Monday, May 22, 2006

Why the White House was so wrong about Iraq

In this article for Harper's, Ken Silverstein explains the political pressure that was put on the CIA to come up with the "correct" conclusions about Iraq.

A number of current and former intelligence officials have told me that the administration's war on internal dissent has crippled the CIA's ability to provide realistic assessments from Iraq. “The system of reporting is shut down,” said one person familiar with the situation. “You can't write anything honest, only fairy tales.”
Silverstein relates the story of two CIA station chiefs in Baghdad who were removed from their positions after they wrote field reports that reflected negatively on the situation in Iraq. Both were correct in their assessments, but the adminstration responded as if these reports were political attacks.

As has been the case with other people deemed to be insufficiently loyal, the White House went fishing for dirt on the two station chiefs, including information on their political affiliations. “I spent 30 years at the CIA,” said one former official, “and no one was ever interested in knowing whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. That changed with this administration. Now you have loyalty tests.”
They were replaced with a chief who came up with the "right" assesment.

The fate of those two station chiefs had a predictable effect. In 2005, I'm told, the Baghdad station chief filed but a single Aardwolf. The report, which one person told me was widely derided within the CIA as “a joke,” asserted that the United States was winning the war despite all evidence to the contrary. It was garbage, but garbage that the Bush administration wanted to hear; at the end of his tour, that Station Chief was given a plum assignment. “This is a time of war,” said one former intelligence official. “Every day American kids are getting killed over there. We need steady, focused reporting [from Baghdad] but no one is willing to speak out since they know they'll get shot down.”
Silverstein concludes by relating another incident where an offical had his career hurt by speaking the truth about the situation in Iraq, noting that "under this administration, anything less than cheerleading can be a career-ending move."

This sort of behavior has a significantly negative impact on the formulation of well-informed policy. For example, in Worse than Watergate, John Dean State of War, James Risen tells of a pre-invasion of Iraq program the CIA had in which family members, residing in the US, of persons who had worked on Iraq's nuclear program were sent covertly to Iraq to ask their relations about the state of Iraq's nuclear program. Thirty such persons were sent. All thirty came back to the US and reported that there was no nuclear program.*

This information was not passed on to the White House, however, because the officials who came up with the program were under pressure from George Tenet to confirm that Iraq did have a nuclear program, and were reluctant to pass on the "wrong" conclusion.

Confirmation bias and ideologically driven policy is a dangerous way to run a country. Remember Lysenkoism?

*I read State of War and Worse than Watergate on the same day, and got the two confused in my memory.

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