Revisiting the 2002 NIE

Paul Pillar and Colin Powell, unlike four presidential candidates, actually read the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's unconventional weapons program.

Former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia Paul R. Pillar's article in National Interest online, "The Other Intelligence Assessments on Iraq", has garnered attention throughout the blogosphere. In the article, Pillar argued that: "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." In reference to two recently published intelligence reports on post-Saddam Iraq from 2003, Pillar wrote: "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."

Writing at Powerline, John H. Hinderaker critiqued Pillar's analysis:

Taken in their entirety, the Intelligence Council's reports cannot be seen as prescient. They said that the road to democracy would be hard and there was potential for violence. Well, sure. But, when we look at the details of the agencies' predictions, we find that, where they were not hopelessly hedged, they were wrong at least as often as they were right.

Though Hinderaker admitted, "I have no idea how much weight President Bush gave to these intelligence reports." Not much, Pillar thinks. President Bush's tenure is coming to an end, so more important is how much weight did our present aspirants to the presidency give these intelligence reports?

Former-Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on Meet the Press on June 10, discussed in detail the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that dealt with Iraq's unconventional weapons program. Regarding his February 6, 2003 address at the United Nations, which was largely based on the NIE, he said:

And so I went to the UN having dumped a lot of stuff on the side of the road because it wasn't multiple source. It might have been right, but it wasn't multiple source and I wouldn't use it. And the reason you see Director Tenet sitting behind me is because I wanted to make sure and he wanted to make sure that people understood I was not making a political statement. I was making a statement of the facts as we knew them.
Now, those same facts, that same set of facts, was available to the Congress the previous fall in the National Intelligence Estimate that the Congress asked for. But I notice a lot of candidates are now saying they didn't read it. But it was up there and they asked for it.

Senators and Congressman probably attended countless briefings with intelligence analysts and policy experts in preparation to vote for or against the authorization of force against Iraq. So, what difference could the October 2002 NIE possibly have made in the decision-making process?

Quite a big one. In November 2005, former-Senator and Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham took to the pages of The Washington Post to explain the 2002 NIE and its impact on his vote against authorizing the use of force in Iraq:

There were troubling aspects to this 90-page document. While slanted toward the conclusion that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction stored or produced at 550 sites, it contained vigorous dissents on key parts of the information, especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein's will to use whatever weapons he might have, the estimate indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.

One would hope that those senators in office in 2002-2003 who seek the presidency in 2008 studied the NIE in as much detail as Graham, seeking out all the available information to make an informed decision. One would be disappointed.

While moderating the most presidential debates, CNN's Wolf Blitzer raised the issue with candidates of both parties(emphasis added):

WOLF BLITZER: Senator Clinton, do you regret voting the authorize the president to use force against Saddam Hussein in Iraq without actually reading the national intelligence estimate, the classified document laying out the best U.S. intelligence at that time?
HILLARY CLINTON: Wolf, I was thoroughly briefed. I knew all the arguments. I knew all of what the Defense Department, the CIA, the State Department were all saying. And I sought dissenting opinions, as well as talking to people in previous administrations and outside experts.

You know, that was a sincere vote based on my assessment that sending inspectors back into Iraq to determine once and for all whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and using coercive diplomacy was not an unreasonable act.