The wimpiness of the Democrats: Part 46

A Senate report conveniently blames the CIA, not Bush, for hyping the threat of WMD in Iraq -- thanks to Democrats who allowed the GOP to mug them.

Published July 9, 2004 11:43PM (EDT)

On one of the signal debates of the 2004 presidential campaign -- whether President Bush hyped intelligence to lead the nation into an unnecessary war against Iraq -- the Republicans may have already won an important battle. On Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee issues its much-anticipated report excoriating the nation's spy agencies for their dire -- and wrong -- conclusions about Iraq's weapons capabilities. The report shifts blame from the White House to beleaguered CIA Director George Tenet, whose resignation takes effect on Sunday.

The panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, will pivot off the report in a news conference Friday morning to argue that Democratic demands for a "Phase 2" of the investigation examining the administration's decision to invade Iraq are "null and void," as a spokeswoman for the senator put it earlier this week. But Senate Democrats laid the groundwork for their own political defeat in February when they agreed to delay the second phase of the investigation until after the November election.

"I sort of attribute it to just bad negotiations," said a former top aide to a Democratic senator who has been closely involved in intelligence oversight. "I'm not sure if there was any other external factor. I think there's some sense we've got to push the envelope, but that we're the minority and there's only so much we can do. It sort of defines the Democrats' approach in the Senate."

The 500-plus-page report offers 120 bipartisan conclusions about the intelligence community's failures. Democrats, and some Republicans as well, offer additional and individual views. But the thrust of the report is that the intelligence agencies badly erred in concluding that "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions" and that Iraq "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade," as the notorious October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which represented the consensus judgment of the intelligence community prepared by the CIA, stated. Former weapons inspector David Kay has testified repeatedly that his Iraq Survey Group found no evidence of a chemical, biological or nuclear weapons program.

Roberts, a White House ally, had been at best ambivalent about pursuing an investigation of intelligence on WMD. Only reluctantly did he agree to examine the intelligence agencies' work. In a January interview with National Public Radio, however, he said he thought it prudent to delay any probe of the administration's role in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. "Let's at least wait until we get the [initial phase of the] inquiry done. Then, if there's something terribly egregious, I have no problem with looking at it," he said.

More recently, Roberts has backpedaled. Of the "Phase 2" examination of the administration's use of intelligence, he told the congressional newspaper Roll Call: "I am not even sure it is within our jurisdiction." However, the resolution establishing the committee clearly extends its purview to the "use of information" about "collected, analyzed, produced and disseminated intelligence."

But the Republicans hold a trump card: choice of staff. Unique among Senate committees, the Republican chairman of the intelligence panel has the final say on the hiring and firing of committee aides, giving Democrats little leverage. "The Republicans ultimately and effectively, at the end of the day, controlled this investigation. There's no doubt about it. And they tried to put a bipartisan patina on it, but anybody who accepts that on face value is out of touch," said the former Democratic aide.

The joint news conference to be held by Roberts and the intelligence panel's top Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, was scripted in advance and was previewed for reporters earlier this week by aides to the two senators. Roberts will argue that the report puts to rest the question of whether President Bush misled the nation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Instead, it was Bush who was misled by the Central Intelligence Agency, Roberts will contend. He will also note that of 200 intelligence analysts interviewed by the panel, none said they were ordered by the administration to tailor their reports to bolster the argument for war.

Rockefeller will parry that the issue is more complicated. Did the administration's predetermination that Iraq was a threat influence a politically pliable intelligence bureaucracy to produce judgments that would support that conclusion? And what about those intelligence analysts who said they felt no pressure -- did the committee ask them the right questions? Perhaps no one directly told them to change their conclusions, Rockefeller will argue, but it's less clear whether they faced more subtle institutional pressures to exaggerate the threat.

Democrats can also be expected to raise the issue of how administration officials characterized the intelligence in public statements. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice famously warned that the United States should not wait for a "smoking gun" that was a "mushroom cloud." But the intelligence at the time, although concluding that Saddam was reconstituting a nuclear program, said that the Iraqi leader was still years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In the Senate, the intelligence committee's report was delayed for weeks as the panel and the CIA wrangled over how much of it to declassify. The panel pushed for complete declassification, but the CIA would agree to make only about 80 percent of the material public. The dispute over declassification has pushed back planned public hearings on the report from this month to sometime in the fall.

Likely to receive close attention is the panel's finding that of the 200 intelligence analysts interviewed, none said they had been specifically told to alter findings. According to Democratic sources, however, the committee focused narrowly on whether analysts were given direct orders to change wording. The panel did not explore the more nuanced question of whether institutional pressures and politics played a role in shaping the analysis. Rockefeller is expected to maintain that because the White House started from the premise that war was necessary, the intelligence bureaucracy was under pressure to tell policymakers what they wanted to hear.

If pressed on the issue of politicized intelligence, Republicans are likely to bring up a memo written by Democratic Intelligence Committee staff that was leaked by Republicans to conservative Fox News talk-show host Sean Hannity last fall. The memo said Democrats should be prepared "to launch an independent investigation when it becomes clear we have exhausted the opportunity to usefully collaborate with the majority. We can pull the trigger on an independent investigation of the administration's use of intelligence at any time, but we can only do so once. The best time to do so will probably be next year." A spokeswoman for Roberts said: "They wanted to politicize the process. There you have it, in black and white."

Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department analyst, now works as a private security consultant, but he remains in touch with former colleagues at the CIA. "I do know they were getting pressure to be the team player [on Iraq], to present the threat as more dire than they might otherwise," Johnson said.

The intelligence community has never been far removed from politics, Johnson added. He learned that lesson in 1986, when he was enrolled in an introductory course for new CIA analysts. His instructor was George Allen, the CIA's South Asia bureau chief during the Vietnam War. According to Johnson, Allen told the new recruits how the Defense Department during Vietnam had pressured the intelligence community to downplay estimates on North Vietnamese and Vietcong casualties, out of concern that releasing a high "body count" would tip the public to the strength of the insurgency. "Allen said he always regretted that he didn't stand up at the time. He said he had a kid in college and another in high school and that he wasn't wealthy and could have lost his job. Well, that stuck with me," Johnson said.

But intelligence officials like the exiting Tenet are in a bind, Johnson noted. "It is the responsibility of the director of central intelligence to present all the facts and let the policymakers make up their minds. That sounds simple in theory, but in practice it's not." Policymakers at the White House send strong signals that they don't want information that makes their jobs more complicated or undermines their policy goals. The truth gets soft-pedaled, Johnson said. "The intelligence community is on the horns of a dilemma in wanting to tell policymakers the truth, but not in such a harsh manner that they won't listen ... anymore," he said.

If there is any true bipartisan agreement on the subject of intelligence, it is on who should not succeed Tenet. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., is actively campaigning for the job. More recently, the name of 9/11 commissioner John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, has been floated. But both names are receiving raspberries in the Senate, which will confirm the new intelligence director. Goss and Lehman are viewed as too political and bureaucratic, say both Republican and Democratic staffers -- exactly what the broken-down intelligence community does not need. As Rockefeller told reporters recently, "Any politician, from either party, would be a mistake."

The Senate Democrats' fumble on the intelligence investigation could prove a costly error for John Kerry's presidential campaign. Whether they were too credulous or too passive, Democrats failed to advance their case, and now that the report is out, it is Republicans in the Senate who, at least for the moment, are shaping the interpretation of the volatile WMD issue. Kerry and his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (a member of the intelligence panel), must now fight to regain the political ground that their Senate colleagues have conspicuously ceded to the administration.

By Mary Jacoby

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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