Friday, January 18, 2008

The Iran NIE

An article by Ken Silverstein (“Fairy Tales”) in the May 18, 2006 issue of Harper’s (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/05/sb-cia-badnews-293480283) recounted the sorry response by the Bush White House to reports written over the preceding three years by CIA station chiefs and other Iraq specialists. The problem, of course, was the reports did not offer the “evidence” the administration wanted about of what was really happening in Iraq.

No, that’s wrong – wrong because the reports from station chiefs and agency analysts didn’t simply fail to support the official line about Iraqi progress. They contradicted the Bush-Cheney fictionalized accounts of what ought to be happening and what the White House wanted the public to hear.

The results of the constant repetition of “ground truth” that took no note of ideological bias were predictable. On the personal level, according to Silverstein’s sources, those who were the messengers suffered the usual modern bureaucratic retaliation: at least four careers were ended, derailed, diverted, or delayed. Outside the agency, the cost was higher – much higher – in terms of fatalities, serious wounds, and national treasure and natural resources squandered.

What prompted this look back at the inglorious history of Bush-in-the Middle East is the president’s just-completed 10-day, six nation trip to the region – a trip where he did not go to Iraq at all. The trip ostensibly was undertaken to keep the spotlight and the pressure on the post-Annapolis summit (November 22, 2007) peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian experts as well as the direct meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

There were two other purposes for the visit. Although already announced by the administration, Bush used the occasion of his travel to reiterated earlier pledges to Olmert to provide $30 billion in new military aid to Israel and $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates. The other purpose was to reiterate to the Gulf allies the White House position that Iran “was a danger, is a danger, and will be a danger” to the Gulf countries – whether or not (but more so should it do so) it ever acquires the know-how to produce nuclear weapons.

The public might be forgiven should this sound like a record already played – and recently. In 2004, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq ran counter to the rosy “paint-by-numbers” picture portrayed by the White House. Bush, Cheney et al. mounted an intense campaign denigrating the NIE, an effort that reached its nadir in the infamous September 21 2004 joint press conference with the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/09/20040921-9.html) when Bush declared: “They [CIA analysts] were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like. The Iraqi citizens are defying the pessimistic predictions.”

The metaphysical distance between what was really happening and what the president wished to be happening was not so much a fairy tale as an example of the “tail wagging the dog.” The democracy Bush wanted has to be grounded in the real world to materialize. After September 11, 2001, the public lost touch with reality as it saw terrorists ready to assault the U.S – and the administration rode this disconnect for five years for its own purposes.

Yet while the Bush-Cheney et al. disdain for intelligence that wasn’t “theirs” never wavered, the rest of the country finally began shifting, a shift culminating in the congressional elections in November 2006 that returned a narrow Democratic majority in both houses.

The shift in the power to examine reality that this introduced into the political mix complicated matters for Bush. With but two years left in the Oval Office, Bush had to choose whether to go after North Korea or Iran. This was, in some ways, an easy choice, for much of what was classified about North Korea was known in outline, at least, in the public domain. Moreover, while both the Orient and the Mid-East were cultures generally alien to Bush, he was more comfortable with the latter. And although the “hook” used to go after Saddam Hussein – the nuclear “yellow cake” – was completely discredited, the “nuclear” bogeyman still could be used.

This time, however, agency analysts seemed far better prepared for the White House blowback. Media reports portray a thorough-going review of every source and every piece of information, for and against, the conclusions. By the time the original conclusions had been validated and the findings declassified, it was December 3, 2007 – a month before the Mid-East trip.

The CIA had learned from the Iraq debacle; the American public had learned from the Iraq debacle. The administration had not. No sooner had the unclassified finds reached the public than the war hawks labeled it “bureaucratic payback” and “politicized.”
For his part, Bush reportedly told his hosts in private conversations that the NIE’s conclusions did not reflect his own views on Iran’s intentions.

One can only wonder what his sources are.

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