to 1898 -- the American ship The Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor. President McKinley and others said this was sunk by the Spanish; we have to go to war. Only later on did we find out it was actually sunk by a boiler accident that didn't have too much to do with the Spanish.
A war waged under false pretenses, that's where the greatest sin ... but the other thing, I think, you have to say is these other layers ... it's not easy, when you're trying to estimate, for instance, in 1962, what Nikita Khrushchev is going to do. Will he put missiles secretly into Cuba or not? You're trying to get into a human being's mind. It's not like putting it into a Univac computer. And at the same time, oftentimes, it is technology. In the early 1950s, many people were saying -- Nikita Khrushchev and others in the Soviet Union -- "we Soviets are cranking out bombers like sausages," he said, a lot of bombers. They used to fly these things around Red Square on military days and we were really very afraid of that. We later on found out that it was oftentimes the same bombers going around and around. The point is, only later on do we get technology like U-2 planes and satellites that allowed us to get beyond that.
So, the point I'm making is that, you know, you think of an intelligence failure and it is always, you know, a great leap to say someone has behaved wrongly here, but I think you have to, at the same time, say that it's not an easy business.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you say are the common themes or blind spots, weaknesses?
ROY GODSON: Well, it would be nice if there was one cause. But I share the view that it's multi-causal. We can, sort of, look at ... sometimes, there's the problem of collection failures. I think, by the way, what appears to be so about Iraq, and we should really, sort of, make a caution here, which is, on the basis of the information that we have now, it appears that there was a serious miscalculation or failure and on so on. One of the causes is the lack of collection -- that we didn't have enough people close in to be able to tell us whether the pictures and other images that we have and other sources of information were accurate. So there is a failure of collection. There has been a failure of collection sometimes. Sometimes the collection has been pretty good.
MARGARET WARNER: And are other ... and let me just ... are other countries better at that collection, in terms of penetrating closed societies, penetrating other governments?
ROY GODSON: Some have been, particularly where their survival is at stake, I would say that they have been able to penetrate. But the Israelis, for example, penetrated the system that led to the Egyptians attacking them in '73. They had actually the plan of the attack. They just ... their analysis was faulty. And in this case, too, I think this is not only a problem of collection, but it's also a problem, apparently, of our analysis, the mindset of the analysts -- not in any one agency, in a number of agencies. But this was true in many other countries, as well. So it's a very interesting question whether anybody could have really understood this problem, based on the information that was available. Is it possible to have shaken the mindset sufficiently, and that really is the question that we want to see come out of the congressional investigation.
MARGARET WARNER: And just briefly, have there been other cases in which U.S. intelligence actually came up with the data and it was even analyzed correctly, but the political leadership didn't act, just thought it couldn't happen?
ROY GODSON: I would say there have been times where the intelligence has gone in one direction and the political leadership goes in another. Usually it's the analysis will be ambiguous, like the example that was given earlier. But, in general, where the there's a consensus amongst the intelligence community and there's a consensus of long duration, even though they sometimes warn they don't have all the information, then, in fact, the political leadership tends to go along.
MARGARET WARNER: Ted Gup, how successful, as we know the president says he's going to appoint this commission. Just briefly, one, how often has there been a sort of penetrating analysis of the failure? And two, how successful has that investigation been in either identifying the failure or making changes?
TED GUP: Well, there have been several major investigative commissions or committees. The mid '70s on the Hill, that was probably the best known -- the Church Committee and such. They can be very successful, in terms of educating the public. They can be reactive or over reactive. These things tend to go in cycles, the history of the agency. And one point that I would make is that the oversight is usually only as good as the public's desire to keep abreast of what's happening in the intelligence community. If the public divests itself from an interest in the intelligence community, then the lawmakers are not as robust in oversight and the intelligence community tends to interpret that as greater license. And that can create commissions and committees that investigate that produce very reactive legislation and constraints on the intelligence community.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, your view on that.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: There are always going to be political because this is just about, in this case, about the hottest issue that we can imagine this year, although the report of this commission presumably will be after Election Day. At the same time, you don't have access to enough information in hindsight as historians do later on. For instance, the Warren Commission investigating John Kennedy's assassination was deprived of a piece of information that the CIA was trying to kill Fidel Castro, something they had to have known. So when you're trying to have an investigation with this little time between the event and the time of the report, it's never going to be as thorough as you really need but you need these things so that we can make decisions as citizens and voters.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Beschloss, Roy Godson and Ted Gup, thank you all.