January 14, 2008

George Bush's Destructive War on Our Intelligence Agencies

I was appalled by the president's comments that were reported this weekend. Fred Kaplan was too.

President George W. Bush hasn't accomplished much on his voyage to the Middle East, but he did take the time to inflict another wound on the entire U.S. intelligence community - and on the credibility of anything he might ever again say about the world. In the latest Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that, during a private conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush "all but disowned""the agencies' Dec. 3 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. A "senior administration official who accompanied Bush" on the trip confided to Hirsh that Bush "told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views." ...

For the president of the United States to wave away the whole document - which, in its classified form, is more than 140 pages and has nearly 1,500 source notes, according to an enlightening story in today's Wall Street Journal - is gratuitous and self-destructive. Then again, such behavior is of a piece with the pattern of relations between President Bush and his intelligence agencies. In September 2004, when he was asked about a pessimistic CIA report on the course of the occupation in Iraq, Bush replied that the agency was "just guessing." ...

Now President Bush is splashing doubt not just on the CIA, but on all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, simply because their judgments are out of synch with his policies ...

This remark has three baleful consequences. First, it can't help but demoralize the intelligence community. NIEs are meant, ultimately, for only one reader, the president; and here's the president telling another world leader that he doesn't believe it because, well, he doesn't agree with it.

Second, it reinforces the widespread view that the president views intelligence strictly as a political tool: When it backs up his policies, it's as good as gold; when it doesn't, it's "just guessing."

Third, by telling Olmert that it's all right to ignore the NIE, Bush is in effect telling him that Israel should go ahead and behave as if its findings had never been published.

Posted by armand at January 14, 2008 08:02 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Politics


if he cares so little for the outputs of our collected intelligence agencies, and bearing in mind that for the duration of his tenure he's the principal actor who can do much of anything about what those agencies determine, i want my money back. mothball the whole insanely expensive bureacracy until we have someone in office who's inclined to defer to their expertise, flawed though it may be. seven years ago, i'm pretty sure bush couldn't have located iran on a map.

Posted by: moon at January 15, 2008 07:39 PM | PERMALINK

"Now President Bush is splashing doubt not just on the CIA, but on all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, simply because their judgments are out of synch with his policies ..."

Because the NIE was so right?
According to NPR:
"The widely anticipated National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq describes an increasingly dangerous situation, where the United States has little control.
"It finds that sectarian violence is outstripping al-Qaida as a threat, and judges that the violence may continue to worsen."

According to UPI:
"Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commanding general, multinational division center, says the security successes from the troop surge have resulted in the reduction of attacks on U.S. forces from approximately 25 attacks per day to an average of less than five a day, the Defense Department reported.
"As a result of operation Marne Fortitude II, the five attacks result in only one effective attack where there is a casualty. Lynch says the operation has also resulted in a 75 percent reduction in civilian casualties as well. Additionally Lynch says the major concern of the Iraqi people has shifted from security concerns to the need for a functioning infrastructure."

Bush is right. The NIE is just a guess.

Posted by: Morris at January 15, 2008 10:24 PM | PERMALINK

Morris did you lose track in your reflexive desire to defend the president's foreign policy no matter what that this post was about Iran? Iran and Iraq are different countries. You know, fyi.

Posted by: Armand at January 16, 2008 01:00 AM | PERMALINK

Is that the best you can come up with? Iran and Iraq are different countries. Seriously, Bro, my sense is we have a whole lot more intelligence assets in a country in which we have over a hundred thousand soldiers than we do in Iran. And even then these 16 intelligence agencies thought that the violence would get worse. Bush and his generals looked at the same data and found a different interpretation, one that's hard to argue with given the trend of the last several months. So his point and mine is that the NIE is a guess, an interpretation of the data.

Have you forgotten that in 91 our intelligence guess was that Saddam was five years from a nuke, but when we got there we found out he was 12 to 18 months from a nuke? Israel can't afford for us to make assumptions about Iran's nuclear capability, for them this is life and death. And you're making assumptions about the validity and reliability of the raw intel based on its summary interpretation when in fact neither of us have the clearance to read the raw intel. Bush did. And while you decry Clinton for not reading the NIE, you decry Bush for actually thinking it through and coming to a different conclusion. I guess that doesn't fit into your "Bush is an idiot" template. But he was right about progress in Iraq; those who summarized the NIE were mistaken.

As the NIE itself says:
"We use phrases such as judge, assess, and estimate – and probabilistic terms such as probably and likely—to convey analytical assessments and judgments. Such statements are not facts, proof, or knowledge."

In other words, it's a guess.

Posted by: Morris at January 16, 2008 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

"Israel can't afford for us to make assumptions about Iran's nuclear capability, for them this is life and death."

Well if it's life and death, I strongly suggest that they not take President Bush's notoriously unsupported deviations from the experts' views very seriously either.

Posted by: moon at January 16, 2008 11:56 AM | PERMALINK

1st off, the generals didn't want the Surge - that was all Bush. If you think it's the best thing since Dolly Parton and refrigeration, you can praise him all you want for that.

2nd, who's arguing that Bush actually thought through the intelligence? The whole point of Kaplan's piece is that he has a history of rejecting information that doesn't fit with his preexisting worldview.

3rd, no one here is stating that intelligence = facts. They are different words after all.

4th, it really does seem fairly relevant to me that when discussing the Iran NIE to actually discuss Iran. But maybe I'm funny that way.

But really it's that 2nd point that's key. If Bush's only use for intelligence is to confirm his preexisting opinions, then yeah, maybe Moon's right and we should shut the whole thing down and spend the billions on submarines, health care or training Farsi speakers instead.

Posted by: Armand at January 16, 2008 03:06 PM | PERMALINK

Moon writes: "Well if it's life and death, I strongly suggest that they not take President Bush's notoriously unsupported deviations from the experts' views very seriously either."

You mean like the one about the surge, biggest issue of his second term, and he was right. I might also point out that the so called experts' views are not their views; they are admittedly not facts, proof, or knowledge provided by experts, but their so called views are guesses based upon raw intel, not raw intel.

Your criticism of Bush is common to all people. We look for things to confirm our previously formed ideas, and we discard what doesn't fit, even if there's more of what doesn't fit than what does. This is not just a problem for Bush, or the scientific method, but also for those who summarized the raw intel. Their more likely to go by their previous ideas about how things are, just as Bush is. But if Bush is right about how things are in Iraq, just maybe he's right about how things are in Iran, and just maybe the CIA officers have some previous semantic schema into which saying Iran is developing nukes doesn't fit (like, I don't know, maybe how they were so wrong about Iraq having nukes).

Posted by: Morris at January 16, 2008 09:12 PM | PERMALINK

Yes Morris, if there's one thing that the CIA and the country's intelligence agencies have at the core of their beings it's a proclivity on err on the side of UNDERestimating threats. Suuuure.

And sure, I suppose it is possible that George W. Bush's preexisting worldview is always right, and no information ever brought to him in any circumstance can possibly improve upon what he already inately knows. But, personally, it just seems rather unlikely to me that his personal knowledge of the nature of Iran's nuclear program is more accurate than that of the country's intelligence agencies.

Posted by: Armand at January 16, 2008 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

"Iran has met a key demand of the U.N. nuclear agency, handing over long-sought blueprints showing how to mold uranium metal into the shape of warheads, diplomats said Tuesday....
Both the IAEA and other experts have categorized the instructions outlined in the blueprints as having no value outside of a nuclear weapons program."

Of course, Iran has learned from drug users in America, so they said "somebody gave that to me". Of course, why didn't they throw them away if they weren't using them?

So why in the world would we believe Bush? Psychologically speaking, it makes too much sense that the CIA got burned last time about overestimating Iraq's WMD program, so they're underestimating Iran's this time. But let us not forget that the CIA was wrong about Iraq WMDs, and they were wrong about the surge. The only thing they have access to from decades of service that Bush doesn't isn't the raw data, it's the conclusion they reached before looking at the raw data based on decades of service that led them to be wrong on Iraqi WMDs and wrong on the Iraqi surge.

Let us not forget that you supported Howard Dean for President in 2003, and in 2003 before Operation Iraqi Freedom, Howard Dean was talking to anyone who would listen about how Iraq didn't have WMDs. Now I'd think if you were truly consistent that you'd be cursing Howard Dean for doubting this country's intelligence community that exists solely to create a report for him to rubber stamp, and when he doesn't rubber stamp that report, he makes the entirity of the report including its raw data meaningless.

But of course you did support Howard Dean, so your agenda is obvious here. You are doing that very human thing of dismissing what doesn't fit into your particular point of view, just as you criticize our President for doing the same.

Posted by: Morris at January 17, 2008 01:12 AM | PERMALINK

More details of Iran's peaceful enrichment program in the news today:
Among the material is data on a laptop computer reportedly smuggled out of Iran. In 2005, U.S. intelligence said that information suggested that the country had been working on details for nuclear weapons, including missile trajectories and ideal altitudes for exploding warheads.

U.S. intelligence was also shared with the agency regarding the "Green Salt Project" — a plan that the U.S. alleges links diverse components of a nuclear weapons program, including uranium enrichment, high explosives testing and a missile re-entry vehicle.

The IAEA is also interested in activities at a former research center at Lavizan-Shian, which Iran razed before allowing agency inspectors access. The center is believed to have been the repository of equipment bought by the Iranian military that could be used in a nuclear weapons program.

Posted by: Morris at January 17, 2008 08:16 AM | PERMALINK

Errr, that's one psychological argument. Another though would be based on consistency and fit with bureaucratic and organizational theory, and that one would have the intel agencies have a longstanding predisposition to first and foremost see possible threats, not to dismiss them. To expect that thousands of people and multiple organizations will suddenly change their worldviews b/c they were wrong once ... doesn't seem likely. And if your little theory here holds up it should be most likely to hold when I single individual adjusts her worldview b/c they got something wrong - but as we see with President Bush, lots of individuals don't do that. So why you'd expect a swath of huge organizations with entrenched belief sets to change is ... strange.

And my "agenda" here? Oh please. If I have a bias it's to believe that lots of organizations, lots of resources, lots of experts analysis is likely to be able to provide you with a better understanding of what's going on in country X, than the relatively uninformed musings of a guys who's never been there and doesn't know anything about the technologies at issue.

As far as the rest of this, maybe the intel agencies which have seen the data are in a better position to evaluate the data than you and I are (see the preceding paragraph). And of course one of the things that's extra pathetic about this whole incident is that the NIE hardly went all kumbaya on the situation. Hey, even if you only read the piece I linked to, that's clear. But all the troubling stuff in there still wasn't enough for Bush. He'd rather toss out and belittle months of work by patriotic folks (including lots of Republicans) b/c their analysis did not fit with his desires.

Posted by: Armand at January 17, 2008 09:25 AM | PERMALINK

regarding Dean, the intel at issue regarding Iraq's supposed WMD's was negative or at best equivocal until the Bush admin made pretty clear what it wanted to see. don't think so? seems to me there were a lot of resignations and protests in the wake of that whole affair. it's different when the intel community goes out of its way to correct what it has come to believe are flawed prior threat assessments, and different still when in doing so they deviate from the script handed down from the Prez and his folks. no one's suggesting slavish dedication to NIEs is called for, or that presidents shouldn't think for themselves. i'm just suggesting that for my trillion dollars, i'd like the president to take the time to read the assessments, and if he disagrees, to have some articulable basis for doing so other than, you people obviously don't believe what i believe, but i'm the decider, which is about as robust an explanation as we ever get from the Cliff Notes Reader in chief.

and as for this: "Your criticism of Bush is common to all people."

well hell, let's just choose our president by lottery!? alas, "typical" is not what i'm looking for in a leader of the free world. sadly, i seem to be in the minority in this regard.

Posted by: moon at January 18, 2008 03:51 PM | PERMALINK
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