The “Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction” has done reasonably well what it was created to do. Unfortunately, it was created to provide political cover for the Bush administration in the middle of a scandal that dwarfs Watergate, Iran-contra, and even Lewinsky-gate, but that, in contrast to those events, has led to no in-depth investigation, minimal television coverage, and hardly any calls for the heads responsible to roll.
Think back to late January 2004 and the preliminary report of the Iraq Survey Group, which concluded that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. This came on top of what was by then a mounting wave of revelations that the Bush administration had repeatedly and deliberately deceived the American public — and attempted to deceive the world — about the evidence it claimed to have regarding Iraq’s WMD.
Post-war, those revelations started with Joseph Wilson’s account that, acting for the Bush administration, he had debunked the claims that Iraq was buying uranium from Niger. It included the British government’s apology for its “dodgy dossier,” in which it plagiarized 12-year-old information from a graduate student’s paper and passed it off as current intelligence, and the revelation that Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could deploy its nonexistent chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes was known to based on a single uncorroborated statement by an untrustworthy defector. It included a comprehensive accounting in the Washington Post showing that Iraq was not and could not have been using its famous aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment. It also included a comprehensive debunking in the Associated Press of virtually every element of Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council. It even included a description of the role of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their Office of Special Plans in pressuring the CIA, distorting their conclusions, and even setting them aside in order to create the most urgent and compelling justification for war.
This wave, and the wave of political discontent with the Bush administration, crested when David Kay’s report came out. Yet, within days of its issuance, the administration, with the help of prominent Democrats like Jane Harman on the House Intelligence Committee, had already spun the issue around from administration deception to something called “intelligence failures,” shifting blame from the coterie of top officials who had lied us into a war to the intelligence agencies had been pressured to come up with those lies. The creation of this commission was the final step in the process, and helped to head off any chance of a serious investigation into those lies.
Instead of impeachment proceedings for Bush, we saw a very skillful bureaucratic maneuver that killed two birds with one stone — deflection of attention and also an attack on the CIA, seen as an institutional obstacle to implementation of the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neoconservative foreign policy agenda. The check provided by the CIA is a pragmatic, not a moral one, but if heeded might have kept the administration out of embarrassing adventures like support for the military coup attempt in Venezuela and perhaps even out of the more than two-year-long occupation of Iraq.
Although the commission was specifically not tasked with considering the administration’s use of intelligence, it still went out of its way to opine that political pressure from the administration played no part in the “intelligence failures,” because “The analysts who worked Iraqi weapons issues universally agreed that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments.” Of course, not only would such an admission be tantamount to saying one didn’t do one’s job properly, in the current political climate intelligence analysts had to know that they would be punished for any such claim.
Similarly, the commission reserves particularly harsh criticism for the way the President’s Daily Brief is prepared, characterizing them as “more alarmist and less nuanced” than longer reports like the famously flawed October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (heavily worked over by the Office of Special Plans). Their “attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition” supposedly gave top officials the impression that dramatic claims were much better sourced and heavily corroborated than, in fact, they were.
The commission is clearly trying to imply that some sort of scaremongering from the intelligence community stampeded the administration into war. And yet, there is no mention of another “attention-grabbing headline” from the August 6, 2001 PDB — “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in US.” To the uninitiated, this might well seem alarming, yet it didn’t grab enough attention for Bush to cut short his vacation at Crawford or to bring back other top officials to Washington DC. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the administration got “alarmed” by claims that supported its pre-existing plans, like the invasion of Iraq, but couldn’t be bothered by claims that had little to do with an imperial agenda, but, of course, the commission escapes it with ease.
Much of what the commission concludes about the shortcomings of the intelligence community is true and recapitulates what thoughtful critics on the inside like Richard Clarke and Michael Scheuer have been saying. In a sense, it is the fault not so much of the commission but of the Bush administration that created it as a diversion and of political figures from across the spectrum who allowed themselves to be diverted.
The most alarming thing about the report is that the sections on intelligence regarding Iran and North Korea have been kept classified. The justification given is that there’s no reason for the U.S. government to tip its hand to the remaining members of Bush’s “axis of evil.” But, given the administration’s saber-rattling and consideration of regime change attempts in both countries, the public’s right to know is a far more compelling consideration. If the slightest move is made toward any military aggression against Iran (the more likely scenario of the two), the first thing we should demand is declassification of those pages.
After that, perhaps we can take up that question of impeachment again.
Rahul Mahajan is publisher of the blog Empire’>Empire Notes. He has been to occupied Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the April 2004 siege. His most recent book is “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond’>Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond. He can be reached at email@example.com.