Sometimes the CIA is Right

With the CIA under fire once again—this time for pre-9/11 failures—it is also important to know what the agency got right. Its assessments of post-Saddam Iraq were dead-on and deserve attention.

What comes to mind when someone mentions intelligence and the Iraq War? Why, of course, the intelligence estimate on Iraqi unconventional weapons programs that was excoriated in a 500-page report that the Senate Intelligence Committee issued with much fanfare in July 2004, was further torn apart in another 500-page report by a presidentially appointed commission, and has been the object of scorn and vilification ever since.

But the weapons estimate was one of only three classified, community-coordinated assessments about Iraq that the intelligence community produced in the months prior to the war. Don't feel bad if you missed the other two, which addressed the principal challenges that Iraq likely would present during the first several years after Saddam's removal, as well as likely repercussions in the surrounding region. After being kept under wraps (except for a few leaks) for over four years, the Senate committee quietly released redacted versions of those assessments on its website May 25, as Americans were beginning their Memorial Day holiday weekend.

I initiated those latter two assessments and supervised their drafting and coordination. My responsibilities at the time as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia concerned analysis on political, economic and social issues in the region. A duty of any intelligence officer is not only to respond to policymakers' requests but also to anticipate their future needs. With the administration's determination to go to war having become painfully clear during 2002, I undertook these assessments to help policymakers, and those charged with executing their policies, make sense of what they would be getting into after Saddam was gone. Following a common practice of the National Intelligence Council with many self-initiated projects, we got a policy office-in this case the State Department's Policy Planning Staff-to provide cover of sorts by agreeing to be listed as the customer of record.

The tremendous notoriety the estimate on weapons programs achieved has been all out of proportion to any role it played, or should have played, in the decision to launch the war. The administration never requested it (Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee did), its public line about Iraqi weapons programs was well-established before it was written, and as the White House later admitted, the president (and the then national security adviser) did not even read it-nor did most members of Congress. Opposition to the war among many at home and abroad who shared the misperceptions about Iraqi weapons programs demonstrated that those perceptions did not, contrary to the administration's enormous selling effort, imply that a war was necessary.

In contrast, the other two assessments spoke directly to the instability, conflict, and black hole for blood and treasure that over the past four years we have come to know as Iraq. The assessments described the main contours of the mess that was to be, including Iraq's unpromising and undemocratic political culture, the sharp conflicts and prospect for violence among Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, the Marshall Plan-scale of effort needed for economic reconstruction, the major refugee problem, the hostility that would be directed at any occupying force that did not provide adequate security and public services, and the exploitation of the conflict by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

The Senate committee report released two weeks ago revealed sharp partisan divisions, so sharp that the only evaluative comments are in separate statements by majority and minority members. The focus of the political clash was on what heed the Bush Administration should have taken of the intelligence community's judgments. The two sides even disagreed over including in the report a list of who received the assessments.

The story of these pre-war assessments has other implications that are at least important, however, including ones for current debate over Iraq policy. The assessments support the proposition that the expedition in Iraq always was a fool's errand rather than a good idea spoiled by poor execution, implying that the continued search for a winning strategy is likely to be fruitless. Some support for the poor execution hypothesis can be found in the assessments, such as the observation that Iraq's regular army could make an important contribution in providing security (thus implicitly questioning in advance the wisdom of ever disbanding the army). But the analysts had no reason to assume poor execution, and their prognosis was dark nonetheless. Moreover, amid the stultifying policy environment that prevailed when the assessments were prepared-in which it was evident that the administration was going to war and that analysis supporting that decision was welcome and contrary analysis was not-it is all the more remarkable that the analysts would produce such a gloomy view.

A second observation-bearing in mind how long it took for these assessments to be made public-is that evaluation of the intelligence community's performance tends to be heavily politicized, with much criticism having more to do with agendas and interests of the critics than with anything the intelligence community does. The two assessments, which contained very little sensitive reporting, should have been far easier to declassify than the Top Secret estimate on weapons. Yet it has taken almost three more years, and a change in party control in Congress, to release them or any report based on them. (But give the Senate committee credit for even belatedly doing something that neither its House counterpart nor the executive branch did.)

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