President Bush has said he will decide on the basis of "the best intelligence" whether to make war on Iraq. He has gone on record assuring the nation that "we've got the best intelligence, thanks to the men and women of the CIA."
One can be forgiven, then, for being perplexed at the disconnect between the president's statements on Iraq and "the best intelligence."
The Bush administration has managed to create in the public mind a link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In his speech on Oct. 7, Bush noted that "some citizens wonder" why it is necessary to confront Iraq now: "There is a reason. We have experienced the horror of Sept. 11."
Bush went on to adduce evidence of linkage between Iraq and al-Qaida. But on the day the president spoke, CIA director George Tenet cautioned senators that this evidence is "based on sources of varying reliability."
The evidence is not "bulletproof," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would have it. It is full of holes.
Driven after 9/11 to chase down every scrap of information that might implicate Iraq, CIA analysts have found nothing persuasive. The challenge they face reminds me of the unrelenting pressure CIA director William Casey put on analysts to implicate the Soviet Union in the attempted assassination of the pope in 1981. Casey all but said it: "First ones to find evidence of Soviet involvement get promoted!"
And that is exactly what happened. Some people conjured up evidence, made the case and got promoted. Never mind that the evidence and the case were spurious.
This time, to their credit, CIA analysts have stood their ground _ so far, at least.
Resisting strong pressure from Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, the analysts have stuck by their best judgment that Iraq played no role in 9/11. They have been affirmed by Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to the president's father, now chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a man who knows how essential it is to prevent the politicization of intelligence.
Scowcroft has described the evidence of ties between Iraq and al-Qaida as "scant." With that he incurred the wrath of the New York Times' self-styled "right-wing opinionmonger" William Safire, who has called upon Scowcroft to resign from the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
In making a case for military action against Saddam Hussein, the president claimed on Oct. 7 that "the risk is simply too great that he will use weapons of mass destruction or provide them to a terror network." The president did not base this claim on the "best intelligence."
The CIA said in a letter released Oct. 9 that the probability is low that Iraq would initiate an attack with such weapons or give them to terrorists . . . unless: "Should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could no longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorists action."
In view of continuing U.S. planning to mount such an attack, it is just short of astounding that CIA analysts continue to spell out their conclusions without fear or favor. No less astounding is the fact that the senior Pentagon officials running U.S. policy toward Iraq appear oblivious to the implications.
How soon could Iraq acquire nuclear weapons? In his Oct. 7 speech, the president claimed that "if the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal" weapons-grade fissile material, "it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year."
But the judgment of the intelligence community is that Iraq could not produce such material until the last half of the decade. And the notion that it could "buy or steal" fissile material from abroad and turn it into a nuclear weapon without detection by U.S. intelligence strains credulity beyond the breaking point.
Small wonder that CIA analysts are in disfavor at the White House and the Defense Department. Small wonder that the Pentagon has set up its own intelligence unit to come up with the "right" answers.
And small wonder that the Pentagon has unleashed its pundits on CIA analysts, smearing by name professionals with whom I worked _ professionals I know to be people of integrity.
+ Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst from 1964 to 1990, is now co-director of the Servant Leadership School. +