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interviews: greg thielmann
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In this interview, Greg Thielmann, a former director of the Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office at the State Department's Intelligence Bureau, accuses the White House of "systematic, across-the-board exaggeration" of intelligence as it made its case that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the U.S. Thielmann, who left his job in September 2002, also contends that much of the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was entirely politicized. "Senior officials made statements which I can only describe as dishonest," he says. "They were distorting some of the information that we provided to make it seem more alarmist and more dangerous." This interview was conducted on August 12, 2003.

Why are we having this debate now?

I really think it's the combination of two things. One is that, in spite of all of our efforts, we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, instead of just being an interesting historical issue of whether or not the intelligence was right or wrong, Americans are being killed every week in Iraq. So there is an immediacy in the issue because of the combination of those two things.

But it's a debate that should have happened long ago, in your opinion?

Secretary Powell was being a loyal secretary of state, a 'good soldier,' as it were, building the administration's case before the international community.

In my opinion, when a nation commits itself to war, there's no public issue that's more serious than that. The intelligence and everything else should be very comprehensively and seriously probed, as long as there is not an imminent security threat that does not permit that kind of comprehensive discussion.

How long have you been an intelligence analyst?

Well, I'm a career foreign service officer and spent 25 years as a diplomat. During the last decade or so, I had two different tours in the Intelligence Bureau, totaling seven years.

So for seven years, you were doing intelligence analysis?

Right.

You had access to the full panoply of U.S. intelligence?

Yes.

In those seven years, did you see any other times when intelligence was being used so selectively?

The only other thing that seems comparable to me is discussions of the foreign ballistic missile threat in the 1990s. There was, in my opinion, an exaggeration of the speed with which other countries could develop ballistic missiles and an exaggeration of the significance of those developments for U.S. security.

But all things considered, it's very hard for me to think of any example of systematic, across-the-board exaggeration and misleading statements about an important war and peace subject. Nothing quite matches what I've seen in the Iraqi WMD area in the last couple of years.

When did you begin to see that the use of the intelligence was diverging from the intelligence itself?

I think the real evidence of that came in August 2002, when the administration started speaking about Iraq, in much shriller tones, as something which was not just a security concern for the United States that merited close scrutiny and forceful action to support U.N. Security Council resolutions. It became much more in the tone of, there is an imminent security threat that has to be dealt with right away.

So they began beating the drums of war.

Yes. That's when I saw the way administration officials talking about Iraq was diverging from the kind of qualified and fairly carefully structured intelligence that they were being provided.

One of the things that they talked about was attempts by the Iraqis to purchase uranium from Africa. You had done some analysis of this and come to different conclusions.

This was not a major story when I looked back at the months and year leading up to the war. It was not a major story because it was, we considered, bad intelligence. We looked at a lot of bad reports -- reports that were worth exploring because they were serious allegations, but when given a close look, they proved not to be credible. This was really in that category. It was something that made no sense, in terms of the structure of the country that was allegedly planning to provide the uranium.

Niger.

Niger. It made no sense in terms of Saddam's behavior on these kinds of issues. All things really fit together in this case to shoot down the story. ...

So this had come across your desk. What exactly came to you?

Well, as I recall, it was a human intelligence report that came to the United States. I should make clear that I was a manager of the action officers of intelligence analysts, and so most of what I gathered about this was not firsthand analysis of documents as an intelligence analyst; it was supervising the people who would do the close scrutiny of the intelligence reporting.

In this case, our specialists who were weapons intelligence experts, and the African experts, and the Middle Eastern experts in the Intelligence Bureau were all of one accord that this was a bad story.

And you let the secretary of state know that?

That's right.

Then in January, you hear the president talking about it.

That's right, and it was a big surprise to me, because I left government at the end of September 2002. I was not privy to the classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate that came out shortly after that. So I had no indication in the fall that this story had any life on it at all. It was not part of the public summary of the National Intelligence Estimate. It was buried in the classified details of the estimate. So it was really a shock to me when the president gave it such visibility in January 2003. ...

But at the same time, you had already seen, starting in August 2002, that the intelligence was being twisted.

I had seen that, but I thought there were limits on how much one was willing to do in order to twist things.

So you were a little aghast.

Yes. ...

The administration has said, "This is just 16 words. OK. We perhaps should not have included this in the president's speech. This was an oversight. There was a mistake made, but there is a solid case to be made that Saddam Hussein was engaged in a nuclear weapons program."

Yes, they do make that claim.

Why shouldn't we believe them?

The way I look at it, first of all, they chose to essentially declassify a top-secret sensitive report. They did on this matter and they did--

On the Niger matter.

-- on the Niger matter and on the aluminum tubes matter that they contended were being procured by Iraq for the nuclear weapons program.

In fact, they make a bigger case of the aluminum tubes. They, in fact, to this day argue that the aluminum tubes are conclusive proof that they were amassing a centrifuge program.

They still make that argument. The reason that I raise these two issues as being very significant is that the administration apparently thought it was important enough that they would declassify very sensitive information and make an argument to the American people. So it cannot really be trivialized as only 16 words, when you've chosen to highlight these as the two principal pillars of the nuclear weapons reconstitution case against Iraq. I mean, these were the two that the administration chose. By implication, this is the two most important pieces of evidence we have that Iraq is pursuing the program. ...

When did you first hear about these tubes?

I believe the tubes came to our attention in the fall of 2001.

Came to your attention how?

Through intelligence reporting. We had seen reports of Iraqi attempts to procure aluminum for some time. The breakthrough in this story really came when we got our hands on some of the aluminum that was being procured. ...

What were these tubes for?

We started out being agnostic on this. There was certainly the assumption on all of our parts that Saddam was interested in keeping alive his nuclear weapons program and waiting for opportunities to pursue that program further. So whether or not these particular tubes were for the program or not was something that we didn't start out with a viewpoint on.

But the more that we got into it and the more we listened to the people, for example, from the national laboratories in the U.S. who had experience building centrifuge rotors that are used to enrich uranium, the people who knew about aluminum and what kind of aluminum would be ideal or suitable for this purpose--

Engineers and scientists.

That's right. It was not a difficult assessment for us to arrive at, ultimately, that the Department of Energy experts were correct in seeing these tubes as being not well suited for uranium enrichment centrifuge rotors, but were, in fact, for something else.

As we explored the alternative possibilities, we really came up with a very good fit. It was for the casings of Iraqi artillery rockets -- the kind that are used in multiple launcher rocket systems. ...

You're [as] close as the public can get to those really crucial debates, and I'm trying to understand how these guys came to the conclusion that these things were for a nuclear program. I mean, what was their thinking? What clues can you give us to that?

They were convinced that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons, that he was reconstituting his program, and I'm afraid that that's where they started. We started with agnosticism about the specifics. They were sure that Saddam was rejuvenating his nuclear program, and so they were looking for evidence to support what they already knew was the case, or they thought they knew was the case.

And this seemed like such a good fit. I mean, he would need thousands of tubes of aluminum to build this one kind of centrifuge motor, and he was procuring looking for thousands of tubes of aluminum, and they were more or less the right size. So that's really, I think, why they were excited in making this discovery and advancing the argument. ...

You said you'd been involved in this process. This is before you leave that you submit these conclusions, this analysis to your bosses.

Right. I had the impression at the time that there was growing support within the community of intelligence analysts -- including the British, by the way -- that these aluminum tubes were not likely for the nuclear weapons program. So, again, there was an element of surprise for me in assuming when I left government at the end of September that there was a growing consensus that these aluminum tubes were for conventional weapons and not for nuclear weapons.

Then I started reading in the press about the intelligence community, that most analysts in the intelligence community believed it was for the nuclear weapons program. That's exactly the language they used in the public summary of the National Intelligence Estimate.

Well, in fact, it slips back into analysis that's coming out of the State Department, does it not? In December, isn't there a report out of the State Department that--

That's another very curious development. There was a fact sheet on Dec. 19 that came out of the State Department -- or allegedly so -- and it mentioned a couple of things. But it mentioned the Niger uranium matter that I know the Intelligence Bureau of the State Department would have never cleared. So that this is a very odd document, the Dec. 19 document.

So the conclusion could only be that this was inserted by people above the Intelligence Bureau.

It is certainly my assumption that this would not originate with, or even be cleared by the Intelligence Bureau, because I knew they had strong views on this.

Yes, but it's not coming from the mailroom, so it's got to be coming from an undersecretary or at some--

That's right. It either has to be coming from someone on the policy side of the State Department or from the NSC, someone on the outside. But it's a mystery to me to this day where that came from.

So that's meddling with intelligence?

In my mind, it is.

That seems to be the case.

There are two interesting things about it. One is, at that point, the information was still highly classified. The mention of uranium from Niger was, as I understand it, in December, a top-secret matter, and I just wonder who had the authority, at that time, to declassify it. Certainly, the president would, when he did a month later. But who at that time took responsibility for it?

That was one of the jobs of the Intelligence Bureau, to make sure that no very sensitive intelligence information was used by the policy side, either accidentally or deliberately. That's one of the reasons that we were clearing language when public statements were made.

Was there an imminent threat? Was there a grave and growing danger, in your view?

... I thought that there was never an imminent threat. This was a long-term security concern, if the international community did not limit carefully the Iraqis, that the interests remained in these kind of programs, and there was a lot of knowledge in the minds of Iraqi scientists that would allow them to pursue these kind of programs. That was the nature of the threat, but that's not the way the threat was described to the American people. ...

Before you retired from the INR, from the intelligence unit at the State Department, what conclusions were you drawing as you watched this growing divergence between what was being said by policymakers and what you knew was the intelligence?

The conclusion that I ultimately came to was that this was a matter of, as I've called it, faith-based intelligence. Instead of our leadership forming conclusions based on a careful reading of the intelligence we provided them, they already had their conclusion to start out with, and they were cherry-picking the information that we provided to use whatever pieces of it that fit their overall interpretation. Worse than that, they were dropping qualifiers and distorting some of the information that we provided to make it seem more alarmist and more dangerous than the information that we were giving them.

Did you express this concern to the people that supervised you?

I'd really have to say that it came pretty late that I realized the full magnitude of the distortions being reached. As I said, I didn't really realize or form conclusions about what the administration's game plan was until August, which was very late in my service to the government.

Throughout our assessment of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction subject, we were always quite candid in talking to our superiors at the State Department, both in the bureau, but also to the secretary of state, about our take on the intelligence. …

You spoke to Powell about this?

The head of our bureau, Carl Ford, would speak with Powell or Powell's deputy, Armitage, regularly about these and other issues.

And you know what was expressed in those encounters?

Our main contribution was a written one, and we know what memorandum went from Carl Ford to the secretary of state on these issues, because we were the drafting office for most of these assessments.

We were I think fairly consistent about several points. One is that while we were looking very hard for indications that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program that had been pretty effectively dismantled in the course of the 1990s was being rejuvenated, we did not find any convincing evidence that that was the case. ...

But weren't you in a dogfight with the other intelligence analysts who were coming to opposite conclusions?

We were on that point. That's right.

So did you understand the thinking of those people who were not policymakers, but intelligence analysts, presumably, serious, rigorous analysts? Or maybe not?

Presumably so, and I would only have to say that there's a natural suspicion -- which is good among intelligence analysts -- of not believing what a potential enemy is saying about their capabilities and looking skeptically at disclaimers that there's nothing really happening.

The Congress of the United States, in particular, has shown no patience after the fact, when the U.S. has been surprised, the intelligence community missed something. So the default setting of the U.S. intelligence community is to over-warn, rather than under-warn.

In fact, you guys in the State Department that do analysis in the State Department are often branded as being soft.

I have heard that accusation. In the weapons intelligence area, I was very proud of our reporting and prediction record during the time that I served with the bureau. I would match it up against any other intelligence agency. And if we're too soft, I would only say that we were usually right when others were wrong. ...

You were aware that the Pentagon, right after 9/11, had put together a special office to look at links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

I have to say, honestly, that I was only aware of that after I retired from government. That office was largely invisible to us in the intelligence community, because they didn't play in the normal bureaucratic process of making intelligence assessments and reporting on those assessments.

What did you understand that office to be about?

I am still trying to figure out what that office was about. But as I said, because they had no visibility and no role in anything that we could see in the intelligence community, one had to assume -- because they had access to all of this information -- that they were doing cherry-picking of their own to build a case for what their superiors wanted to say.

The office wasn't big enough for them to really have the expertise in-house, and the mere creation of the office was odd, since the secretary of defense had the entire Defense Intelligence Agency at its disposal. So it's a little mysterious what exactly they were doing, if not activity that the intelligence professionals or DIA or CIA or elsewhere were not willing to do.

Is the kind of operation like this usual, the Shulsky office? [Editor's Note: Abram Shulsky is the director of the Office of Special Plans.]

I think it's very unusual, if I understand correctly the amount of influence they had. The whole idea of structuring an intelligence community that consists of entities within different agencies and having a structure that reports to the director of Central Intelligence is to make sure that you have a chance not only to hear the views of different entities, but also to, if possible, get a consensus among those entities; and when a consensus [is] impossible, to register in a visible way why some agencies don't agree with the majority viewpoint.

When you have an office like OSP apparently was, it doesn't play in this system. So the intelligence community has no way to really incorporate ideas or thinking or even register dissenting viewpoints. What seems to have happened is that the conclusions or the work that they did somehow entered from the side into the policy community--

At a very high level.

--at a very high level, in a way that was invisible to those of us in the intelligence community producing intelligence. ...

I get the feeling that, in your view, this runs deep, and this is very much counter to what you would consider a fair and just method of collecting and analyzing intelligence.

What it does is, if one assumes that the OSP product then enters at a very high level, it deprives the recipients of the information from an understanding of what other experts on this subject believe. If a human intelligence report -- a defector report, for example -- has been discredited by the CIA and the DIA, there's usually a good reason for that. I mean, you know we've noticed these agencies sometimes keep human intelligence sources that we think are not very reliable.

So, if anything, there's a bias toward getting those reports out, and if the information is sensational or potentially significant, making sure that people have a shot at it, even if it comes with a warning that we cannot vouch for the credibility of this report, but thought that the decision maker should see it anyway. So there's a lot of that going on anyway inside the official intelligence community process.

But the idea that for reports that the CIA, DIA, INR think are not credible, that it's important to get those reports to senior decision makers -- I mean, that's a pretty weak case. What kind of expertise do they have here that justifies that kind of sponsorship of intelligence that everyone else thinks is bad?

Well, they say that the intelligence coming out of the CIA, and the INR, and the DIA is so overqualified as to be useless.

We would spend a lot of time, in our function at the Intelligence Bureau of the State Department, to make sure that the kind of qualifiers used in our assessments and analysis did not make the intelligence incomprehensible or useless.

There is a challenge, obviously, because you never have perfect knowledge. There's a challenge in explaining what you don't know, as well as what you do know, and doing it in a way that does not get overly complex for people who have a limited amount of time and are not maybe subject experts on these issues. So that was part of our job.

Nonetheless, I don't really have sympathy for that charge that the intelligence is too qualified for it to be useful to senior decision makers. It's part of the job of senior decision makers to be able to take qualified intelligence, to make sense out of it, and form conclusions. Sometimes that's a tough job, but that's the job they have.

There's another criticism that gets thrown out there, and that is that during the Clinton years, the intelligence community was under-funded, it withered, and that basically we had no good fix on what was happening and that we needed to toughen up our intelligence.

You've heard the criticism.

I have heard the criticism. It's a very large subject -- what one should do to improve the intelligence community. I guess it's a little bit hard, when one thinks of, if one accepts the press figure -- and I note with regret that the amount of money the U.S. spends on intelligence, even the total amount, is still classified. But if one accepts the press figure of $30 billion, this sounds like a lot of money. ...

But I am not of the opinion that there are quick fixes to throw a few more billion dollars at the intelligence community, and then they will start delivering very good and reliable evidence. Obviously, more money can be usefully used. Technical sources of intelligence are extremely expensive. Satellite systems and other things cost a lot of money, so I would not say that additional money could not be usefully used. But I think it's not principally the lack of money that explains why intelligence was not better and why it was misused.

You're saying that this was a clear case, in this last year, of politicization of intelligence.

As reluctant as I am to try to understand the motives of people using the intelligence, my bottom line on this subject is that while the intelligence community did not do a good job, in my view, in being very careful to be precise for both decision makers and for the American public, the primary blame is in the way that senior officials of the administration made statements -- which I can only describe as dishonest statements -- about the nature of what the intelligence was saying.

And that criticism would be applied to the president, but also to the secretary of state?

I would, very reluctantly, have to include the secretary of state in that judgment. I've always said that the secretary of state is much more careful at not exaggerating than his Cabinet colleagues, as well as the vice president and the president.

But yet he took the tubes argument before the United Nations, when he had been expressly told by his own intelligence people that it didn't hold.

That's right. And if one looks now, if one goes back to that very long presentation, point by point, one finds that this was not a very honest explanation. I mean, you had terrorist activity described that was taking place in Iraq without the mention that it was taking place in an area under the control of the Kurds, rather than an area under control of Saddam.

You had this very tenuous link made between Saddam and Osama bin Laden in the remarks of Secretary Powell, when his own terrorist officials and virtually everyone else in the U.S. intelligence community said there is no significant connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

You had statements about missiles that Saddam allegedly had when, in fact, the intelligence community said that we cannot account for the destruction of all of the 819 Scud missiles that Iraq had acquired over the years. That was transmogrified into statements that Iraq has a small number of Scud missiles, with no qualification. Secretary Powell said that with no qualification, just as George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, said it with no qualification. There is a big difference between saying, "We cannot prove that every last one of these missiles has been destroyed," and saying, "We know Saddam has these missiles."

What conclusion do you come to? Is he lying?

I don't like to use the word "lying" because, again, it implies that I know what was in his mind on these issues. All I can say is that I have to conclude he was making the president's case. He works for the president. The president had gone way out on a limb in making a lot of what I regard as unjustified characterizations of the intelligence, and Secretary Powell was being a loyal secretary of state, a "good soldier," as it were, building the administration's case before the international community. ...

You say that [Ahmad] Chalabi was definitely a source of intelligence.

Oh, yes, there's no doubt about that. The INC was providing information to the U.S. government on Iraq.

Like how much, and what kind?

I think it's obvious to everyone that the INC had a case to make to the U.S. government that U.S. intervention and support for their efforts in overthrowing Saddam was warranted. It's certainly obvious that the more dangerous Saddam's regime appeared to the United States, the greater the chances would be of getting U.S. support for the INC, and ultimately U.S. intervention into Iraq to overthrow the regime.

So there was a motive. But was there--

There was very definitely a motive. My memory of, and understanding is that there were definitely reasons to doubt a number of the defectors or human sources that Chalabi's organization provided. We tried to look as carefully as we could at reports from human intelligence sources to see what those experts had previously said, whether or not their previous information was shown to be reliable or not, whether or not they had motives for providing the information, or whether they had access to the information so that their views could be considered valid. ...

I think it's that fairly rigorous standard that seems not to have been applied to some of the information coming out of Chalabi and the INC that OSP and the Pentagon ran with.

Well, Chalabi will say that he just alerted the U.S. government of three defectors and that that's the extent of it, and the United States rejected one of those defectors as not credible, and there were only two defectors that they paid any attention to. ...

If one is talking about human intelligence sources -- which would include not only defectors, but reports from people that remained in Iraq -- I find it very hard to believe that there were only three.

You were in a position, were you not, to know the volume of information coming out of the INC?

... Indirectly, I'm one of the people who could form an impression about that, and three seems like an awfully low number.

In other words, Chalabi was feeding much more information into the intelligence community.

I believe so, yes.

And this was being eagerly taken up, in some quarters, by those who wanted to see this war proceed?

There seemed to be an unseemly eagerness to believe any information which would portray the Iraqi threat as being extremely grave and imminent. ...

But you were aware that both the State Department and the CIA did not like Chalabi, by and large?

I'm aware of that. I mean, the press has reported on that, and that seems consistent with what I would hear, that there were--

But you were listening to what charges they might bring?

Absolutely. I mean, we were willing to listen to anything. We tried to set our biases aside on a first look at information, because no matter how disreputable a source of information, if that person had access, it's worth looking at what they're saying. ...

There are people who are going to say that Greg Thielmann is simply a disgruntled employee. What do you think your views represent in the intelligence community, or are you just a disgruntled employee?

I might accept a disgruntled employee description. I would only say that--

But a lone wolf? Or does your opinion hold water across the community?

Many of the opinions that I've expressed in interpreting the intelligence information were the opinions of the bureau in which I served and were not my views or my views alone. They were opinions formed by people who served under me, by people who served above me, and have been officially registered in documents that the public can now have access to. ...

It's really a question of degree. I mean, all of us understand that we were serving as intelligence analysts, and the policymakers were in a different role of having to make decisions based on the intelligence and on other things, and come up with the execution of policy. So we can't presume to be in their position.

But I think in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction matter, there's a question of degree. I think that it's fair to say there was -- I can't speak for all of the other agencies -- but there was a fair degree of unhappiness at the way that some of the intelligence product that we had worked so hard on was being distorted by senior policymakers.

I would just add to that, that that's clearly the case in other countries as well, that we're seeing basically the same information. I mean, an Australian intelligence analyst resigned in protest over some of the same issues that we're talking about today. We all know about the case of David Kelly, who ultimately committed suicide. He was one of Britain's leading experts on biological and chemical warfare production, and he was obviously unhappy with the way that his government had been using intelligence information.

So there was considerable unhappiness in the intelligence community of a number of states in the way that the war parties in those countries were using the information. I'm not a lone voice in that respect. I'm only unusual in that I was serving in the government at a time when the information was coming across my desk, and I then retired and am now not serving in government. That's what really makes me unusual, rather than the specific views that I have. ...

 

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