If the Bush administration’s preparations for war with Saddam Hussein were proceeding appropriately, the president would probably be curling up right now with something called a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iraq. An NIE is a document pooling all the information on a particular country that U.S. intelligence services have collected from overheard phone calls, satellite photos, decrypted e-mails, defectors, paid informants, foreign intelligence services, diplomat tipsters, newspaper articles, and official speeches. It is supposed to serve as a consensus assessment of the state’s conventional and unconventional military capabilities, political stability, links to terrorism, and domestic economy. While an NIE is drafted in collaboration with the entire U.S. intelligence community, its lead author is the CIA.
An NIE for Iraq would consolidate exactly the sort of information George W. Bush needs at his fingertips before deciding how best to conduct a war against Saddam. (His father had the benefit of one before the Gulf war.) If, for example, the intelligence community believes massive defections are likely at the start of an American bombing campaign or that Kurdish peshmerga fighters could be trained quickly to communicate with U.S. helicopters providing close air support, then it might make sense to pursue an Afghanistan-style campaign in Iraq, relying primarily on aerial bombing and indigenous forces. If, by contrast, the NIE concluded that these risks were too great and would likely result in massive casualties for our side, it could tip the scales toward a ground invasion and a strategy to essentially occupy Baghdad.
But this is all mere speculation, because there is no NIE for Iraq and there probably won’t be one anytime soon. The reason for this omission is that the Iraq hawks running the Pentagon and staffing the office of the vice president long ago lost faith in the CIA analysis. So they set up their own network for analyzing and collecting intelligence regarding Iraq and have been presenting it to the president themselves. The result is that instead of Bush receiving one assessment of the facts on the ground, he has for months been receiving two- -one (more cautious) from the CIA and the other (more optimistic) from the Iraq hawks. As one former CIA analyst says, “Not since Vietnam has there been as deep a divide over intelligence as to enemy capabilities as you are seeing now in Iraq.” The administration’s confusion on Iraq, in other words, goes even deeper than its critics understand. It’s not just that different factions in the administration disagree about U.S. policy vis-à-vis Saddam. They disagree about the fundamental facts on which that policy should be based.
THE CURRENT SCHISM has roots going back to the early ‘70s. In 1974 a collection of neoconservative foreign policy intellectuals on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board began attacking the CIA-authored NIEs for the Soviet Union, accusing the Agency of cooking its books to defend Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente by underestimating Soviet military expenditures.
So the group—which included Harvard historian Richard Pipes; former arms control negotiator and ambassador-at-large under President Ronald Reagan, Paul H. Nitze; the retired director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Daniel Graham; and a then-little-known staff member of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Wolfowitz—asked the CIA for access to the Agency’s files to create their own assessment of Soviet intentions and capabilities. In 1976 they received that access from then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush. That fall the group—which came to be known as Team B—produced an intelligence assessment for the president, contending that the Soviet Union’s military expenditures would not be curtailed by concerns over their potential impact on the ussr’s economic health. That conclusion became the cornerstone of Reagan’s policy for outspending the Soviet military in order to hasten the collapse of the Soviet economy.
Fast-forward to the current day. Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense, still doesn’t trust the CIA—but this time the bone of contention is Iraq. As during his tenure on Team B, Wolfowitz finds himself amid a loose network of neocons inside and outside government—this time including his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton; Chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle; and Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff and national security adviser I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby—arguing for an aggressive foreign policy posture. So, in a repetition of history, the neocons have devoted themselves to offering an alternative to what they see as the CIA’s timid and inaccurate intelligence assessments—assessments that downplayed the possibility of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States prior to September 11; failed to predict India’s nuclear tests in 1998; and underestimated the speed with which the North Koreans would be able to test a multistage missile. The difference is that this time the neocons don’t have to ask the CIA’s permission to gain access to classified intelligence, because Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld already control between 85 percent and 90 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget, including the agencies responsible for signal intercepts, satellite surveillance, and the DIA. “This is a case of going in-house because [Rumsfeld] is not happy with the intelligence he’s gotten from the CIA,” says Melvin Goodman, a professor of international security at the National War College and a former CIA analyst.
Drawing on raw intelligence from these sources and from the CIA, the testimony of Iraqi defectors, and reports from the Iraqi opposition, Wolfowitz and his allies have put together a portrait of Iraq’s military might and political stability that diverges dramatically from the CIA’s. For example, the hawks believe that most Iraqis will join American efforts to liberate their country in the event of a U.S. attack and that Saddam has extensive links to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network. The CIA is not so sure. The hawks contend that “as soon as the fight starts large forces will defect,” says former CIA Near East Division Chief Frank Anderson. “What evidence is there for that? While many Iraqis defected in the Gulf war, hundreds of thousands died in the war with Iran.”
The existence of two competing assessments of the threat posed by Iraq need not by itself be counterproductive—if there were some constructive give-and- take between the two sides that produced a rough consensus upon which the president could rely. But to a large degree, there isn’t. Bush administration staffers complain they have been completely cut out of the loop and that most decisions on Iraq policy take place among high-level officials who are strongly wedded to their existing positions. “You have this group of obscenely secretive principals and deputies meeting, who don’t let their staff in,” one source close to the administration says. Indeed the interagency committee on Iraq policy, which is supposed to bring together and synthesize the views of the Pentagon, uniformed military, CIA, State Department, and National Security Council, has not met since June—perhaps in part because it has been chaired by State Department Director of Policy Planning Richard N. Haass and later by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Ryan Crocker, both of whom are perceived as hostile to the hawks’ view on Iraq. The upshot, says Anderson, is that “there is no consensus in the [intelligence] community about the basic questions of threat.”
CENTRAL TO THE intelligence-gathering apparatus constructed by the hawks has been the Iraqi National Congress (INC). An umbrella group for Kurdish, Sunni, Shiite, Hashemite, and exiled military opposition groups, the INC has been receiving overt funding from the U.S. government since 1999, one year after President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act establishing regime change as an explicit goal of U.S. policy. At the beginning of the second Bush administration the INC began receiving funds for an intelligence operation inside Iraq known as the Information Collection Program (ICP). The ICP began after Francis Brooke, the INC’s Washington adviser and the chief analyst for the program, convinced the State Department’s then-coordinator for regime transition in Iraq, Frank Ricciardone, to grant his organization a temporary treasury license to use U.S. funding for operations inside Iraq by promising to retrieve information on Iraqi war crimes against Kurds.
The network began renewing contacts inside the country that led to a string of twelve defections. Further INC operations inside Iraqi territory were technically prohibited by the State Department, but they nonetheless continued. Despite numerous complaints from Crocker, the ICP network, which is controlled exclusively by INC executive committee member Ahmed Chalabi and funded with $320,000 per month from the State Department, has continued to run operations on the ground in Iraq. The ICP is responsible for the stream of defectors who have shared revelations about Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program and his links to the Al Qaeda network with The New York Times, CBS’s “60 Minutes,” and Vanity Fair over the last year. But the network has also provided target information to the Pentagon, intelligence from assets inside Iraq’s intelligence services, and even photographs of senior Iraqi officials and their families at parties. The ICP has also conducted some small-scale sabotage operations, blowing up sections of the pipeline between Iraq and Syria that provides Saddam with the illicit cash the dictator has used to bolster his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capacity. And Chalabi’s intelligence network has offered regular reports to the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, apparently influencing the positions Rumsfeld and Cheney have taken in the administration’s internal debates on Iraq policy.
Shortly after Wolfowitz took his post in February 2001, for example, Chalabi and Brooke brought 1994 defector Khidir Hamza, one of Saddam’s most senior nuclear scientists, to meet the new deputy defense secretary. In the meeting, Hamza described how Saddam was trying to refine uranium for his nuclear program using a centrifuge technique in small labs scattered throughout the country. Initially, there had been skepticism within the intelligence community—and specifically the CIA—that Saddam could be refining uranium in this way. But Hamza was insistent, claiming that Baghdad was purchasing from abroad a specific kind of aluminum tube needed for the process. And ultimately, Hamza’s intelligence seems to have been borne out. Just last week, The New York Times published an article reporting that “[i]n the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”; “...the Pentagon’s assessment that members of Al Qaeda have used Iraq as a base for training both before and after the September 11 attacks....”
Nor is Saddam’s nuclear program the only area in which the Iraq hawks have used the testimony of INC-sponsored defectors to challenge CIA assumptions about Iraq. Such testimony, according to administration officials, forms the basis of the Pentagon’s assessment that members of Al Qaeda have used Iraq as a base for training both before and after the September 11 attacks. The Iraq hawks have relied on the classified testimony of two former Iraqi intelligence officers—interviewed in a New York Times story from November 8, 2001—who claimed that Saddam was using a base south of Baghdad, in an agricultural community called Salman Pak, to train non-Iraqi Arabs in hijacking and other black arts of terrorism. Although he declined to provide specifics, Rumsfeld reaffirmed the Pentagon’s view at an August 20 news conference: “[W]hat I have said is a fact—that there are Al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq.”
The CIA, however, is unconvinced. While the Agency accepts that Ansar al- Islam—a terrorist group that attempted to assassinate the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Barham Salih, this year—trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and is supported by Baghdad, the Agency doubts that senior members of bin Laden’s organization are living in Saddam’s Iraq. “There is not evidence of Al Qaeda training there in Salman Pak,” one senior U.S. intelligence official says.
The CIA’s doubts stem largely from its mistrust of some of the defectors provided by the INC. “Some [defectors] are valuable, and there are some that had their talking points sharpened before they meet with U.S. officials,” a senior U.S. intelligence official says. “For some defectors who have been out of the country, their stories get more and more colorful as time goes on.” One of the defectors who formed the basis of the Times’ piece on Salman Pak, for example, was met with skepticism when interviewed by the CIA in Ankara last September, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. Agents peppered the man with questions like “Why are you working for the INC? Who wrote this story for you?” said the source. According to former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who worked on this defection as a private citizen, “Their principal interest seemed to be not his links to Al Qaeda but what his ties were to the INC.”
THE CIA’S ANTIPATHY toward the INC dates back to Clinton-era efforts to topple Saddam. The CIA has long believed that Chalabi was responsible for compromising a 1996 coup attempt in which the CIA provided technical communications equipment for a network of military officers recruited by Ayad Alawi, the head of the Iraqi National Accord, a CIA-sponsored opposition group that has been at odds with the INC since the early ’90s.
Chalabi flew to Washington in March 1996 to brief then-CIA Director John Deutch on information he had suggesting the upcoming coup attempt was compromised because Saddam knew the names of the plotters. Perle, then a private consultant, attended the meeting and suggested an independent evaluation of the planned coup by the CIA and Alawi. But Deutch declined the advice and allowed the coup effort to go forward. In June 1996 Saddam’s men rounded up the plotters, killed them, and used the Agency’s own equipment to beam praises of Saddam to the CIA’s office in Amman. Many members of the CIA believe that because Chalabi had predicted these events, he must have had a hand in them.
With the Bush administration gearing up for war this summer, CIA and INC officials met twice in what could have been a constructive effort to overcome past animosity and improve cooperation on intelligence gathering. The meetings did not end conclusively. The first took place in June, when the CIA’s Iraq Issues Group requested and received a meeting with INC chief of intelligence Aras Karem. The purpose was to establish a system whereby the Agency would get first crack at the defectors the INC was making available to the media. The meeting was hastily arranged in 24 hours and Karem received a visa the following day. Meeting at a hotel in Dupont Circle, Karem told the group about four future defectors who could be of interest to the U.S. government and offered the CIA access to them.
In July, the CIA asked for a follow-up meeting with the INC, though this time Karem could not attend. In this meeting the INC shared a briefing drafted by Karem on the state of the defectors program. But the meeting ended when the INC officials were informed that they would have no further formal contacts with the CIA; their intelligence program would instead interface only with the Pentagon through the DIA.
Had the CIA established a system for vetting INC defectors, perhaps the Agency and the president’s more hawkish advisers might have reached some consensus on intelligence estimates. As it stands, the hawks within the administration believe a military campaign in Iraq will be pretty easy. As Cheney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, “I’m confident that if it became necessary—if the president felt that this was the right course of action so that he instructed the military to undertake this—that the U.S. military would be enormously effective in this circumstance. And I don’t think it would be that tough a fight; that is, I don’t think there’s any question that we would prevail, and we would achieve our objective.” The hawks also continue to push a military strategy that would rely heavily on U.S.-trained indigenous forces inside Iraq to do most of the ground fighting in conjunction with close American air support. The strategy relies on a promise that the Iranians will not interfere—a promise the mullahs delivered through Chalabi himself last month when the Iraqi opposition met with Rumsfeld, Cheney, and senior State Department officials.
But one former CIA official who maintains close contacts with his old employers calls this a strategy of “wish fulfillment.” “They are arguing for a high-risk strategy,” this official says. “It relies on the military capabilities of an internal opposition, the kindness of evil strangers ... and it embraces the one strategy for regime change all of our allies have told us they do not support.” But while the CIA is skeptical of the intelligence the hawks have received through the INC, their own on-the-ground information is woeful. Says a retired CIA officer critical of the extent to which the Agency has shunned the Iraqi opposition, “Unless you are working with all of the opposition networks intensively ... then you won’t have a clue as to what the overall picture is inside the country—what people are thinking, what you need to do when you go in, who counts, who is respected, the mood of the army, and who is important in the army.”
For now it appears Bush is inclined to believe the hawks’ analysis, privileging the information provided by the INC’s defectors and analyzed by the Pentagon over the warnings of his spies, diplomats, and generals. As the president prepares to make his case for attacking Iraq to the international community and Congress, he will argue that the time to act is now and that waiting would be more costly than quick action. The conclusion may well be right. But the process that produced it is far from reassuring.
This article originally ran in the September 23, 2002 issue of the magazine.