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Controversy Deepens Over Iraq Prewar Intelligence


One of the puzzling questions hanging over the Iraq war is, how did the intelligence turn out to be so wrong?

Critics of the America's Iraq policy have charged that intelligence was manipulated by Bush administration officials to win public support for going to war. It is a charge that is vehemently denied by the administration.

For 28 years, Paul Pillar labored deep within the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually rising to become National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. But upon recently retiring from the CIA to teach, he did something intelligence officers generally shy away from -- he went public.

In an article he wrote for the highly respected journal Foreign Affairs, he alleged the Bush administration had selectively chosen bits of intelligence -- cherry-picked, in intelligence parlance -- to justify its already made decision to go to war.

The article has set off a firestorm, as the administration has repeatedly and vehemently denied manipulating intelligence. Late last year, Vice-President Dick Cheney fired back at earlier criticism on the issue.

Mr. Cheney said, "What is not legitimate and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence."

The intelligence on Iraq has become a highly charged issue, shining an uncomfortable public spotlight on the usually secretive espionage world. The weapons of mass destruction that the administration insisted Saddam Hussein had turned out not to exist.

Coupled with the failure to detect and intercept the September 11, 2001 terror plot, the agencies that make up the intelligence community have been acutely embarrassed in the past five years.

In a lengthy VOA interview at his Georgetown University office, Paul Pillar says administration officials were particularly anxious to demonstrate some substantive link between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida, particularly any of the 9-11 plotters like ringleader Mohammad Atta, when in fact, he says, no such links existed.

Mr. Pillar said, "The main thing that happened there, particularly with reference to this issue of was there a relationship between the Saddam regime and al-Qaida, was a selective use of bits and pieces of reporting to try to build the case that in this case there was some kind of alliance without really reflecting the analytic judgment of the intelligence community that there was not."

Pillar's view of the push to link al-Qaida to Saddam comes from other sources. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, tells VOA that there was pressure from the White House to include reference to an alleged meeting between Atta and Iraqi intelligence in the prewar briefing to the U.N. Security Council of February 5, 2003 -- even though there was little evidence of such a meeting.

Mr. Wilkerson said, "I remember vividly one time when we had absolutely decided that we were eliminating the part about Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence agents meeting in Prague. Mr. [Stephen] Hadley was sitting directly to the right; [he was] deputy national security advisor at the time. And he said, 'What happened to the Mohammad Atta meeting?' when the secretary was rehearsing. And the secretary looked at him and fixed him and said, 'Steve, we took that out. And it's staying out.'"

his U.N. presentation, Secretary Powell spoke of alleged contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, but avoided any mention of the supposed Mohammad Atta meeting.

Mr. Powell said, "Some believe, some claim these contacts do not amount to much. They say Saddam Hussein's secular tyranny and al-Qaida's religious tyranny do not mix. I am not comforted by this thought. Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and al-Qaida together, enough so al-Qaida could learn how to build more sophisticated bombs and learn how to forge documents, and enough so that al-Qaida could turn to Iraq for help in acquiring expertise on weapons of mass destruction."

But, Wilkerson says, Vice-President Cheney kept trying to make the link between al-Qaida and Iraq.

"I do know that the Vice-President made some statements over and over and over again about things like, for example, Mohammad Atta's meeting in Prague, Czechoslovakia after the entire intelligence community had completely discounted that meeting. Is that politicizing the intelligence? Is that cherry-picking? As an American citizen, I have to say, it sure smells like it."

In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. late last year, Vice-President Cheney admitted the shortcomings in intelligence, but again strongly denied intelligence had been manipulated.

"The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight. But any suggestion that pre-war information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false. Senator John McCain put it best: it is a lie to say that the President lied to the American people."

On Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Larry Wilkerson says that, despite his insider status at the time, he remains mystified about what happened.

"How that happened, I am still at a mystery to ferret out. Group think on the part of the intelligence community? Incompetence on the part of the intelligence community? Not having anyone on the ground in Iraq and not being bold enough to risk trying to put someone on the ground in Iraq for so many years, certainly since 1998 and the bombing? Linear extrapolation from '98, just saying, 'Oh, they had this much anthrax growth medium in '98, so they must have grown this much anthrax in 2003?'"

Paul Pillar does not dispute there was an intelligence breakdown. But, he adds, while there was no direct pressure to alter intelligence analyses on Iraq, he argues that the administration's determination to go to war created a climate that choked off objectivity and squelched dissenting views among intelligence analysts.

"If, instead, the analyst is operating in an environment in which he knows decisions have already been made, in which he knows the policymaker has a particular preference for what would suit his purposes in mustering support for that decision -- well, that's an entirely different sort of thing. And it certainly reduces any inclination analysts may have to challenge a conventional wisdom or a consensus judgment, as we had on Iraqi W.M.D. [i.e., Weapons of Mass Destruction]."

Pillar expresses surprise about the barrage of criticism his article has spawned.

"There's very little in this article I wrote that constitutes a new revelation or something that hadn't already been reported in one form or another, at least in bits and pieces. All I wanted to do was draw it together in one place, point to the overall picture it conveyed of a relationship between intelligence and policy that is not anything what it should be."

He says he is only looking to start an enlightened debate that will fix what he says is the badly frayed relationship between the intelligence community and policymakers.

"What I have in mind is not plowing over old ground in Iraq -- although we're going to have to do some more plowing on that -- but more importantly, looking forward and having a relationship between two parts of our government that is sound enough and healthy enough and proper enough that the next time a very difficult, sticky issue comes up like Iraq, that we will see that relationship work well."

Even now, debate is underway about the nature and extent of Iran's nuclear program. It is a debate, says Paul Pillar, that could benefit from the missteps on the road to war in Iraq.

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