is what Arthur Keller told his boss at the CIA when he
was given a list of Iraqis who had supposedly worked on WMD programs and was told to interview as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.
This was upon his arrival in Baghdad as a CIA case officer, an experience that he describes in a fascinating piece on the front page of the Outlook section of today's Washington Post entitled What We Didn't Learn From the Hunt for Iraq's Phantom Arsenal with the extended subtitle of "The good news: We're not going to war with Iran. The bad news: We still don't know what they're thinking." In fact, that subtitle is used as the screaming headline over both of the lead pieces, the other of which, by Vali Nash, is about the real leader of Iran, Atyatollah Ali Khamanei. In this diary I am going to focus on Keller's piece, because it provides another window into how intelligence was distorted for political reasons.
Keller's piece is prefaced by a long introduction from the editors. They provide the context of the release of the NIE on Iran by Admiral McConnell, which of course demonstrated that the previous NIE in 2005 which warned about the Iranian determination to get a nuclear bomb despite that country having stopped its weapons program in 2003 was wrong. The end of that intro is instructive:
In the midst of hard questions about how intelligence is gathered, used and abused, Keller's experiences make for a cautionary fable. How did we blow it so badly in Iraq, and how could we be blowing it in Iran? To Keller, the answer lies in the shadowy world of human-intelligence collection.
Keller did two tours, in 2003 and 2004, based in the Baghdad airport zone that was home to the Iraq Survey Group. He describes how he decided to focus on a senior member of the Military Industrial Commission of the Iraqi government, someone he never threatened, and with whom he took time to build rapport, because as he notes
Surprising as it may sound, the CIA teaches that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar: A source recruited by force will provide information only grudgingly, and he'll lie to you whenever he thinks he can, simply out of spite.
Let me quote the portion where he describes their interactions:
My meetings with this official consisted of a litany of complaints, but the CIA trains case officers to be relentlessly pleasant, even when it sticks in your craw. What annoyed me most was that he often had a point. "The Baath Party purge is a disaster," he'd tell me. "I know," I'd reply. "The disbanding of the Iraqi Army is a disaster." "I know." "We have no power, water or safety." "I know." And so on. It wasn't until the fourth meeting that real nuggets started coming. Still, I never paid him a dime. I think he just wanted to look a U.S. official in the eye and tell the truth about the mistakes the occupation government was making.
The next sentence, which begins another paragraph, is absolutely telling, and needs to be set apart:
But Washington was not so patient.
We already have heard multiple times how this administration pressured the intelligence agencies before the war to provide "intelligence" that "proved" the case for going to war. Let me put the sentence I have just quoted in the context of the brief paragraph in which it appears:
But Washington was not so patient. The political pressure from home was murderous. During a pre-invasion trip back to CIA headquarters, I listened to my boss describe the stress on Langley's WMD specialists: "Remember the movie 'Das Boot,' where the sub is so deep it's close to getting crushed from the pressure? That's HQ right now. We're going to hear some very weird stuff emanating from HQ because nobody under that kind of pressure thinks straight."
Keller describes the results of that pressure - case officers with no expertise in WMD being sent to Iraq merely to have warm bodies there, despite the long training it takes to become competent in the subject matter. Here I might note, although Keller does not, that this overlaps with the exposure of Valerie Plame, who was an expert in WMD, and the entire network with which she was involved through the front company of Brewster Jennings.
To make things even worse, those agents untrained in WMD were sent to Iraq, in contradiction to CIA policy, without training in how to avoid ambushes, and when there, often travelled in insecure and highly visible vehicles, exposing them to a high risk of attack, resulting in one stretch where the ISG lost an armored vehicle in each of three consecutive weeks. As Keller notes,
The dearth of CIA fatalities was due far more to luck than to skill.
Let me offer a complete paragraph that I think is key:
But for all these lapses, the CIA accomplished something of a mission impossible: proving a negative. In candid moments, most of the group's members had quietly acknowledged by late 2003 that Iraq had no banned weapons for us to find. But we kept searching for another year, until shortly after the November 2004 U.S. elections. Like a zombie, the group was kept alive long after it should have expired, seemingly because the only way to minimize the political damage of the truth was to let the White House announce, "Our teams are still looking for Hussein's arsenal." Given the perennial shortage of CIA case officers, the Bush administration's insistence on keeping the Iraq Survey Group open meant that other crucial work didn't get done. Someday, when an attack catches the CIA unawares, which politico will take responsibility for this dangerous diversion?
Note some of the issues - the intelligence professionals had demonstrated that there were no banned weapons, but were required to keep searching until shortly after the November 2004 U. S. elections. Aha, yet again politicization of the intelligence function. And misapplication of scarce resources meaning that other crucial work didn't get done, which of course parallels the removal of troops from Afghanistan before completely destroying al Qaeda and the Taliban in order to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Let me also repeat the last sentence of that paragraph, because it is critical: Someday, when an attack catches the CIA unawares, which politico will take responsibility for this dangerous diversion?
In the print version of Outlook, there is a "jump" to an inside page. When one gets there, one encounters a different headline:
No Wonder Nobody Wants to Spy for the U. S.
There is one paragraph that explains why this head is justified, and it is when Keller goes through the history of U.S. betrayals in Iraq:
So recruiting spies inside any black program is a near impossibility. Even so, when it came to Iraq, the CIA's cupboard was extraordinarily bare. By the late 1990s, Iraqis had a powerful aversion to working with the CIA, largely because of past U.S. misfires: the Kurdish revolt that President Richard Nixon spurned in the 1970s, the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings after Operation Desert Storm that President George H.W. Bush abandoned, the feckless Clinton-era attempts to foment yet another Kurdish rebellion.
While Americans may forget such history, the Iraqis did not, which as Keller notes made them far less likely to cooperate with the CIA and and other US agencies. Keller applies this paradigm to our current situation with Iran, where although attacks no longer seem imminent, we are still relatively blind when it comes to the intentions and previous activities of the Iranian nuclear effort, because penetrating black programs is always difficult. He ends his piece as follows:
Let's just say you were an Iranian nuclear physicist back in 2003, working on a bomb program that you believed was immoral. Now look at the decades-long debacle of U.S. policy in Iraq. Will all those who want to volunteer to spy for the CIA raise their hands? Anyone? Anyone?
This administration has damaged the United States in so many ways it is mindblowing to even begin to list. Here at home we have seen our civil liberties ravaged in the name of national security. Politically we have seen the Constitutional ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances not merely ignored but actively opposed. We have gone from universal sympathy for the US immediately after 9/11 to a period when this country is more hated and despised than in any point of the 61+ years I have been on this earth. Our military is exceedingly stretched if not already broken, with the seed corn of the younger officers increasingly walking away after their minimum commitment of service. We have sought to balance that by increasing use of paramilitary groups like Blackwater, by privatizing both military and intelligence functions. For political reasons we destroyed an important network that did give us information about the WMD that supposedly is such a great threat to our national security. We have moved very much in the direction of bankrupting the future economy because of the massive debts already incurred and still accumulating because of our Iraqi debacle.
From my perspective as an active Democrat, I do not understand why those of our party on the Hill and/or running for president are not hammering the administration and the Republicans for weakening America. If the Republicans want to run on national security,why not take up the challenge and show how their approach - which has been to politicize national security rather than address it - has made the country less safe.
Of greater importance, as a resident of the metropolitan area of our national capital where the political and national security news is also our local news, and where we all must realize that we live in a bullseye, a high target area for any future attacks upon the nation, I want to know why my government continues to act in a fashion that makes us more vulnerable.
So let me end with a modified version of the Keller's ending:
Will all those who think our country has been made more safe by the actions of this administration raise their hands? Anyone? Anyone?
And if your hands are not up, what the hell are you going to do to fix the problem?
just a quick addition - be sure also to read this diary by Lithium Cola which is related. Peace