You’ve got to hand it to Donald Rumsfeld and his E-Ring crew at the Pentagon. They know all the stratagems of bureaucratic politics, and they play the game well. In their latest maneuver, reported on the front page of last Thursday’s New York Times, the secretary of defense has formed his own “four- to five-man intelligence team” to sift through raw data coming out of Iraq in search of evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida terrorists.
Rumsfeld has publicly continued to push this link as a prime—or at least the most easily sellable—rationale for going to war with Iraq, even after the CIA and the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency have dismissed the connection as tenuous at best. But Rumsfeld contends that the spy bureaucracies may have missed something. As his top team member, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, put it to the Times, there is “a phenomenon in intelligence work that people who are pursuing a certain hypothesis will see certain facts that others won’t, and not see other facts that others will.” Since Wolfowitz is one of Washington’s most forceful advocates of a second Gulf War, we can safely predict that he will find the facts he needs to make his case.
It is an old story that bears the same lesson each time a new chapter unfolds: Intelligence analysis should be kept out of the hands of those who have a vested interest in the results.
The classic case is the “missile gap” of the late 1950s. Air Force Intelligence was estimating that Soviets would deploy 500 intercontinental ballistic missiles by the early ‘60s. The intelligence branch of the Strategic Air Command figured the Soviets would, or might already, have 1,000 or more. The CIA, on the other hand, calculated the number at about 50. (By the time John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, photos from spy satellites revealed that the Soviets had just four ICBMs.) What drove the dispute was that the Air Force, which was embroiled in a fierce budget battle with the Army and the Navy, had a vested interest in a higher estimate. A large arsenal of Soviet ICBMs was the best argument for a large arsenal of American ICBMs, which formed a major part of the Air Force budget. The Strategic Air Command had an even bigger interest, since it controlled and operated the ICBMs.
All these opposing intelligence agencies were working from the same data base. The Strategic Air Command and the Air Force didn’t have to make anything up when they predicted such a massive Soviet arsenal. They pointed to signs, clues, Soviet military documents, and statements by Nikita Khrushchev that they could say supported the conclusions they desired. In Wolfowitz’s words, they had a “certain hypothesis,” so they saw “certain facts” that others did not. SAC intelligence officers frequently presented a slide show to senior Eisenhower and Kennedy administration Pentagon officials—photos, taken by satellites and U-2 spy planes, of a grain elevator, a medieval tower, and another strange structure out in the middle of nowhere. The Russians might have hidden an ICBM in such places, they argued.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to build an anti-ballistic-missile (ABM) system to intercept incoming Soviet warheads. They had several motives, but one of them—and the easiest to sell publicly—was to protect our ICBMs from being destroyed in a Soviet first-strike. The problem was, the Soviets had no first-strike capability. A new version of the Soviet SS-9 missile, then in development, could carry three warheads apiece. If each of those warheads could be fired at a separate target—if they were MIRVs (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle)—a case could be made that they posed a first-strike threat. But the CIA concluded that the warheads were just MRVs (not independently targetable); each missile could lay down only a cluster of explosions over a single area. So, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird arm-twisted the CIA to change its analysis and describe the SS-9s as MIRVs. The pressure worked. The sales pitch for the ABM could proceed. (It turned out the SS-9s were MRVs. The Soviets would not deploy MIRVs until 1976, six years after we did.)
Vested interests can be ideological as well as institutional. In the mid-1970s, a group of well-known hawks, mainly former policy-makers and retired officers, started clamoring that the Soviets were acquiring a first-strike capability and that the CIA was gravely underestimating their prowess and might. President Gerald Ford, under growing pressure from the right, succumbed to what seemed a modest demand—to let a team of their analysts examine the same data that the CIA had been examining and come up with alternative findings. It was sold as an “exercise” in intelligence analysis, an interesting competition—Team A (the CIA) versus Team B (the critics). Yet once allowed an institutional footing, the Team B players presented their conclusions—and leaked them to friendly reporters—as the truth, which the pro-detente administration was trying to hide.
The Team B report read like one long air-raid siren: The Soviets were spending practically all their GNP on the military; they were perfecting charged-particle beams that could knock our warheads out of the sky; their express policy and practical goal was to fight and win a nuclear war. (One Team B member, former Air Force Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. George Keegan, had briefed officials on the thousands of hidden Soviet missiles back in the ‘50s.)
Almost everything in the Team B report turned out to be false. Yet it provided the rallying cry for a movement against detente and arms-control accords. Its spokesmen became outspoken figures of opposition during the Jimmy Carter years (most notably, Paul Nitze and his Committee on the Present Danger) and senior officials in the Ronald Reagan administration and beyond.
Paul Wolfowitz was one of the 10 senior staff members on Team B. Another member of Rumsfeld’s intelligence team, Douglas J. Feith, was counsel to Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, a longtime impresario of anti-detente forces. (Perle is still influential as chairman of the advisory Defense Policy Board.)
None of this history is meant to suggest that hawks are always wrong or doves always right. Vested interests lean in all directions. In the 1940s, senior Naval Intelligence officers argued that the Soviet Union had not really detonated an atomic bomb and persisted in their disbelief for several years after the fact. This was no doubt related to the fact that the Navy, which had no A-bombs, was in a titanic budget battle with the Air Force, which did.
Nor does this saga necessarily mean that in the present battle the CIA is right and Rumsfeld’s intelligence panel wrong. But when the members of Team Rumsfeld tie together their loose strands—when they whip out the previously overlooked clues amid the mountains of data and proclaim that the new information proves what they’ve been saying all along—keep in mind that they are not “just trying to get another angle on this” (as one Pentagon official described the project to the Times). This is a battle and—inside the bureaucracy, if not yet in Iraq—they are in full war posture.