War Stories

What Did Bush Know?

And what did he think his intelligence agencies knew about Iraqi WMD?

A one-page wonder
A one-page wonder

Several intriguing questions are raised by a story in today’s New York Times, which reports that the White House is refusing to give Senate investigators the one-page “President’s Summary” of the CIA’s 2002 National Intelligence Estimate dealing with Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The first question: The “President’s Summary” was one page? This CIA estimate was a 93-page document, filled with caveats, qualifiers, and footnotes of interagency dissent on several key points. It would take a dedicated master of pith to whittle the NIE’s findings and equivocations to a single page. (By the Times’ account, the summarizer didn’t bother with the equivocations.)

Which leads to the second question: Who wrote this summary? And what position had he or she taken on the estimate’s controversies?

In graduate school, I had a professor who had served on several top-secret national security panels over the years. The way he bolstered his own influence on these panels, he told me, was always to volunteer for the sub-panel that wrote the report. That way, he could shape which points were emphasized and which points were not.

Both of these questions are ancillary to the main question here: What did the president know about Iraqi WMD—or, more to the point, what did he think (or what was he led to think) his intelligence agencies knew?

This is why the Senate Intelligence Committee wants the summary released. It’s the same reason the 9/11 commission wanted the White House to release the president’s daily intelligence briefing of Aug. 6, 2001 (the one headlined, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.”). They want to know what the president knew. Did he have reason to see Osama Bin Laden’s attack coming—and, if so, should he have done something about it? Did he know about internal disputes over the evidence of Iraqi weapons programs—and, if so, should he have thought twice about going to war?

If all George W. Bush knew about the Iraqi threat was gleaned from a one-page summary that stated the case for WMD—and that did not even acknowledge the existence of a case for skepticism—that’s important to know. It’s important for citizens who want some insight on why we went to war. And it’s important for the president, who may decide to read a longer document the next time there’s trouble.

Perhaps no president can be expected to read a 93-page document. (Some presidents would have, though. Bill Clinton was an inveterate reader of intelligence reports. Jimmy Carter once asked to see the engineering blueprints for the KH-11 photoreconnaissance satellite. The latter is a case of a control freak gone too far.) Still, the president’s summary should stretch beyond the margins of a single page—at least when the fate of nations is at stake.

A National Intelligence Estimate is not an ordinary report. It marks the one occasion when the Central Intelligence Agency warrants its name, acting as a central entity that pulls together the assessments of all the myriad intelligence departments, noting where they agree and where they differ. Most NIEs are produced on an annual basis. Occasionally, the CIA is asked to produce what used to be called a “special” NIE. The 2002 estimate in question, titled “Iraq’s Continuing Program for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” was such a document. It was ordered so that the president could decide, in an informed manner, whether to go to war. The president is the main consumer of the NIE; it is written entirely for his benefit. To shrink the thing into a single page—to remove all distinctions between certainty and guesswork—is to evade the whole point.

Would Bush have acted any differently if he’d known that the State Department’s intelligence branch thought Iraq had imported aluminum tubes for purposes other than building centrifuges? Or that Air Force Intelligence thought Iraq’s drones were unsuitable for spraying chemical or biological weapons? Or that several agencies were far less sure than others that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program? Maybe not. But a president at least should be told of such things. And citizens should know whether he was told—or wanted to be told—of such things.

This is not an academic exercise. The controversy over the “missile gap,” during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, is a dramatic case in point. In 1958, when everybody thought that the Soviet Union far outgunned the United States in intercontinental ballistic missiles (hawks of the day called it “the missile gap”), the CIA’s science and technology division started to notice something odd. The Soviets had stopped testing their ICBMs; the whole program was slowing down. The previous year’s NIE had predicted the Soviets would have 1,000 ICBMs by 1959 or 1960. But where were they? The CIA’s top managers were loath to revise the estimate. A U.S. Air Force panel had concluded a few years earlier that the Soviets intended, in the near future, to launch a nuclear first strike against the United States with such power that we couldn’t retaliate. The entire intelligence community agreed. The 1957 NIE seemed consistent with this view. Even the analysts in the CIA’s science and technology shop were puzzled by their findings; they agreed with the consensus on the Soviet threat, too.

Months passed, then years. The Soviets still hadn’t ginned up an ICBM program. Finally, the CIA broke ranks. The 1960 NIE was crammed with footnotes. Air Force Intelligence stuck to its initial predictions, merely setting the target dates back a couple of years. But the Army and Navy Intelligence branches, which had their own parochial reasons to oppose the Air Force, issued dissenting footnotes. The CIA joined the dissent, saying the Soviets would have only 50 ICBMs. (As it turned out, at the start of 1961, the Soviets had a mere four ICBMs.)

The dispute was jolting. It wasn’t a matter of mere numbers. With 1,000 missiles, the Soviets could launch a disarming first strike; with 50 missiles, they couldn’t. The dispute about Soviet arsenals translated—inevitably—into a dispute about Soviet intentions. All this was kept secret, even from Congress. President Eisenhower knew about the split, however, and he also knew about the new, super-secret satellite photographs that supported the CIA’s position. When leading hawks, who in those days were Democrats, protested that the CIA was grossly underestimating the Soviet threat—just as Bush’s hawks protested that the CIA was grossly underestimating the Iraqi threat—Eisenhower politely disagreed but said nothing more. While running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy had been among those most loudly criticizing the “missile gap.” When he took office in 1961, he realized that there was no gap—or that the gap favored the United States. (For more of this saga, see Chapters 9, 10, and 19 of my 1983 book, The Wizards of Armageddon.)

A similar story could be told about Iraqi’s WMD—except for the ending. “Everybody” assumed Iraq possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; some also believed Saddam Hussein was trying to rebuild his nuclear program. The CIA, which shared this assumption, kept coming up short on supporting evidence and even found some evidence to dispute it. Footnotes of dissent and ambiguity crept into the NIE. But this time, the president did not side with the dissenters. The question is: Did he know there were dissenters? And: Did he care?