How Trump Is Repeating the Mistakes of Iraq

He’s dismissing evidence about Russian meddling that he doesn’t want to hear.

President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. President-elect Donald Trump is continuing his victory tour across the country.
President-elect Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the DeltaPlex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Friday.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that, according to a CIA assessment, “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.” The New York Times added that U.S. intelligence agencies, with “high confidence,” had concluded that Russia interfered to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. These reports followed an Oct. 7 statement issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, on behalf of “the U.S. Intelligence Community,” that senior Russian officials had directed the hacking and release of Democratic Party emails “to interfere with the US election process.”

Trump rejects these reports. In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, he dismissed the Post story as “ridiculous.” Responding to a question about the CIA, Trump said of the hack: “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody. It could be somebody sitting in a bed someplace. … It could be Russia. It—I don’t really think it is.” Trump’s transition office, in a statement on “Claims of Foreign Interference in U.S. Elections,” dismissed the credibility of the intelligence agencies: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”

Trump thinks the intelligence agencies screwed up in Iraq by imagining a conspiracy that wasn’t there. His argument is that you should assume they’re making the same mistake now about Russia. But that’s not what postwar investigations of the Iraq fiasco found. Those investigations found that the intelligence agencies’ mistake in Iraq wasn’t indulging in fancy. Their mistake was developing a rigid, self-serving conviction and ignoring evidence to the contrary. That’s exactly what Trump is doing now. He, not the CIA, is repeating the blunders of Iraq.

In July 2004, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a 500-page analysis of the intelligence community’s faulty prewar assessments of Iraq. That investigation was followed in March 2005 by a 600-page report from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Together, the two reports explained what went wrong.

According to these exhaustive reviews, the pattern of error among the intelligence agencies prior to and including Iraq wasn’t alarmism or hyperbole. It was oscillation. The agencies underestimated one threat and then, to compensate for that mistake, overestimated the next. The 2005 report explained:

The Intelligence Community had learned a hard lesson after the 1991 Gulf War, which revealed that the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments had underestimated Iraq’s nuclear program and had failed to identify all of its chemical weapons storage sites. Shaken by the magnitude of their errors, intelligence analysts were determined not to fall victim again to the same mistake. … And the dangers of underestimating our enemies were deeply underscored by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

This led the agencies to posit the worst as 2002 approached: that Saddam still had WMD, that his programs had grown, and that what we could see was just a fraction of the full threat. The agencies didn’t have solid information, so they drew inferences from their prior assessments of the Iraqi regime. This was their second mistake. They knew Saddam was a schemer, concealer, and pursuer of WMD. Therefore, they concluded, he was still doing it. Together, the pursuit and concealment explained why the WMD were secretly there, even though we couldn’t find them.

Third, the agencies became so committed to their theory that they dismissed contrary information. According to the commission report, they “explained away or simply disregarded evidence that pointed in the other direction.” The 2004 report described how the agencies “minimized,” “disregarded,” “rationalized,” or “explained away” intelligence that didn’t fit the narrative.

Trump is repeating all three mistakes. To begin with, he’s overcompensating. The error in Iraq was overestimation, so he’s leaning the other way, downplaying threats from Russia. He doesn’t realize that leaning the other way is how the CIA began to develop its impervious conviction about Iraqi WMD. He doesn’t even understand that impervious conviction, not overestimation, was the problem.

Second, he’s substituting character inference for information. His statements convey no familiarity with intelligence reports on the election hacks. Instead, he dismisses these reports based on a behavioral assessment of the media. “It’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it,” Trump told Wallace. “Every week, it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory.” Trump infers the falsity of Russian involvement not from evidence, or from an examination of the CIA’s evidence, but from a preconception that anything reported by his putative enemies—in his eyes, the press—is an “excuse.”

Third, Trump is locked into his worldview. He refuses to accept information that challenges it. He insists that the intelligence agencies “have no idea” whether Russia was behind the hacks, ignoring all the evidence that might have given them that idea. He rejects the daily intelligence briefings given to previous presidents, arguing that he’s “smart“ and doesn’t “have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years.” Nor does he want Congress to proceed with proposed hearings on the specific question of Russian hacking. “You should not just say Russia,” Trump told Wallace. “You should say other countries also, and maybe other individuals.”

This impenetrable, self-serving dogmatism led to a bizarre spectacle: the president-elect, his senior political adviser, his incoming chief of staff, and his transition team mounting a coordinated attack, through a formal statement and interviews on four TV networks, against American intelligence agencies and their conclusions as reported by two major newspapers. None of these officials treated the latest reports as potentially vital national security information. They treated the reports as threats to Trump. When the incoming president and his aides equate indictments of Russia with indictments of themselves, the suggestion of dual loyalty isn’t just coming from outside the administration. It’s coming from within.

I don’t think Trump is disloyal. He’s just stupid. He’s got it in his head that anybody who says Russia meddled in his election is a sore loser. He’s incapable of transcending the narcissism of defending his “landslide.” If you’ve got evidence that messes with his narrative, he doesn’t want to hear it. And he’ll keep blocking out unwelcome intelligence about Russia, just as the CIA blocked out unwelcome intelligence about Iraq. But this time, the price of folly won’t be seeing a peril that wasn’t there. It’ll be not seeing a peril that was.