Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Pillar Effect

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

Former National Intelligence Officer Paul Pillar has really stirred the pot. After retiring from the CIA, he has entered academia and public life. He is contributing his vast knowledge and experience to educating the next generation of Americans. For some, Pillar has committed an inexcusable crime of breach of client confidence—the President in this case. I think this debate cuts at the core of what is wrong in Washington these days.

Pillar has written an essay in Foreign Affairs on the intelligence process, more specifically on how the intelligence process becomes politicized and the consequences thereof. He writes neither of secret operations related to intelligence collection in Iraq, nor of potential illegal wiretaps. He writes about process. Pillar would have had to clear his essay through the CIA’s Publication Review Board to verify that it contained no classified information.

Pillar finds fault with how the Bush Administration used or misused intelligence by repeatedly seeking only information to support the case to go to war. Furthermore, the Bush Administration was negligent in examining the full range of consequences of the war, i.e. the post-invasion insurgence. Pillar does focus on the shortcomings of the politicians, neglecting to mention that it takes two to tango. CIA leadership was equally at fault by not forcefully delivering the bad with the good. Pillar talks about sugarcoating; the problem was much deeper than this. DCI Tenet undermined his own analysts in meetings when they tried to present the intelligence not to the Administration liking. But I digress.

Critics of Pillar, such as Guillermo Christensen writing in the Wall Street Journal, believe Pillar should keep his mouth shut. Pillar has no right to weigh in on the issue because as a former intelligence official he has an oath to neutrality. Writing this essay is viewed as a political act to slam the Bush Administration for its decision to go to war in Iraq.

Wall Street Journal
February 17, 2006; Page A12

CIA officers on the cusp of retirement often enroll in a seminar that is supposed to help them adjust to life after the agency -- teaching them, for example, how to write a resume. I've begun to wonder if part of that program now includes a writing seminar on how to beat up on the Bush administration. The latest such blast comes from Paul Pillar, who, over the course of his long career, was arguably a central player in the CIA's analysis of the Middle East, in particular Iraq. But now Mr. Pillar has decided to disclose to the world, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, that he thought all along that the war was a bad idea, and that the president and his advisers ignored his intelligence.

Why Mr. Pillar would even attempt to argue that the White House ignored the CIA's intelligence is beyond me -- as innumerable investigations have demonstrated, all of the "intelligence" within his responsibility was 100% in agreement that Iraq posed a serious danger and that it had an active program for acquiring WMD. Over the course of a decade and a half, and thousands of pages of intelligence analysis, it is hard to think of anyone in the government who was more directly involved in reaching the wrong conclusions about what was going on in Iraq than Mr. Pillar himself.

But let's put all that aside for the moment and conjecture that Mr. Pillar actually did change his mind about all that work he'd done, and that he really did think the intelligence didn't support the case for war. If that was truly so, no one was better positioned to make the case against war within the government than Mr. Pillar himself. He could have personally drafted a National Intelligence Estimate, or any number of other types of memoranda, for senior readers in government, recording for all in black and white what was really going on in Iraq. He could, furthermore, have shared that analysis with every single member of Congress by writing less-classified summaries of the conclusions, as is often done.

So why did Mr. Pillar fail to take these steps? Again, as the person in charge of assessing Iraq, if he really believed that Iraq posed no threat to the U.S., we're owed an explanation of why none of the consequences of going to war -- economic costs, military and civilian casualties -- were important enough for him to do something about it when it mattered. According to Mr. Pillar, it was only a year into the war that such an analysis was even undertaken, and then only at the request of the administration. The other major intelligence estimate performed before the war was the 2002 NIE on WMD, "infamous," as Mr. Pillar calls it, because it was so wrong.

The fact is, no other issue in the history of the CIA is as deserving of the title "Mother of all Intelligence Failures" as the debacle over the CIA's analysis of Iraq. Take your pick of the many studies that have tried to understand why the intelligence was so inaccurate, but the basic conclusion underlying all of them is the same: The CIA's analysis and collection on Iraq was flat-out wrong over the course of many years -- first in missing the fact that Iraq had WMD before the Gulf War, and then, well, you know the rest.

Paul Pillar was right in the thick of the process and substance that reached those conclusions. Had he actually written a warning to the administration against going to war before the war, his conclusions could not have rested on any of the CIA's intelligence analysis, but instead on his own political views against the administration -- something which he has made no bones about in discussions with think-tank audiences long before he left the agency. This, incidentally, is prohibited behavior according to the professional practices of the CIA, the equivalent of betraying attorney-client confidentiality.

Not merely content to have played a leading role in the Iraq intelligence failure, Mr. Pillar is now following in the footsteps of others like Michael Scheuer, in undermining whatever credibility and access the CIA still may have with policymakers. By violating his confidences, Mr. Pillar is ensuring that those who succeed him -- those who are, I hope, trying to fix the many problems facing the CIA -- will be even less likely to see any real impact from their work because the president and his advisers will be loath to trust them.

For decades, there has been a common understanding that CIA analysts play a role roughly analogous, for policymakers, to experts whose opinions are sought in confidence, such as lawyers or accountants. Presidents and their advisers have felt comfortable in relying on analysts, in theory at least, for unbiased information and conclusions -- and for keeping their mouths shut about what they learn. Presidents, secretaries of state, and others have given the CIA access into the inner sanctum of policymaking in the belief that the CIA would not use the media or leaks to influence the outcome.

For a CIA officer to discard this neutral role and to inject himself in the political realm is plain wrong. It will end up making the CIA even less relevant than it is today -- if that is possible.

Mr. Christensen, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, served for 15 years as a CIA intelligence officer.

Is airing the truth, or the perception of truth based on experience, a political act or an act of a neutral professional? As an intelligence official, I firmly believe in the principle of calling it as you see it. An intelligence official should do this whether writing an assessment classified secret or an essay in a foreign policy journal. Others might view it from a political optic but that should not give them the veto right of silencing the debate. Pillar is saying something important in his essay that should not be lost in the political game-playing in Washington: the intelligence-policy relationship process is broken and it needs to be fixed.

It is very difficult to fix the intelligence community from the inside without outside support. First, the community is extremely resistant to major change. Second, it accepts change usually only after facing dire consequences. Third, it implements change only after having taken ownership of ideas forged elsewhere and repackaging them into something that can be claimed to be made internally. Within this construct, it is very useful to have someone of Pillar’s experience and stature to make the case in public, galvanizing other players to take action.

It does not mean that Pillar’s solution—move the IC further away from the policymaker to insolate it from political pressure—is the correct one and should be followed. I think that this is exactly the wrong solution to take away from Iraq war case. But it does mean taking an introspective look at the process and how it works today, how it worked in the past and who is should ideally work in the future in a world of different national security challenges.

Secrecy Gone Amok

For those paying attention to government policies on secrecy, the Washington Post Editorial on reclassification was not to be missed. The US government is fighting back against the 25 year automatic declassification program put in place during the Clinton Administration. Documents declassified under that program are now being pulled from the public domain and reclassified. The idea that a secret released and published can revert back to a secret through a bureaucratic act would be laughable if it wasn’t true.

I take a personal interest in this as I watch the CIA grapple with a conference paper I wrote in which I refer to information on the CIA website and the United Nations website. The censors have decided this information is classified and cut it out of my draft paper. I am contesting the decision. Will the CIA stand its ground? Will it pull the information off the CIA website, out of the Congressional record and the 9/11 Commission Report because it is classified? Or will they make the argument that it is classified depending on who writes it? I don’t know how they will explain the decision to make a UN document classified, but I am waiting with interest.

We seem to be having a tough time lately defining what a secret is and the consequences for receiving and publishing classified information. The lawsuit against the AIPAC employees bears watching. The heart of the issue is the question whether it is illegal for non-government employees (folks without security clearances) to orally receive and disseminate information that is classified? The AIPAC guys, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, apparently knew the information was secret and still told their contacts in the Israeli embassy. The US government is trying to make this into an espionage case.

The defendants are arguing that they did what reporters, think-tank experts and members of congressional staffs do hundreds of times every day, leak classified information and pass it along. This is true. Does it make it right and/or legal? Probably not, but it does tell you the law is honored in the breach. There must be something wrong with the law. This takes me back to my first point that we are having difficulty in defining what a secret is.

Clearly, we have a problem of over classification and an inability to declassify on a timely basis, the net affect is to hinder our government workers, thinking establishment and media from doing their jobs of informing, educating and analyzing.

But here I am pointing out that something is broken. Will I be Pillared?


Blogger Reg001 said...

I don't mind intelligence officers writing history. It's the re-writing of history that is so disturbing.

Paul Pillar writes:

"Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war. On the issue that mattered most, the intelligence community judged that Iraq probably was several years away from developing a nuclear weapon. The October 2002 NIE also judged that Saddam was unlikely to use WMD against the United States unless his regime was placed in mortal danger." [Pillar, FA]

That's a curiously skewed way to characterize the NIE's "Key Judgments" and WMD's irrelevance to the case for war. Here's what the 2002 NIE actually said [emphasis added]:

"Confidence Levels for Selected Key Judgments in This Estimate

High Confidence:
Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding, its chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions. We are not detecting portions of these weapons programs. Iraq possesses proscribed chemical and biological weapons and missiles. Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grad fissile material

Moderate Confidence:
Iraq does not yet have a nuclear weapon or sufficient material to make one but is likely to have a weapon by 2007 to 2009. (See INR alternative view, page 84).

Low Confidence
When Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction. Whether Saddam would engage in clandestine attacks against the US Homeland. Whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with al-Qa'ida."

As to the Iraqi BW efforts... again the 2002 NIE:

"We judge that all key aspects--R&D, production, and weaponization--of Iraq's offensive BW program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war. We judge Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating BW agents and is capable of quickly producing and weaponizing a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery by bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers, and covert operatives.

Chances are even that smallpox is part of Iraq's offensive BW program. Baghdad probably has developed genetically engineered BW agents. Baghdad has established a large-scale, redundant, and concealed BW agent production capability. Baghdad has mobile facilities for producing bacterial and toxin BW agents; these facilities can evade detection and are highly survivable. Within three to six months [Corrected per Errata sheet issued in October 2002] these units probably could produce an amount of agent equal to the total that Iraq produced in the years prior to the Gulf war."

Pretend you are a policymaker in 2002 when --after 12 years of UN sanctions, on again off again aggressive UN inspections, and on again off again bombing by the US-- you read the NIE's "Key Judgments". Would you describe the problem by saying,

A. <<...that Saddam was being kept "in his box," and that the best way to deal with the weapons problem was through an aggressive inspections program to supplement the sanctions already in place.[Pillar, FA]>>?


B. Saddam is not "in his box". Indeed the NIE has "high confidence" that all three WMD programs have continued throughout the sanctions and inspections and in some areas the programs "have expanded". I get little comfort that the NIE has "low confidence" as to when and where Saddam will use WMD. Of particular worry is the biological threat where the chances are "even" that "smallpox is part of Iraq's offensive BW program". The biological threat is hard to monitor with inspections or in the words of the NIE, "...these facilities can evade detection and are highly survivable." With this knowledge how can the policymaker have any confidence that this time "agressive inspections" will significantly reduce Saddam's WMD threat when they have failed to do so in the past? What are the consequences of overestimation? Underestimation? What side would prudence error on?

It would be nice if Pillar could demonstrate the administration's "cherry-picking" without engaging in it himself.

3/12/2006 2:41 PM  

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