The Weapons that Were Not There
Book review by Tom Powers '64
The New York Times
Oct. 2, 2011
Every attentive reader of "Intelligence and U.S.
Foreign Policy," Paul R. Pillar's long-needed examination of just what the
Central Intelligence Agency got right or wrong before the terrorist attacks
of Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will find one
observation or another that seems more disquieting than the rest. I haven't
quite decided which of two deserves pride of place on my own list: The fact
that the Bush administration never formally debated whether it was "a good
idea" to invade Iraq? Or that Pillar, who ran the National Intelligence
Council's shop for the Middle East during both events, cannot tell us "the
true reasons the Bush administration invaded"?
Conventional wisdom, supported by a detailed Senate Intelligence Committee report, says George W. Bush went into Iraq because the C.I.A. told him that Saddam Hussein was vigorously developing weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; just as conventional wisdom, backed by the enormous report of the 9/11 Commission, says terrorists of Al Qaeda successfully crashed airliners into the World Trade Center because the intelligence agency failed to "connect the dots" as the plot unfolded. These twin "intelligence failures" — "a two-verse mantra," Pillar calls them — were addressed by president and Congress with a noisily announced program of "intelligence reform." The biggest change was to move intelligence headquarters into a different building under a new official with a new title: director of national intelligence. Pillar's purpose is not to turn the clock back but to unravel the skein of misinformation, deceit and what can only be characterized as White House bullying that managed to pin the blame for 9/11 and Iraq on the one organization enjoined by law and custom from taking its case to the public.
Pillar, the author of two previous books, was an intelligence analyst for 28 years, mainly at the C.I.A. but latterly for the N.I.C., which occupied a strange niche alongside but not quite in the agency, and after the reforms of 2004 was moved, on paper at least, to the Directorate of National Intelligence. In the mid-90s he was chief of analysis, and later deputy chief, of the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorist Center. His years with the center informed his first book, "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy" (2001), in which he argued against overheated fears of terrorists armed with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The events of 9/11 proved we should have been worrying about box cutters. By then, Pillar had moved on to the N.I.C., where he remained through the Iraq invasion.
Pillar's critique of conventional wisdom about intelligence failures is certain to be attacked as the special pleading of an insider, but he is a lucid writer drawing on long experience and wide reading. At stake is our ability as a nation to think clearly about what intelligence services can do and for whom they should do it. Standing in the way of getting this straight has been deep public reluctance to recognize two facts — the Bush administration's role in turning a blind eye to the dangers of terrorist attack before 9/11, and its determination to whip up fears of Iraqi W.M.D.'s, which allowed the president to send an American army into the heart of the Middle East.
Everybody failed to predict the day, the place and the exact method of the 9/11 attacks, Pillar argues, not just the C.I.A. But the agency was far from failing to identify the danger posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, nor did it fail to organize a vigorous operation before the attacks, which included beefed-up funding of the Counterterrorism Center and the establishment of a special office targeting Al Qaeda. Among the numerous alarms issued in the summer of 2001 were specific warnings to the White House — to Bush's National Security Council adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in July and to the president himself in August. Rice argued later that the agency provided no "actionable intelligence," so there was nothing to be done. But anyone who considers even cursorily the year of inflammatory warnings from the administration about Iraqi W.M.D.'s, the planting of scare stories in the news media, the mobilization of military muscle and the escalating pressure on NATO allies, the United Nations and the United States Congress will note the rich menu of actions an aroused White House might have taken to meet the dangers posed by Al Qaeda.
This initial failure, as much the administration's as the C.I.A.'s in any fair accounting, was followed by a second — the invasion of Iraq to shut down secret weapons programs that did not, in fact, exist. Pillar frankly acknowledges a full measure of blame for the intelligence agency in backing up the administration's case for war with its hastily written October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate identifying Iraqi W.M.D. programs with "high confidence." Examined in retrospect the estimate was wrong in every finding; the nothing the administration did in response to terrorist warnings before 9/11 matched the nothing that was found on the ground in Iraq.
Pillar argues that the evidence may have been thin and sparse, but that there was evidence nonetheless; conclusions were thus a coin toss, and analysts could call them either way. What decided the matter, he says, not proudly, was the politicization of the whole effort. In a 50-page chapter describing this process, Pillar stresses that the administration made abundantly clear it wanted a finding for Iraqi W.M.D.'s. At the C.I.A. few resisted. Almost everybody at the agency, from lowliest analyst up to the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, knowing their careers were on the line, called the coin toss on evidence as desired.
The C.I.A. works for the president, Pillar notes, which means that politicization — direction, not always subtle, about what to look at and what to say about it — is a fact of life. But it was worst, in his experience, during the "anti-Soviet slant" of President Reagan, especially during his first term, and under George W. Bush, when "the politicization of intelligence tested new depths." In the run-up to the Iraq war, he says, such politicization was "blatant and extensive," involving "misleading rhetorical artifice" and "duplicity" through "tenuous and unverified reports" from "unproven sources." That the administration was determined to invade Iraq is now well established; W.M.D.'s were the excuse for war, not the reason. What Pillar adds to the story is clear confirmation that everyone in the C.I.A. understood this at an early date: "The pro-war wind that the Bush administration policy makers had generated . . . was strong, unrelenting and inescapable."
This brings us back to the troubling remarks Pillar makes early in this rich, useful and important book. First is the fact that the administration never formally debated "whether the war was a good idea." The implication is clear: a small group of officials made the decision on their own, without leaving any record. "It was never on any meeting's agenda," Pillar notes. What, then, was the purpose of the war? What did President Bush and his advisers hope to achieve? Who did they think would benefit? I would say that I am about as interested in this question as anyone, but any answer I offered would be only a guess. Bush and his friends have never really been clear about their reasons, and the magnitude of their failure suggests they will carry the secret to their graves.