Thursday, July 08, 2004

CIA Built Its Case for Iraqi WMD on Selective Hearsay

A startling report in yesterday's New York Times says the CIA selectively used hearsay to promote its "slam dunk" case for Iraq's WMD, and its threat to the world.

According to the Times: "The Central Intelligence Agency was told by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad's programs to develop unconventional weapons had been abandoned, but the C.I.A. failed to give that information to President Bush."

As uncovered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which the Times reports is preparing a "scathing indictment" of the CIA, "the agency and the rest of the intelligence community did a poor job of collecting information about the status of Iraq's weapons programs, and that analysts at the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies did an even worse job of writing reports that accurately reflected the information they had."

According to the Senate investigation, the CIA:

-- Misrepresented information
-- Distorted evidence
-- Failed to objectively consider intelligence counter to its basic assumption that Iraq was seeking to produce WMD

So much of what the CIA based its reports on amounted to little more than hearsay -- interviews with Iraqi dissidents or their families, with at least some of the people provided by the now-discredited Ahmed Chalabi. It's a wonder our intelligence couldn't conclude much of anything. Remember when Colin Powell presented at the United Nations an artist's rendering of a mobile bioterror unit? The reason for the drawing was that we had no photos of such units, which have since been shown not to exist. Powell also presented at the U.N. satellite photos of warehouses, with trucks coming and going, as evidence of Iraq's WMD programs. But Powell was only providing Iraqi defector hearsay that the warehouses served that purpose, from the likes of the discredited "Curveball" source, among others. Our troops and weapons inspectors found nothing at those sites upon inspection.

"Evidence that fit that assumption (that Iraq was seeking to produce WMD) was embraced; evidence to the contrary was ignored or seen as part of a clever Iraqi disinformation campaign," the Times reports.

***

Of course, that criticism could be made of the media as a whole. Who can forget when Gloria Borger of CNBC's Capitol Report introduced weapons inspector Scott Ritter as the "last man defending Saddam Hussein" -- mainly because Ritter was telling anyone who would listen that the Bush Administration's claims of Iraqi's WMD threat was wrong.

Strange, isn't it, how Ritter and Hans Blix and the various former CIA agents who came out -- on the record -- prior to the war to account the flaws in the Bush administration's arguments aren't now being trotted out on Hardball and Meet the Press and the like to be given the chance to comment now. These people were right, but the media wants to look the other way. It's as if the news is created in some strange vacuum, in which pundits have no long-term memory of things they said, or ignored.

Instead, cable viewers are treated to the opines of the Joe Scarboroughs of the world, who claim we went to Iraq to liberate Iraqis -- when he knows full well that wasn't the original reasoning given by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell or Rice. Americans are supposed to look forward -- to be "optimistic" to use Bush's favorite word -- instead of looking back at the administration's failure, and thus being overtly "pessimistic."

***

Here's a key part of the Times story (items bolded by me for emphasis):

Yet there were some people inside the intelligence community who recognized the need for better evidence, according to intelligence officials. In 1998, the United Nations withdrew its weapons inspectors from Iraq, severely hampering the C.I.A.'s ability to monitor Iraqi weapons efforts. In response, Charlie Allen, the agency's assistant director for collection, began searching for new sources of information, the intelligence officials said.

He pushed for several new collection programs, including one that called for approaching members of the families of Iraqi scientists believed to be involved in secret weapons programs, the officials said. At the time, the C.I.A. had no direct access to important Iraqi scientists, and using family members as intermediaries seemed like the next best thing.

Beginning in 2000, the C.I.A. contacted the relatives and asked them what they knew or could learn about the work being conducted by the scientists. Officials would not say how or where the relatives were contacted.

The relatives told the agency that the scientists had said that they were no longer working on illicit weapons, and that those programs were dead. Yet the statements from the relatives were never included in C.I.A. intelligence reports on Iraq that were distributed throughout the government. C.I.A. analysts monitoring Iraq apparently ignored the statements from the family members and continued to issue assessments that Mr. Hussein was still developing unconventional weapons, Senate investigators have found.

At the time, C.I.A. analysts were deeply cynical about statements from Iraqis suggesting that Mr. Hussein had no illicit weapons, and assumed that such talk was simply part of an Iraqi denial and deception program, several intelligence officials said.

In response, a C.I.A. spokesman said, the families' statements were "not at all convincing."

"There was nothing definitive about it," the spokesman said. "No useful information was collected from the family members, and that's why it wouldn't have been disseminated."

***

Given the complete failure to find WMD, in spite of significantly more time on the ground than the U.S. allowed the U.N. inspectors before the war, one has to question what the CIA found "convincing."

***

The Times reports that the Senate investigation has found no evidence of pressure from the Bush administration. "The committee has not found any evidence that the analysts changed their reports as a result of political pressure from the White House," the Times reports.

I have to wonder how they've made that conclusion. Is it just simply a lack of documentation? Didn't we hear Richard Clarke tell the 9/11 commission that it was strongly suggested to him that he find a link between Iraq and the events of 9/11? Can't we assume similar pressure might have been applied to CIA analysts?

But beyond that, isn't the question facing the Bush administration not pressure it placed on the CIA to produce doctored reports. Rather, it was the claim that the administration -- and particularly the neocons within, led by Vice President Cheney -- "cherry-picked" information from the CIA to build its case before the American people, and ultimately, the court of world opinion.

David

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