One of the puzzling questions hanging over the Iraq war is: how did the intelligence turn out to be so wrong? Critics of the Iraq policy have charged that intelligence was manipulated by Bush administration officials to win public support for going to war. It is a charge that is vehemently denied by the administration. Now a former intelligence insider has reignited that debate.
For 28 years, Paul Pillar labored deep within the Central Intelligence Agency, eventually rising to become National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. But, upon retiring recently from the CIA, he did something intelligence officers generally shy away from -- he went public.
In an article for the highly respected journal Foreign Affairs, he alleged the Bush administration had selectively chosen bits of intelligence -- "cherry-picking," in intelligence parlance -- to justify its already made decision to go to war.
The article has set off a firestorm, as the administration has repeatedly and vehemently denied manipulating intelligence. Late last year, Vice President Dick Cheney said this: "What is not legitimate, and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible, is the suggestion by some U.S. senators that the president of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence."
The intelligence failure on Iraq -- weapons of mass destruction that the administration insisted Saddam Hussein had turned out not to exist -- acutely embarrassed the intelligence community. Intelligence officers have insisted that they did not "cook" or distort the intelligence to satisfy the administration.
In a VOA interview, Paul Pillar says administration officials wanted to demonstrate some substantive link between Saddam Hussein's regime and al-Qaida, when in fact, he says, no such links existed.
"The main thing that happened there, particularly with reference to this issue of, was there a relationship between the Saddam regime and al-Qaida -- was a selective use of bits and pieces of reporting to try to build the case that in this case there was some kind of alliance without really reflecting the analytic judgment of the intelligence community that there was not."
In his U.N. presentation in 2003, Secretary Powell spoke of alleged contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida.
"Some believe, some claim these contacts do not amount to much,” said Mr. Powell. “They say Saddam Hussein's secular tyranny and al-Qaida's religious tyranny do not mix. I am not comforted by this thought. Ambition and hatred are enough to bring Iraq and al-Qaida together, enough so al-Qaida could learn how to build more sophisticated bombs and learn how to forge documents, and enough so that al-Qaida could turn to Iraq for help in acquiring expertise on weapons of mass destruction."
In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute late last year, Vice President Cheney again strongly denied the intelligence had been manipulated and that any suggestion that it was a lie.
Paul Pillar says while there was no direct pressure to alter intelligence analyses on Iraq, he argues that the administration's determination to go to war created a climate that choked off objectivity and squelched dissenting views among intelligence analysts.
"If, instead, the analyst is operating in an environment in which he knows decisions have already been made, in which he knows the policymaker has a particular preference for what would suit his purposes in mustering support for that decision -- well, that's an entirely different sort of thing.” Mr. Pillar told us. “And it certainly reduces any inclination analysts may have to challenge a conventional wisdom or a consensus judgment, as we had on Iraqi W.M.D."
Pillar says he doesn't want to rehash the past, but provoke a debate on how to fix relations between the intelligence community and policy makers before the next major crisis.
"What I have in mind is looking forward and having a relationship between two parts of our government that is sound enough and healthy enough and proper enough that the next time a very difficult, sticky issue comes up like Iraq, that we will see that relationship work well."
Even now, debate is underway about the nature and extent of Iran's nuclear program. It is a debate, says Paul Pillar, that could benefit from the missteps on the road to war in Iraq.