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selective intelligence
Critics of the Bush administration -- like former State Department intelligence official Greg Thielmann and former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson -- charge that in the buildup to war with Iraq, policy makers were "cherry-picking" intelligence from CIA and other intelligence agencies, publicizing only the information that would bolster the case for war and ignoring contrary evidence. Richard Perle of the Defense Policy Board denies that the administration was second-guessing the intelligence agencies, and accuses the intelligence community of being blind to crucial connections between Saddam and terrorist organizations. Here are excerpts from their interviews with FRONTLINE.

photos of Thielmann
Greg Thielmann

Former director, Strategic, Proliferation and Military Affairs Office at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research

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

read the full interview

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. …

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. ...

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…. When did you first hear about these tubes?

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

Before you retired from the I&R, 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. …

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, 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 the CIA, DIA, I&R 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? …

. . .
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richard perle

Former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential group of advisors to the Pentagon

Not long after Sept. 11, Wolfowitz asked one of his deputies, Doug Feith, to set up a operation inside the Pentagon that's become known or was called then the Office of Special Plans. What was it?

read the full interview

I think the Office of Special Plans emerged some months later. It was in fact the organization within the policy side of the Defense Department that was responsible for planning with respect to the war. … You could have called it the Iraq war-planning group. But it made more sense under the circumstances to call it by an anodyne name.

It was set up to plan the war from the OSD side. Similarly, there would have been an office on the military side.

That's correct.

But it was also to build a rationale for the war, to explore the intelligence; as some people have put it, to second-guess some of the intelligence.

No, this was not true. It was not set up to second-guess intelligence. Not at all. It had no responsibilities of that sort, to the best of my knowledge.

It had no intelligence function? It wasn't there to look at the intelligence that was coming out and to see if links could be found between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda?

No. It was a different effort, a separate effort to reexamine previously collected intelligence to see whether we had explored sufficiently the involvement of Iraqi intelligence with terrorist organizations, because there had been a theory that dominated the collection and analysis of intelligence prior to Sept. 11.

That theory was that secular and religious terrorists were hostile to one another and would not work with each other. That theory, like all such theories, needed to be reexamined. So a very small effort was made to review previously collected intelligence to see whether there were links that had been overlooked in the period in which the theory acted as a filter. Indeed, once that effort got underway, links were found almost immediately.

Meetings between individuals in various terrorist organizations including members of Al Qaeda and including Iraqis and other intelligence organizations. The conclusion one came to was that there was a network of terrorist organizations that was-- You could call it "loose," if you like, not centrally directed, but working together, because they all had a common enemy. That enemy, unhappily, was the United States. …

So you're saying that this intelligence effort to look through the intelligence, it was coming out of wherever -- the CIA, NSA, DIA -- was not the Office of Special Plans.

That's correct.

Was it attached to it, or it was an adjunct or it was separate?

It was very simple. It was clear that no one had been looking for links of a kind that it was reasonable to consider might exist. We didn't know whether they existed. The evidence might have been that they didn't exist. So some people were brought in to take a look -- a very modest effort, tiny, minuscule, microscopic -- compared to the whole vast intelligence establishment. Within a very short period of time, they began to find links that nobody else had previously understood or recorded in a useful way.

How can you explain that they were able to do that when the CIA and the DIA couldn't do it?

Because the CIA and the DIA were not looking. They had filtered out the whole set of possibilities, because it was inconsistent with their model. If you're walking down the street, [if] you're not looking for hidden treasure, you won't find it. If you're looking for it, you may find something. In this case, they hadn't been looking.

Conversely, one criticism made of these efforts is that if you look for something, you will find it, simply because you are looking. The nature of intelligence is very often vague, and things can be interpreted one way or another.

Of course. There's no absolute truth to this. There's no absolute truth. But what Chris Carney and Mike Maloof and Dave Wurmser were doing, is going over previously collected intelligence with a fresh eye -- something that ought naturally to be done.

The whinging, the complaints from the intelligence establishment who had overlooked this material, [is] really quite pathetic. They have tried to suggest that there was somehow a politicization of intelligence, because people who didn't subscribe to their blinkered view of the world took a fresh look at old intelligence. I think it's absurd.

What did they find that has stood up?

They found a number of links that I reviewed at one point, was briefed on at one point and found extremely interesting.

Can you say what it was?

No, I can't say.

So none of it made it to Powell's speech to the U.N. or any of the president's speeches, or any of the appearances of--

I don't know, because I saw some of the results at a point in time. I don't know what was reviewed by Powell or went into Powell's speech. I don't know the origin of every point in Powell's presentation.

But none of the intelligence that you saw that was coming out of this group in the Pentagon was recognizable in the speeches?

I don't think so. But remember, this group was not developing intelligence; it was examining previously collected intelligence.

But you say they found things that nobody else had found?

They things that nobody else had noticed. It was there all along; it simply hadn't been noticed.

Critics have said that this is a prosecutorial approach to intelligence -- that one is culling, being selective, and finding what one wants to find.

I'm sorry. The culling was done by people who ignored whole areas because it wasn't consistent with their theory. Let me be blunt about this. The level of competence on past performance of the Central Intelligence Agency, in this area, is appalling. They are defensive -- and I think quite destructive -- in suggesting that anybody who didn't stand up and salute and accept that the CIA was the source of all wisdom on this is somehow engaged in nefarious activity. [That's] really outrageous. …

But is the scandal that our intelligence agencies are woefully inadequate to do the job that they need to do? Or that people were cherry picking intelligence inappropriately and presenting only half the case?

I think that our intelligence agencies have been woefully inadequate, first. Second, the charge of cherry picking implies that information that was not representative of what was known to us, was somehow accentuated to a degree that would lead one to a misleading conclusion. I haven't seen a shred of evidence to suggest that. It's an accusation by an intelligence community that is defensive about its own appalling performance. …

. . .
joseph wilson

Retired ambassador and former director of Africa policy for the National Security Council. He was sent to investigate claims that Iraq sought to buy uranium from Niger.

Your decision to write an op-ed in The New York Times is a political decision, is it not?

read the full interview

Well, I didn't really think of it as a political decision in the sense of a partisan decision. I thought of it much more as a response to what appeared to me to be a series of misstatements on the part of senior administration officials.

But you could have privately gone to the administration.

Well, I gave the administration lots of opportunity, and this story had been kicking around for a couple of months. The administration had every opportunity to step out and say, "Well, we were wrong on this. We should have corrected it."

You had made entreaties to the White House?

Not to the White House directly, but through the State Department, through friends of senior administration officials. I had made very clear my concerns that the statements that I was hearing out of the White House were just simply not accurate did not reflect the facts as I knew them.

And you were beginning to see a pattern at this point of, of trumped-up charges of weapons of mass destruction being an imminent threat.

Well, more to the point, I was seeing a pattern of just denying certain things that I knew to be true. And I have never claimed that this was the biggest part of the weapons of mass destruction argument, but what I have suggested is that what the administration was saying in response to the stories that were coming [in] was just simply not accurate, and essentially were misstatements.

The most egregious being when Dr. Rice said on "Meet the Press" that maybe somebody in the bowels of the Agency knew about this Niger business, but nobody in her circle, and that then prompted me to begin to speak out more stridently and ultimately to write the article.

She was stonewalling in your view.

She was misstating the facts.

She was lying.

She was misstating the facts. Far be it from me to call a very serious senior public official a liar, but I believe in that case she certainly misstated the facts. …

Didn't they decide that the U.S. couldn't make the case, that their own intelligence was not strong enough, so therefore, they laid it off intentionally on the British?

Well, what they have said is that the statement in the State of the Union address was technically correct because it referred to British intelligence, so it's a derivative statement. It's like it's okay for a journalist to print something because it's been printed in another newspaper. I find that difficult to accept as an excuse, because after all, the United States spends billions of dollars on intelligence.

The intelligence that the British had, they had not shared with us, as they have said, because of third party agreements that prohibited their sharing that intelligence with us. So we took on face value a statement in a British white paper that we had not verified. In fact, at least [regarding a] part of that statement, we had gone back to them and said, "We think you're wrong on this piece, the piece being the Niger uranium sales."

Now, the British have come back and said that they had a separate piece of intelligence that did not depend upon those documents. But for us to have used derivatively their statement, perhaps we could save ourselves a lot of money in the future by just simply subcontracting our intelligence function to the British, since we apparently give them … higher credibility than we give the reports not just of me but also of our ambassador and of a senior American general in the field.

What you're saying is that the administration ignored suspicions coming from its own intelligence sources about this alleged sale or whatever, and went with the British--

Well, I believe that they were more than suspicions raised by the U.S. intelligence services. … I think it was general consensus that it was just untrue.

How do you explain that the administration did such a thing?

Either there's a breakdown in the system, or as I said in my opinion piece, that the intelligence was manipulated and twisted to support a political goal that had already been established, and I frankly think that that's probably the case.


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posted october 9, 2003

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