Under Obama, Intelligence Community Still Subject to Pressure

George Slam Dunk TenetAs we all know, in making the case for the Iraq War, the Bush administration pressured the U.S. intelligence community to massage intelligence to its own ends. Vice-President Cheney’s people were notorious for showing up at CIA headquarters to lean on Langley. Highlights include former CIA director George Tenet’s declaration that WMD evidence was a “slam dunk” and the Niger yellowcake debacle. Apparently, though, Bush & Co. was not the only administration capable of showing more concern with political implications than national security.

At Huffington Post, Kristen Breitweiser, the courageous 9/11 widow who helped prompt the creation of the 9/11 Commission, draws our attention to a section of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars that has been overshadowed by his revelations over Afghanistan decision-making. She explains that she “once spent a large amount of time fighting for the release of information related to the 9/11 attacks. One document, in particular, was a primary focus — the August 4, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).”

You remember Condoleezza Rice’s moment of glory in 2004 when she was forced to read the PDB’s title to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In the United States.” Ms. Breitweiser continues.

Welcome to October 2010, where . . . Obama’s Wars . . . details an incident of the Obama administration and their handling of one particular PDB. . . . According to Woodward, the PDB said: “At least 20 al Qaeda converts with American, Canadian, or European passports were being trained in Pakistani safe havens to return to their homelands to commit high-profile acts of terrorism.” Woodward goes on to state [then Director of National Intelligence] Dennis Blair “thought the reports were alarming and credible enough that the President should be alerted.”

And then Woodward adds this alarming vignette about former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “Rahm Emanuel summoned Blair to his office after the al Qaeda report had been briefed. ‘Why’d you put that in the PDB?’ [Emanuel] asked. . . . “You’re just trying to put this on us, so it’s not your fault.”

To which Blair responds, according to Woodward, “No, no. I’m trying to tell you. I’m the President’s intelligence officer and I’m worried about this, and I think I owe it to him — and you — to tell him.”

Perhaps solace can be derived from Emanuel’s exit from the White House. Harkening back to the Bush administration, many remain unaware that it continued to lean on the intelligence community to soften its assessments during its conduct of the war as well. In his book Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures From Baghdad to the Pentagon (Ballantine Books, 2008), A.J. Rossmiller places the reader right smack in the middle of an intelligence community, in his case the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency as an analyst, trying to function under that kind of pressure. Random excerpts follow.

A process that inhibits analysts’ ability to do their job correctly, and that hurts the ability of decision makers to see and act on accurate, unadulterated assessments, is crippling to the safety and security of Americans and to a capable and effective foreign policy. [My superior] didn’t like the “too pessimistic” material we produced, so he created his own briefing team from scratch, grossly narrowing the perspectives he received . . . Every single time I heard “That’s too pessimistic,” it was a reminder that agreement with the majority . . . was more important than . . . accuracy.

When people asked me, as they often did, whether I was glad I went to Iraq, I usually said that I thought I had done more good than harm. . . . But as the weeks and months progressed, I continued to ask myself if . . . my presence was helping validate the broken system. The individual ideologies and the desire to please (or fear of aggravating) superiors in the chain of command were insidious forces, and they were not only perpetuating the errors of the past, but in fact reinforcing them.

As I was trying to decide whether to leave. . . . I felt somewhat freed [of concern over my] career prospects, so I was increasingly taking on more controversial issues. I tried to write about civil war indicators, but the paper was killed. . . . Then I wrote a comprehensive assessment of increased Shia dissatisfaction with the United States; after weeks of work that, too, was shelved, and I was told that the ruling Shia would “come around.” . . . Good thing civil war and conflict with Shia leadership never became problems.

Finally . . .

I’d worked much of my life to get a job like the one I had just quit . . . . and I desperately wanted to work for my country. But not like this. Not providing cover for a morally and strategically bankrupt set of leaders, and not as part of a system that was inverting its vital purpose by fitting analysis to policy instead of the other way around.

As with the Emanuel-Blair incident, we can never hear enough of these cautionary tales to guard against intelligence analysis ever becoming warped in the wholesale fashion it was during the Bush years.