Sunday, November 20


What could account for the CIA's willful embrace of discredited intelligence?"

According to the Germans, President Bush mischaracterized Curveball's information when he warned before the war that Iraq had at least seven mobile factories brewing biological poisons. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also misstated Curveball's accounts in his prewar presentation to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, the Germans said.

Curveball's German handlers for the last six years said his information was often vague, mostly secondhand and impossible to confirm.

"This was not substantial evidence," said a senior German intelligence official. "We made clear we could not verify the things he said."
An investigation by The Times based on interviews since May with about 30 current and former intelligence officials in the U.S., Germany, England, Iraq and the United Nations, as well as other experts, shows that U.S. bungling in the Curveball case was worse than official reports have disclosed.

The White House, for example, ignored evidence gathered by United Nations weapons inspectors shortly before the war that disproved Curveball's account. Bush and his aides issued increasingly dire warnings about Iraq's biological weapons before the war even though intelligence from Curveball had not changed in two years.

At the Central Intelligence Agency, officials embraced Curveball's account even though they could not confirm it or interview him until a year after the invasion. They ignored multiple warnings about his reliability before the war, punished in-house critics who provided proof that he had lied and refused to admit error until May 2004, 14 months after the invasion.
The senior BND officer who supervised Curveball's case said he was aghast when he watched Powell misstate Curveball's claims as a justification for war.

"We were shocked," the official said. "Mein Gott! We had always told them it was not proven…. It was not hard intelligence."

In a telephone interview, Powell said that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, and his top deputies personally assured him before his U.N. speech that U.S. intelligence on the mobile labs was "solid." Since then, Powell said, the case "has totally blown up in our faces."

The CIA itself is not going to answer the question.

The Kerr report's commentary on the politicization of intelligence, a criticism it rejects, is the key content. Kerr notes that the case is less one of a pre-fabricated policy seeking out only useful intelligence judgments than it is of "policy deliberations deferring to the [Intelligence] Community in an area where classified information and technical analysis were seen as giving [intelligence] unique expertise."

This might have been the case if the CIA and other agencies had developed their judgments unfettered by Bush administration officials, but the report itself notes the wide variety of contacts and the constant push for data-demands that were "numerous and intense." The Kerr report tries to finesse the issue by noting that in major crises "serious pressure from policymakers almost always accompanies serious issues." That is certainly true but it does not excuse the CIA from caving to the pressure, or Richard Cheney, Scooter Libby, Condi Rice, Robert Joseph, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and others from making the kinds of demands they did in the way they made them. The Kerr report argues that pressures were more "nuanced" because intelligence judgments on Iraqi WMD were in accord with policy preferences. But, significantly, the Kerr panel could not bring itself to fully exonerate Bush officials despite the sensitivity it knew attached to this issue. Rather, the report ultimately punted: "Whether or not this climate contributed to the problem of . . . analytic performance . . . remains an open question."

Still, the Kerr report for the first time breaks the wall of denial: admitting the effects of pressure are an open question concedes that pressures existed. Boltonization is real. That is a most important development. Nevertheless, self-censorship remains at work here—the Kerr group could not bring itself to express a clear conclusion. That too says something about readiness to speak truth to power, and the level of candor that watchdogs and the American public should expect from their intelligence community.

Should the Senate Intelligence Committee fulfill its promise to investigate the manipulation of pre-war intelligence, I suspect they'll find that the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans holds a key part of the responsibility.

I can't see George W. Bush, in the mold of Richard Nixon, actually strategizing with Cheney and Rove on this. He's never been one for "nuance" and doing his homework. He's a slacker, a stooge, albeit a malevolent one. I think it's more a case of the boy king saying, "Get me a war" and his henchmen delivering. That doesn't excuse him in any way -- to the contrary, it highlights his failure as president. As the nation's CEO and Commander In Chief, it's his duty to run the government, not just to delegate his responsibilities to others. The U.S. government is no think tank where the president has been hired to dream up ideas that others plan and execute without his oversight.

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