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George Bush Vs. U.S. Intelligence?

Was it a massive failure of U.S. intelligence — or Mr. Bush's faulty decision-making?

February 10, 2004

Was it a massive failure of U.S. intelligence — or Mr. Bush's faulty decision-making?

When former weapons inspector David Kay resigned, concluding that Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he was quick to absolve President George W. Bush of responsibility for arguing otherwise.

The president, Mr. Kay insisted, had been poorly served by the intelligence agencies.

Responding to accusations that the Bush Administration had put pressure on analysts, the weapons inspector told Fox News that he “never met an analyst who felt like he was pressured by anyone in the administration” — but stressed that this was his personal observation.

Mr. Kay called for an investigation of the intelligence failure, and President Bush has agreed. After all, the United States went to war in Iraq because of a widely-held assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD.

If that assumption was wrong, it brings the entire rationale for the war into question.

While Washington is conditioned to await the commission's report in March 2005 — well after the November 2004 election — the argument that all the intelligence services were in agreement is beginning to crack.

Already a former British intelligence official has publicly claimed that “the expert intelligence analysts of the DIS [Defense Intelligence Service] were overruled in the preparation of the dossier in September 2002 — resulting in a presentation that was misleading about Iraq’s capabilities.”

Hans Blix, the former head of the UN weapons inspection team, adds further evidence that the situation was not nearly as clear-cut as the Bush Administration presented it.

"We said that we had seen no evidence of any smoking gun," Mr. Blix stated on the BBC Breakfast with David Frost program. "So we had, I think, issued the correct warnings. And nevertheless, they didn't take that seriously."

Mr. Blix added that he also warned the Bush Administration that there was a difference between saying that weapons were unaccounted for and stating unequivocally that they existed — a crucial difference, as it turned out.

Moreover, even if all governments were in agreement, it is noteworthy that they reacted differently. Some favored military action, but others preferred a continued program of rigorous inspection.

The Bush Administration’s argument for war was based on the need to preempt a growing threat.

And yet, as Mr. Kay noted in his interview, “If you cannot rely on good, accurate intelligence that is credible to the American people and to others abroad, you certainly can’t have a policy of preemption.”

But intelligence is typically uncertain. The president’s argument for preemption is that the United States cannot wait for the threat to become imminent — which means it must make the decision relying on uncertain information about the nature of the threat.

After the shock of September 11, that argument appeared compelling. But it also raises the risk of involvement in conflicts that might be avoided and resolved by other means.

Consequently, for such a policy to obtain support of the American people and the world, there must be confidence in the judgment of the political leadership.

That confidence, for most people, arises from a sense that the political leaders are assessing the evidence rigorously — and are not shaping it to fit preconceptions.

It also means they are willing to listen to people with different views. And that is what is so disturbing about the political climate in Washington today.

When President Bush proclaims that those who are not with us are against us, he is in effect saying those who disagree with him must have some hostile motive.

Disagreement signifies opposition, not simply another way of achieving the same ultimate objective. Our allies who opposed the use of force against Iraq shared the U.S. objective of defeating terrorism. They felt, however, that war with Iraq — at least in March 2003 — was not the best way to achieve that goal.

That is why defenses by the Administration are now so unsatisfying. “I have argued for patience as we continue to learn the truth,” CIA Director George Tenet maintained in a speech at Georgetown University.

But if patience is a virtue when one tries to learn the truth after initiating war, is it not even more a virtue before a war?

What is the level of confidence required before America’s young men and women are sent to fight, to kill — and perhaps to die?

The response is that we are all better off with Saddam Hussein gone. But as Americans continue to die in Iraq and as Washington’s political control over the country is increasingly challenged, concern is growing about where we are heading.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that despite the confidence projected publicly by the Bush Administration, Mr. Kay said in another interview that he sensed “near panic” among U.S. officials in Baghdad.

“You have to make decisions based on the intelligence you have, not on the intelligence you can discover later,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz recently told American troops about to leave for Iraq.

Mr. Wolfowitz’s statement implicitly recognizes that accountability rests with those who make the decision — and not with the intelligence community.

What can be done? How can we be sure that the president is receiving good advice?

In Shakespeare’s plays, there is frequently a character — the fool — who asks seemingly silly questions that have an underlying profundity, challenging conventional wisdom.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a good way to institutionalize the position of Shakespeare's fool.

That is why America's founders gave the war powers to the Congress — and specified that important executive appointments and treaties be taken with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The founders wanted the president to submit these decisions to people with different points of view and who are not beholden to him.

Thus, members of Congress must also acknowledge their role, which is to ask critical questions before an important decision is taken.

But we should be wary of efforts to shift political accountability for war away from those who have political responsibility.

That would be truly foolish.