The recent exchange of vitriol between Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and more specifically the disconnect between the intelligence data cited by the Bush administration as justification for invading Iraq and the resultant conclusion by the CIA that all Iraqi WMD had already been eliminated as early as 1991, has once again thrust the issue of the use of intelligence for political purposes front and center.
Democrats accuse the president and his supporters of deliberately misleading them and the American people about the nature of the Iraqi threat. Republicans respond that the Democrats are rewriting history, that all parties involved had access to the same intelligence data and had drawn the same conclusions. Typical of the Republican-led rebuttal are statements made by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who noted that “every intelligence agency in the world, including the Russian, French, including the Israeli, all had reached the same conclusion, and that was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
But this is disingenuous. The intelligence services of everyone else were not proclaiming Iraq to be in possession of WMD. Rather, the intelligence services of France, Russia, Germany, Great Britain and Israel were noting that Iraq had failed to properly account for the totality of its past proscribed weapons programs, and in doing so left open the possibility that Iraq might retain an undetermined amount of WMD. There is a huge difference in substance and nuance between such assessments and the hyped-up assertions by the Bush administration concerning active programs dedicated to the reconstitution of WMD, as well as the existence of massive stockpiles of forbidden weaponry.
The actions and rhetoric of the Bush administration were aided by the tendency by most involved to accept at face value any negative information pertaining to Hussein and his regime, regardless of the source’s reliability. This trend was especially evident in Congress, responsible for oversight on matters pertaining to foreign policy, intelligence and national security.
One might be inclined to excuse lesser members of the legislative branch for such actions, given their lack of access to sensitive intelligence, but not so senior figures who sit on oversight committees, such as California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who occupied a seat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Today, Feinstein all-too conveniently “regrets” her vote in favor of war on Iraq, but defends her yes vote in 2002 by noting that “the intelligence was very conclusive: Saddam possessed biological and chemical weapons.” This is a far different from the statement Feinstein made to me in the summer of 2002, when she acknowledged that the Bush administration had not provided any convincing intelligence to back up its claims about Iraqi WMD.
In contrast to Feinstein’s actions, Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who also sat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, noted in September 2002 that the Bush administration’s decisions regarding Iraq had been made in the absence of a National Intelligence Estimate from the CIA. The CIA hastily rushed to produce such a document, but the resulting report appeared as much to be an example of intelligence being fixed around policy, as opposed to policy being derived from intelligence. Graham, his eyes opened by the seemingly baseless rush toward conflict in Iraq, voted no on the war. Feinstein and others, their eyes wide shut, voted yes.
The crux of the problem of this Iraqi WMD intelligence “failure” lies in the fact that the U.S. intelligence community and the products it produces are increasingly influenced by the corrupting influences of politics. The politicization of the intelligence community allows the process of fixing intelligence around policy to become pervasive, and the increasingly polarized political climate in America prevents any real checks and balances through effective oversight, leaving Americans at the mercy of politicians who have placed partisan politics above the common good. The recent overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community, which resulted in the creation of the national intelligence chief, only reinforces this politicization, because the new director reports directly to the president and is beyond the reach of congressional oversight.
The only true fix to the problems of intelligence that manifested themselves in the Iraqi WMD debacle is to depoliticize the process. The position of national intelligence chief should be a 10-year appointment, like that of the director of the FBI, and subject to the consent of Congress. Likewise, all intelligence made available to the president to make national security policy should be shared with select members of Congress, from both parties, so that America will never again find itself at war based upon politically driven intelligence. Finally, and perhaps most important, the American people should start exercising effective accountability regarding their elected officials, so that those who voted yes for a war based on false and misleading information never again have the honor and privilege of serving in high office.
Scott Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq (1991-98) and is the author of Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein, with an introduction by Seymour Hersh (Nation Books, 2005). This article was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 4, 2005.