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Former CIA Official Derides Pre-War Intelligence

March 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Nearly three years after the war in Iraq began, sectarian violence there, fueled by new attacks, continues unabated. In its wake, President Bush and his advisers acknowledge the difficulties at hand.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice: The choice is chaos or unity; the choice is a free society or a society dictated by the — by evil people who will kill innocents.

GWEN IFILL: But a recently retired CIA official writing this month in the journal “Foreign Affairs” says prewar “intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made.” He also said warnings of post-invasion instability were ignored.

You argue in your article that this is something that the United States could have seen coming but no one asked.

PAUL PILLAR: No one asked, if the “no one” we’re talking about are policymakers.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Pillar spent 28 years at the CIA, most recently as the national intelligence officer in the middle of the intelligence community’s prewar assessments of a postwar Iraq. He now teaches at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

PAUL PILLAR: The principal judgment was that the biggest challenge would be this task of political reconstruction. On top of that, with all the divisions in Iraq that we now see playing out in a very violent way amongst the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the Kurds, we expected that we would see those communities basically at each other’s throats, that the prospects for communal strife would be very high, at least unless you had a coalition force sitting on top of it all and keeping it from breaking into a completely open and more widespread civil war.

GWEN IFILL: And they were just ignored?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, I can’t say we got much of a response, but — except one or two negative ones. But anyway, such judgments were, in fact, volunteered; they were made available.

GWEN IFILL: Pillar is not alone in his claims. The “Philadelphia Inquirer” reported online this week about two other senior intelligence officials who said their concerns were dismissed, even as Iraq’s insurgency grew.

One of them, Robert Hutchings, was chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005. “The mindset downtown,” he said, “was that people were willing to accept that things were pretty bad, but not that they were going to get worse.”

Pillar, writing and speaking now about his experiences, recounts a path to war that he says was predetermined.

PAUL PILLAR: Much of what we heard publicly really was a selective use — call it cherry-picking; call it something else, if you will — a selective use of, in many cases, raw intelligence to help make a public case.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration began issuing dire warnings about Saddam Hussein in the summer of 2002.

RICHARD CHENEY: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction; there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

GWEN IFILL: But Pillar charges that the “clear evidence,” including a claim that Iraq was purchasing uranium from the African nation of Niger, was manipulated.

PAUL PILLAR: The U.S. analysts’ judgment was it simply wasn’t credible enough to use in a public document or a public presentation. But something like the idea of Saddam Hussein purchasing uranium has a simplicity to it, a rhetorical appeal that helped bring across the message that there was something there. But it wasn’t really subject to the analysis, regarding either the credibility of the report or, indeed, whether even the Iraqi program, such as it was, needed uranium ore.

GWEN IFILL: Stephen Hayes, who writes on intelligence issues for the “Weekly Standard,” is among those who say Pillar is recycling old complaints. The Bush administration, he argues, was simply mounting its strongest argument to respond to a real threat.

STEPHEN HAYES: Certainly, as they were making the case that Saddam Hussein was a threat, they chose things that showed him as the threat that they thought he was. I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything disingenuous about that.

What I had a problem with in Mr. Pillar’s article was that he suggested that he wasn’t doing exactly the same thing. And I think, to a certain extent, he was.

I mean, there are times where he talks about, for instance, Iraq’s relationships with terrorists. He doesn’t — he provided, I thought, only one side about that argument in this “Foreign Affairs” article. There are certainly other things to be said about that that he simply omitted. Now, I think, that if you’re going to accuse somebody of cherry-picking, you better make sure that you’re not doing it yourself.

GWEN IFILL: Pillar also disputes another key Bush administration prewar argument: the role of the terrorist group, Al Qaeda.

PAUL PILLAR: As to whether there was an alliance between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Al Qaeda was, I would go so far as to say, a manufactured issue, because there was nothing that the intelligence community ever produced in their own analysis, nothing that said there was anything close to an alliance or likely to be one.

GWEN IFILL: Still, two investigations, one led by an appointed presidential commission and another by the Senate Intelligence Committee, do not support Pillar’s conclusions that politics drove the decisions.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

PAT ROBERTS: There was no — no political pressure, no manipulation. We asked over 250 analysts about that.

GWEN IFILL: Pillar was one of those analysts.

PAUL PILLAR: Politicization, such as it takes place, is much more subtle. Much of the difference between what would have been perfect analysis, given the information gaps, and the flawed analysis that was actually produced were matters of nuance, caveat, wording, qualifications.

In short, there were all kinds of opportunities for bias. And I readily admit I can’t put my finger on any one judgment, or any one sentence, or any one word and say, “That was politicized,” but it’s extremely unlikely that there wasn’t an influence, given the environment that took place.

HAYES: My argument would be that’s why we elect politicians, that’s why we choose presidents and vice presidents. Bureaucrats at the CIA — most of them, I think, patriotic Americans who do their best for their country — are not ultimately accountable to the voters.

So the fact that the Bush administration decided to take its policy in a direction that Mr. Pillar thinks is unwise, he’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but that doesn’t mean that the administration was wrong to have done it.

GWEN IFILL: But why didn’t Pillar speak up before? And if, as he claims, he did, why wasn’t he heard?

If you’re sitting in a position where you see that the nation’s about to be led to war and you know better, was this something you considered quitting over?

PAUL PILLAR: It’s not right to say, “we knew better.” I mean, you are quite correct, Gwen, in noting this is a matter of projection, analysis; it’s not a matter of fact. Nobody knew.

We could have turned out to be wrong. As it turned out, you know, we weren’t. And, you know, there’s not much more I can think of we can do before you start bordering on insubordination or second-guessing the decisions that are really the decisions of the president to make.

GWEN IFILL: Looking back, Pillar now says too much attention was paid to seeking to prove Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and too little paid to what would happen in the aftermath of a U.S.-led invasion.