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Paul Pilar Speaks

(Yes, I stole the title from Steve Hayes) ;- )

Under normal circumstances blue-collar IOs like myself would never go up against an NIO, but seeing as how we can both append “former” to our old titles – and we’re thousands of miles apart – I don’t mind taking a crack at Paul Pillar’s Foreign Affairs article on use and/or abuse of pre-war intelligence. Rather than comment on extracts I’ll direct you to read the article in its entirety, digest it, then you can dive into my own thoughts below.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK. Let me start off by saying that I’m not an expert on Iraq, and was no where near being an NIO, so since the man knows more specifics about this than I (or almost any of us) – I have to give him the benefit of any doubts. Having said that . . .

Blame for politicizing the reasons for going to war doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of Team Bush. Congress is supposed to serve as a check against the executive and oversee intelligence, yet it is made clear that Congress’s request for the 2002 NIE was almost perfunctory and not a serious move towards fulfilling this roll. If politics was the primary driver towards war in Iraq, Congress was a willing passenger.

The stated IC predictions of a post-war Iraq seem prescient now, but if one were to compile a record of such projections over the years, and the following reality, the phrase “spot on” would probably not be used very often. Adopting the line that the IC knew best on any given issue and that policymakers were wrong (or foolish) to not consider other inputs is both arrogant and irrational. It presumes that the information that our intelligence agencies can generate is the be-all, end-all, yet it has been demonstrated that it takes no special talent and costs little to outperform the IC on any (not every) given task.

This is particularly true about the discussion on Iraq and its support for terrorism. Pre-war group-think said Iraq had no connection to terrorism, but now we know there is ample data to support the notion that the stretching of selective raw data might have been more accurate than what the IC would have said had it been asked to speak.

I am hesitant to delve into this because I lack the time to do it justice, but the argument that an environment is politicized (or subjected to intense policy-maker interest, phrase it how you like), isn’t new or confined to administrations led by elephants. I have been a member of many an IC chorus that screamed about the dangers of this regime or that issue, only to see purely political decisions made that were contrary to our best interests. In fact, the whole “consensus” approach to building NIEs – something Mr. Pillar knows well – is nothing but politics: the politics of the MFIC. You don’t know what the meaning of “brow-beaten” is until you’ve tried to get a dissenting opinion placed in an NIE.

The whole scraping-dirt-from-the-bottom-of-rocks analogy is important because it provides the strongest argument yet for politics-driving-intelligence. It also inadvertently highlights a major intelligence shortcoming: our poor understanding of what was really going on in Iraq (and to another extent what we knew about terrorism). Is the real issue politics clashing with intelligence, or that intelligence was proving that it was not ‘all that?’ Intelligence wasn’t providing the information that policy-makers wanted, but were policy-makers just abusing intelligence because they’d already decided on a course of action, or were they considering other sources of data (which is their prerogative) that screamed “Iraq is supporting terrorists!” that intel was blind to? I know the conventional wisdom supports the former argument, but policy-makers calling on intel to come up with findings on an issue that came to their attention from a non-intel source happens all the time. Some of my most memorable research efforts (and wild goose chases) came from people at the top of the appointee food-chain who wanted confirmation or refutation of something told to them by an outsider.

I am particularly fond of the recommendations for future change/reform. A GAO for the IC is a great idea, given the often spotty level of oversight coming from the intelligence committees (their responses in the light of controversy notwithstanding). This is not a dig on members or staffers – who work like dogs – but you can’t deal with budgets and programmatics and investigations (and re-election) and expect to deal with the issues like a full-time expert. Adopting a Federal Reserve model is also intriguing, though as an interim measure I wouldn’t mind seeing Agency heads and the DNI appointed for fixed terms a’la the Director of the FBI.

We might not see eye-to-eye on all issues, but I could not agree more with the closing statement:

“[…] if Congress and the American people are serious about “fixing intelligence,” they should not just do what is easy and politically convenient. At stake are the soundness of U.S. foreign-policy making and the right of Americans to know the basis for decisions taken in the name of their security.”

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji

Michael Tanji spent nearly 20 years in the US intelligence community. Trained in both SIGINT and HUMINT disciplines he has worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. At various points in his career he served as an expert in information warfare, computer network operations, computer forensics, and indications and warning. A veteran of the US Army, Michael has served in both strategic and tactical assignments in the Pacific Theater, the Balkans, and the Middle East.