Thursday, February 15, 2007

Feith and Reason, pt. 2 - As we turn our attention to the conduct of Sen. Carl Levin (or as he was described in a Wall Street Journal editorial, "Senator Ahab") as it regards his incessant investigations of pre-Iraq War intelligence, we get to ask ourselves how many more times must one misguided theory be disproved before it falls out of favor. Above and beyond the findings of the previously discussed Senate Select Intelligence Committee Report or the Robb-Silberman Report on WMD Intelligence, a recently published investigation on the handling of prewar intelligence conducted by the Pentagon's Inspector General also absolves senior officials - to include former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas J. Feith - of any "illegal or unauthorized" activity in regards to production or dissemination of intelligence estimates.

Of course, Sen. Levin is hardly one to let the facts get in the way of a good story. As much was noted by the Journal.

But instead of moving on to more important things, Mr. Levin is still chasing his great white whale. He's grabbed on to an odd bit of editorializing by the Inspector General that Mr. Feith "was inappropriately performing Intelligence Activities...that should be performed by the Intelligence Community."
Mr. Levin's line of reasoning seems to be that policymakers like Mr. Feith are to be mere consumers of the product of the intelligence community, and should not challenge its assumptions, which themselves are usually the product of "lowest common denominator judgments - or group-think." This should sound familiar, as it is exactly the reasoning espoused by Paul R. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence efforts in the Middle East. In an article printed in the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Pillar attempted to breathe life into the oft-repeated (and by now, tiresome) charge of presidential interference with and dissembling about intelligence gathering efforts.

In his essay, Mr. Pillar attempts to make the case that the relationship between policymakers and the intelligence community has been damaged by the Bush administration’s supposed obsession with finding evidence of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda in order to justify military action against the regime of Saddam Hussein. He concedes (but only begrudgingly) that prewar intelligence was flawed and that the Bush administration’s understanding of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons programs "was shared by the Clinton administration, congressional Democrats, and most other Western governments and intelligence services," but counters that "even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war." Mr. Pillar suggests that the administration used prewar intelligence to justify a decision that had already been reached, leaving policy analysts "to register varying degrees of private protest," and describes how the Bush administration influenced the development of intelligence regarding war with Iraq.
But the principal way that the intelligence community’s work on Iraq was politicized concerned the specific questions to which the community devoted its energies. As any competent pollster can attest, how a question is framed helps determine the answer. In the case of Iraq, there was also the matter of sheer quantity of output – not just what the intelligence community said, but how many times it said it. On any given subject, the intelligence community faces what is in effect a field of rocks, and it lacks the resources to turn over every one to see what threats to national security may lurk underneath. In an unpoliticized environment, intelligence officers decide which rocks to turn over based on past patterns and their own judgments. But when policymakers repeatedly urge the intelligence community to turn over only certain rocks, the process producing a body of reporting and analysis that, thanks to quantity and emphasis, leaves the impression that what lies under those rocks is a bigger part of the problem than it really is.
Mr. Pillar acknowledges that the issue of "politicization" of intelligence gathering is ground that has been covered by the both the Senate Select Committee and the Robb-Silberman Commission, but tries to get around their conclusions by suggesting that these investigations "would have caught only the crudest attempts at politicization." (I find it interesting that Mr. Pillar does not address why a genuinely distressed CIA officer would not seize upon one of these investigations as an opportunity to register their concerns.)

Throughout his essay, Mr. Pillar seems to be indicting the Bush administration for exercising its prerogatives to ask for what it needs and to ignore or reject the work product of intelligence gatherers. This line of thinking becomes more plausible in light of another statement made by Pillar.
It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysts that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysts that supported such a decision. Intelligence analysts – for who attention, especially favorable attention, from policymakers is a measure of success – felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious.
The light that this remark sheds on the motivations of analysts is hardly flattering. It makes the entire intelligence community sound like a group of kindergarteners who want their "artwork" to end up on the wall in their classroom or on their parent's refrigerator. It also shatters the illusion that intelligence analysts are unbiased, almost Solomonic figures. In this light, they appear to be more political animals than professional analysts.

Perhaps it is just as well that we are disabused of such notions, no matter how inadvertent it was that Pillar did so. The idea that America’s intelligence apparatus is made up of all-seeing, all-knowing, completely agenda-free professionals was a tough sell even before September 11, 2001. Decades of neglect on the part of Congressional Democrats rendered the intelligence agencies useless, but benign. The intelligence community's current attempts to play political catch-up in the face of "strong winds" after 9/11 have turned it into a malignancy, riddled with careerists who are not merely content with providing useful intelligence, but would rather shape policy itself (but only in such a way as to avoid direct accountability.) By these efforts, the intelligence community has shown itself to be a greater danger to our Republic than George Bush ever will be, as they undermine our representative government by attempting to thwart the stated will of the majority of Americans as expressed through their election of President Bush.

More to come...

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