Intelligence: the Raw and the Cooked

It makes a great headline, C.I.A. Held Back Iraqi Arms Data, U.S. Officials Say, and the first paragraph is a powerful one:

The Central Intelligence Agency was told by relatives of Iraqi scientists before the war that Baghdad's programs to develop unconventional weapons had been abandoned, but the C.I.A. failed to give that information to President Bush, even as he publicly warned of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons, according to government officials.

The New York Times article, however, fails to mention one little thing, and that failure makes me slightly skeptical about the rest. The interviews with the relatives of Iraqi scientists are so-called 'raw intelligence'; the CIA is not expected to give policy makers the text of every interview it conducts, nor even mention them all. It's supposed to triage, draw conclusions, weigh and summarize…fairly, without 'cooking' the results. Indeed, it's precisely the failure to distinguish between raw intelligence and nuanced thinking that is the chief rap against Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, and his neocon band of intelligence amateurs in the Defense Department's Office of Special Plans.

That said, I don't exclude the possibility that the CIA cooked the reports it fed higher-ups. And if it did, it's possible that the reason was incompetence, or it may have been pressure from the White House. But the existence of contrary raw intelligence, alone, is not a smoking gun—although it certainly raises questions about why the CIA chose to believe the people who lied to it.

If it turns out that the CIA's decision not to credit the people who said there were no WMD's was pivotal to the decision to go to war, does that make the Iraq War all the CIA's fault? Clearly not, since there was enormous pressure to attack Iraq from Cheney, Bush, and especially the neoconservative crazies at the Defense Department. But in light of George Tenet's quoted statement that the case for Iraqi WMD's was a 'slam dunk', it doesn't look good.

If it does turn out that the CIA got it wrong without reason, will anyone revive the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's peacetime suggestion that we abolish the C.I.A. and start over?

Update: Talking Points Memo sees this as a cynical leak, another round in the CIA vs. White House war. I'm sure that's right. But even so, I'm not sure the CIA is covered in virtue here. In other words, sure it's an evil partisan leak. Yes, the article is poor journalism as it lacks both relevant contextual information and also any reaction from neutrals (and little from CIA partisans). But that, even plus the ample evidence of Admnistration misdeads, doesn't prove there's also nothing to worry about in how the CIA behaved.

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One Response to Intelligence: the Raw and the Cooked

  1. Night Owl says:

    If it turns out that the CIA’s decision not to credit the people who said there were no WMD’s was pivotal to the decision to go to war, does that make the Iraq War all the CIA’s fault?

    Does anyone seriously believe that even had Bush known of this alleged information, he would have slowed, in any way, his rush to war in Iraq? Bush had been planning the invasion of Iraq from DAY ONE of his Administration, and no amount of contrary WMD evidence, no matter when it was received or how compelling, would have kept Bush from his war.

    Indeed, if all it would have taken for the war to be called off was a few second or third hand accounts from the family members of Iraqi scientists, then what does that say about the quality of evidence in support of WMD?

    Bush didn’t care about the facts before the invasion, he was just looking for a political pretext to justify his aggression. Now he’s looking for an excuse to justify this faulty pretext. But whatever Bush claims now, the factual truth about Iraq’s WMD was never ‘pivotal to the decision to go to war’.

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