Bush blaming intelligence for Iraq debacle is cowardice

By Ian Allen | intelNews | 12.10.2008
Bush talks to ABC News
US PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH commented on ABC News last week that the biggest regret of his Presidency is “the intelligence failure in Iraq” and that he “wish[es] the intelligence had been different, I guess”. This response by the President to a question concerning his Presidency’s “do-overs” represents the ultimate political cowardice. In blaming the intelligence services for the Iraq invasion debacle, George Bush knows that, as a matter of standard policy, the intelligence community is unable to respond to these allegations. This is not the first time politicians choose to attribute their mistakes on “false intelligence”. Intelligence services have historically been an easy and convenient prey for politicians wishing to come out clean. However, it is the first time I can think of that a US President blames an entire war on “false intelligence” (ironically, US Presidents tend to overlook false intelligence when it serves their aims, as in the case of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident).

Clearly, the US intelligence community did mess up in its stance on Iraq. But its mistakes were primarily related to institutional policy, not intelligence formation. This became apparent earlier this week by the comments of Dr. Thomas Fingar, the recently retired Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Speaking to reporters immediately after his retirement, Fingar openly acknowledged that “the overall analysis of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities was wrong and some of the underlying intelligence false”. But he also stated that this was partly due to unrealistic time constraints set by the Bush Administration: specifically, “[t]he Bush administration ordered the report [on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction] to be produced in less than two weeks[, when s]imilar intelligence estimates can take months or years”. Fingar further observed that “it’s very hard to dislodge a mistaken interpretation once it gets into the head of a decision-maker who has used it in a speech, built it into a policy [and] conveyed it to colleagues around the world”. This is an obvious reference to the fact that the rhetoric and actions of Bush Administration officials after the 9/11 attacks preceded intelligence reports on Iraq.

When asked why the intelligence agencies did not speak out publicly against the Bush Administration’s distortion of intelligence data, Fingar resorted to the standard intelligence line that it is not the job of “intelligence analysts [...] to correct politicians’ statements that veer off the contents of secret intelligence judgments”. Doing so “carries with it the danger of turning analysts into policy advocates”, Fingar said.

To some extent, Dr. Fingar is right. There is an important reason for the clear line that technically (though not always successfully) separates intelligence gathering and reporting from policy advocacy. This separation is prudent and wise, and has to do with public accountability and policy transparency in a democracy. On the other hand, there is clearly something wrong with intelligence agency officials having no administrative right to prevent a President from illegally invading a country based on information that is known to be fabricated. Whether the Bush Administration likes it or not, the intelligence services are technically detached from the US Department of Defense. Disputation of policy decisions by intelligence officials is not tantamount to refusal to obey binding orders from a commanding officer. By repeatedly declining opportunities to distance themselves from, and expose, the Bush Administration’s flawed decision-making on Iraq, the US intelligence service leadership effectively supported it -if not with its intelligence, then politically. It will now be forcibly subjected to the final act of this tragedy, which is nothing other than their conscious demonization by a departing President who is solely concerned about his personal reputation.

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