Sunday, November 13, 2005

Access to Intelligence

On Veteran’s Day, President Bush made a speech strikingly similar to one he made a couple months ago in order to regain public confidence in the war in Iraq with one major exception. Bush launched a scathing attack on the Democrats who have accused him of misleading the American people into the war, arguing that it is “deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” Although it is true that the anti-war movement and the extreme left are perhaps guilty of being unfair in their attacks on the war for failing to acknowledge Congressional complicity with the war, mainstream Democrats and moderate liberals have been fair in calling the conduct and strategy of the war into question and indicating in hindsight the lack of adequate evidence for WMDs in Iraq should have been more closely examined prior to the war. Bush failed to point out that the war resolution that “more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate” had voted for only authorized the use of force, if necessary, to disarm Iraq and made no mention whatsoever of “removing Saddam Hussein from power.” This is an important distinction, especially considering what happened in the first Gulf War, and Bush’s campaign promise to not engage in nation building. In addition, many concerns were voiced by various members of Congress of the Administration’s decision to withdraw U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq prior to the war resolution despite the objections of Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, and the governments of France and Germany to allow the inspections to be completed.

The most important points Bush made was that the Democrats in Congress “had access to the same intelligence” and that “intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein.” These statements are not entirely true. Although members of Congress do indeed have access to much of the same intelligence, members of the executive branch are more accustomed to dealing with matters of national security and are consistently in contact with the intelligence community. It used to be true that Congress had little access to intelligence until Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal resulted in an expansion of intelligence access from executive privilege to congressional access on a need to know basis. However, the Intelligence Community (IC) remains deferential to the executive branch in passing on the most critical and sensitive intelligence information, often consulting with it before briefing members of Congress. In fact, if a member of the executive branch believes the information being provided by the IC is incomplete or inaccurate, the IC will review the information before passing it on to Congress. Often intelligence is limited to members of various intelligence oversight, national security, and appropriations committees that must deal directly with classified information or intelligence agencies. On the other hand, most members of the executive will have access to the same “raw” intelligence as soon as it becomes available to the IC, while relevant filters are applied to the same information by the time it reaches members of Congress. Clearly, the President, who receives daily briefings from the IC, still has access to more current, sensitive, and unfiltered information than do many members of Congress at any given time. The level of national security clearance provided members of the executive exceed that of members of Congress, who do not have a clearance level, but receive relevant filtered information because of their elected status and as required to make decisions regarding the declaration of war and drafting appropriate legislation.

The other point regarding foreign intelligence agencies is only partially true. Even Bush’s closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, had access to intelligence that refuted some of the evidence that suggested Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his weapons programs, but chose to ignore it. The British Government’s Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002 clearly indicates “the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran.” Our own CIA was split on some of the evidence, especially the claims of a British intelligence source that Saddam had attempted to acquire materials used for uranium enrichment from Niger, later proven to be false, yet still allowed to be used in the President's State of the Union Address in 2003. There is no denying that false information was used in the case for war, admitted to by both the IC in our own country, as well as other foreign intelligence agencies. The corruption within the U.N. oil for food program notwithstanding, the intelligence sources available to each member nation were in conflict within each agency and with one another, far from unanimous in their assessment of the Iraq threat. Nevertheless, the evidence presented to both the American and British people was clearly one sided, and did not include any dissenting information that was present within the IC both here and abroad. This is the definition of cherry-picking evidence for political means, something historically used by members of Congress according to the IC, but the reverse appears to be true this time. The caveats in the National Intelligence Estimate were completely ignored. Clearly Bush’s pre-war claim of the “imminent threat” posed by Saddam was an exaggeration of the facts made available by the IC even at that time.

Finally, numerous Administration officials, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former Director of the CIA George Tenet, members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Democrats in Congress who voted for the war resolution have all publicly either admitted to and apologized for the use of false information, or expressed regret for supporting the use of force in hindsight. The Administration’s pre-war claims that the troops would be greeted as liberators, the war would be short lived, and WMDs would be found all turned out to be false. The conduct of the war has even been criticized by members of the President’s own party, including John McCain, who has joined many others in calling for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and believes there is an inadequate number of troops present to secure Iraq, especially the borders shared with Syria. The prisoner abuse scandals have only aggravated the situation we face in a struggle we must win, making it even more critical that foreign support of Iraqi security and reconstruction is encouraged and strict guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in upheld. Our image and credibility in the world is as critical to our success in Iraq as our military strategy.

Important source links:

Congress as a User of Intelligence:

Bush Tries to Gag Critics in Veterans Day Speech:

Transcript 11-11-05 - Bush’s Speech on Iraq and Terrorism:

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