The Big Idea

No Politics, Please—We’re Spies

The intelligence commission’s laughable conclusion about the politicization of the CIA.

George Tenet

The report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction is a government document well worth reading. With impressive precision, the commission shows how massive ineptitude at every spy agency fostered the Bush administration’s mistaken assessment of Iraq’s nuclear, biological, and chemical capabilities. The report undermines the popular notion that Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress was responsible for feeding all the crappy intelligence to the White House. As it happens, blinkered and uncommunicative bureaucrats at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and elsewhere were fully capable of delivering junk intelligence without any outside help. Following the trend begun by the 9/11 commission, the authors lay out their case in lucid, even vigorous prose.

On one central point, however, the report is utterly, laughably, embarrassingly unpersuasive: that our world-altering intelligence screw-up was not the result of political pressure from the White House. “The Commission has found no evidence of ‘politicization’ of the Intelligence Community’s assessments concerning Iraq’s reported WMD programs,” the document declares. But all you need is the report itself to see just how obviously intelligence was politicized.

Let’s take as a case study the now-famous episode of the aluminum tubes, which the report explores in some detail. To their partial credit, analysts at the Department of Energy resisted the thesis of their counterparts at the CIA and the Defense Department that Saddam was importing the $17 tubes for use in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The DOE understood these parts to be poorly suited for centrifuges, correctly judging them to be intended for use in rocket launchers. Yet in the National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s WMD capability, a crucial document on the road to war that was hastily prepared in the fall of 2002, DOE analysts joined in the broader CIA-DIA consensus that Saddam had revived his nuclear program.

To the authors of the report, the Energy Department’s concurrence in this poorly supported conclusion simply represents a “flawed analytic position.” They stop there and don’t ask the next, obvious question. What might cause an executive-branch agency such as the DOE to ignore its own accurate inferences about evidence and instead support a conclusion fervently desired by the president and vice president (who in this case not only had a special role in energy policy, but had recently made a speech asserting as a matter of definite fact that “Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”)? Uh, how about … politics? In the words of one former DOE intelligence analyst noted by the commission, the department’s position “made sense politically but not substantively.” According to another intelligence analyst at the department, “DOE didn’t want to come out before the war and say [Iraq] wasn’t reconstituting.”

Co-chairman Chuck Robb and his colleagues have a trick that allows them to deny the obvious with a straight face. They rely heavily on an apparently actual figure at the CIA called the “Ombudsman for Politicization.” To this Dvorkin-esque super-spook, politicization (as is explained in a crucial footnote on Page 247) is “alteration of analytical judgments under pressure to reach a particular conclusion.” The CIA’s ombudsman has issued his own report finding—you guessed it—”no evidence” of such politicization of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD.

Can torturing a definition violate the Geneva Convention? If a CIA analyst loads the dice so that his boss can tell the president that evidence of Iraqi WMD is a “slam dunk,” that’s not politicization, according to the Ombudsman for Politicization’s phrase book. If an analyst tilts to the wrong side of a factual question in hopes of increasing funding for his division, that’s not politicization. If he shades the truth lest his agency be eclipsed by a more tractable, reporting-to-Rumsfeld rival, that’s not politicization, either. Inside this legalistic boundary, all the bureaucratic imperatives of Washington—about which the report is elsewhere quite shrewd—suddenly cease to exist. It only counts as “politicization” if a policymaker explicitly demands that an analyst change his views to produce a desired result. Anything short of blunt subornation, and we’re in the squishier realm of “tunnel-vision,” “reliance on prevailing assumptions,” and “an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom,” as the report alternately terms it.

The politics of finding “no politics” are readily apparent. For a commission that wants 15 different intelligence agencies to accept its reform proposals, decrying incompetence and mismanagement is one thing. Pointing out basic corruption of their mission would be quite another. Acknowledging that political pressure played a role would also put the commissioners at odds with the president who appointed them and who must adopt their recommendations if they are to move forward.

But there is a larger problem with pretending that politicization doesn’t exist, which is that you can’t portray the reality of any intellectual work. Intelligence analysts, like historians, scientists. and journalists, often depict themselves as machines for gathering and sorting information. But politicization, at the CIA, the Princeton history department, and the New York Times, is not a switch that stays off until some creep turns it on. Even the fairest-minded search for truth proceeds from assumptions and hypothesis, and is influenced by biases, interests, and all manner of external pressures. You can’t see the wind either, but it still blows things over. Those who strive to diminish subjectivity, including political bias, do well to admit that some degree of it is inherent in all forms of examination and analysis.

Another tidbit from the intel commission report: Even after it became overwhelmingly clear that the CIA had been gulled about Saddam’s biological weapons by the defector known as “Curveball,” the agency still wouldn’t acknowledge the truth “because of concerns about how this would look to the ‘Seventh Floor,’ and to ‘downtown.’ ” In short, the CIA continued to suppress the truth even after its original, politically driven errors were exposed, lest the White House and political appointees at the agency be displeased. Politics? Sorry, friend. There just isn’t any evidence.