Monday, April 17, 2006

Hide-and-Seek History

Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations in February 2003 to make the case for an invasion of Iraq. He advanced a number of claims, including statements about Iraq’s nuclear threat, which turned out to be untrue. In September 2005, he expressed regret over the episode, saying that it had damaged his reputation. Though he accepted responsibility for his presentation, he blamed his mistakes on lower-level intelligence personnel.

Now, Powell reportedly contends that he and State Department experts never believed Iraq was a nuclear threat.

On the day of Powell’s U.N. address, a British Defense Intelligence Staff document undermining his account of Iraq and al Qaeda was leaked to the press, reportedly as retaliation from a group within British intelligence who were angered by the selective use of information to support pre-determined decisions. Later, the “Downing Street Memos” emerged, confirming an agreement between England and the U.S. to “fix” intelligence around the decision to attack Iraq.

Why was contradictory information coming out of England? I thought Britain was, if not America’s ally, certainly Bush’s ally. Is there a faction of British intelligence opposed to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s policies? What’s going on?

In this short essay, and in subsequent installments, I hope to convey a sense of what’s going on — the myriad ways in which modern intelligence agencies may function. My focus will be on the C.I.A. because a great deal is known about past Agency operations. But the C.I.A. isn’t the only U.S. agency with covert capabilities. Furthermore, there are other countries in the world — England, for instance — with clandestine agencies.

A surprisingly relevant example comes from Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the C.I.A. provided him with inflated estimates of Soviet military spending to justify Reagan’s military budgets.

When the estimates finally came into question, the Agency reviewed the process by which such estimates are generated. A string of former Directors, including George Herbert Walker Bush, Sr., provided information and somewhat disturbing conclusions. The C.I.A., they said, is so secretive and compartmented that it is not possible for a Director to know everything the Agency is doing.

Obviously, that assessment could be viewed as self-serving because it smacks of plausible deniability: All of them could claim that they never wittingly passed false information to the President.

On the other hand, the assessment is plainly true, which leads to an unpleasant thought. It is an admission that, to an uncertain degree, intelligence is out of control. Or to put it another way, control doesn’t reside where one might think.

It is commonly assumed that the C.I.A. works for the President. The interaction, however, is vastly more complicated than that. At the risk of over-generalizing, it is more accurate to say that the intelligence community works for shifting alliances within the ruling elite. If a President enjoys the support of a significant faction of the elite, then the C.I.A. will generally work for him. If a President is opposed by the powers that be, the C.I.A. will oppose him, too.

Within those parameters, there is a broad range of possibilities. Consider a recent controversy, George Bush, Jr.’s apparent declassification of portions of a national intelligence estimate (N.I.E.) to rebut critics of the invasion of Iraq. Supposedly, Bush did not authorize the information to be leaked to reporters, though it is difficult to see how he expected to influence public opinion if the public could not learn about the estimate. In any case, the debate over his power to selectively declassify material overshadowed a much larger issue. The leaked information was inaccurate, and intentionally so, to justify the planned invasion. Several key administration claims — the Niger uranium story, the aluminum tubes story, the mobile laboratories story and more — were known to be suspect before Powell’s U.N. address and before Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address. And of course, the related exposure of C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame is still under investigation.

The federal intelligence apparatus is not a monolithic entity. A number of agencies generate intelligence, and loyalties can be split in many ways. The entire “weapons of mass destruction” story looks very much like an example of agencies in conflict, and the bad guys won. The administration demanded falsified evidence. C.I.A. Director George Tenet assured Bush that the case against Iraq was a slam-dunk while Agency analysts were reaching the opposite conclusion. Once it became clear to the public that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what happened? The administration blamed the C.I.A. for faulty intelligence; and Bush gave Tenet a medal!

The U.S. intelligence apparatus went through similar gyrations over the Tonkin Gulf incidents in 1964, when Vietnamese P.T. boats supposedly attacked a U.S. ship on the high seas. The cover-up of that hoax continues to this day, as evidenced by last year’s disclosure of a National Security Agency report on the Gulf of Tonkin intelligence.*

And in the mid-1990s, the U.S. declassified material on Pearl Harbor that proved beyond doubt the “surprise attack” was no surprise.**

In the examples related above, prevailing intelligence coalitions supported executive agendas; but that hasn’t always been the case. Sometimes, in service to narrow interests, elements of the intelligence community have attacked sitting Presidents. And sometimes, Presidents have used intelligence coalitions to manipulate the people.

Our government is composed of three branches regulated by various checks and balances because our founders understood that every one of us lives every day with an internal system of checks and balances which cannot be relied upon to produce right behavior.

Since our revolution, and particularly since World War II, intelligence entities have grown so numerous and capable that they constitute a fourth branch of government. We live in a grey world of half-heroes and half-villains, a world of deniable decisions based on debatable information from anonymous sources. Time after time after time, hidden forces dramatically affect events in ways the public never learns — or learns only when it was much too late. We can’t “vote the bastards out” thirty years after the fact. And most of them aren’t elected officials anyway.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote about the growing centralization of government functions and the risk of drastic change in the political processes of the country. It was not an idle concern. The need for an informed citizenry, able to balance trust and skepticism, has never been greater — because today, as ordinary citizens, we simply cannot know who the intelligence community is serving at any given moment.

Overestimating the power of secrecy is an error, but underestimating it is a danger. Secrecy may be required from time to time, but it always presents a threat to democracy. It defeats citizen participation by turning us into spectators at a shadow play.

* “Operation Plan 34-A,” The Chair-Herding Pictures, 12/8/2005
** “A Small Price to Pay,” The Chair-Herding Pictures, 8/29/2005

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