Lessons of the Syrian Reactor

May 1, 2013 Topic: IntelligenceNuclear ProliferationWMDSecurity Regions: Syria

Lessons of the Syrian Reactor

Mini Teaser: The intelligence failures of Iraq seriously constrained policy makers in other areas.

by Author(s): Bruce Riedel

Many in and out of the intelligence community sharply and publicly disagreed with the commission’s decision not to pursue aggressively the question of “politicization” of intelligence. Intelligence officers who retired after the war began were among the most critical of the administration. Tyler Drumheller, a twenty-five-year veteran of the clandestine service who rose to European division chief in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, wrote in 2006 that “never have I seen the manipulation of intelligence that has played out since the second President Bush took office.” Drumheller reported that intelligence suggesting there were no Iraqi WMD was overlooked or ignored in the CIA because of political pressure from the White House, especially from Cheney. He asserts that “the books had been cooked, the bets placed.”

Former director of central intelligence George Tenet was more restrained in his 2007 memoir. Although he conceded the intelligence community had made serious errors in its Iraq WMD estimates, he was less harsh on the Bush policy team. Six former intelligence officers released a letter to Tenet immediately thereafter in which they accused the former director of being “a willing participant in a poorly considered policy to start an unnecessary war. . . . You were well aware that the White House tried to present as fact intelligence you knew was unreliable.” In short, the 2007 environment was toxic with strong accusations from former senior intelligence officers that the Bush team consciously manipulated intelligence to justify policy decisions it had made independent of intelligence estimates.

Whatever the merits of the arguments on either side of this controversy, my purpose here is to probe the impact of the issue. By 2007, the controversy had created a reality in which Bush was constrained by his track record in dealing with intelligence assessments. As he puts it in his memoir, he simply had no option to take military action once the intelligence community said it had “low confidence” of a Syrian nuclear-weapons program. The policy-intelligence interface had become a public issue like never before in American history.

Cheney agreed. He concluded his account of the decision-making process in the Bush White House in 2007 with the judgment that “although the evidence about the nuclear reactor was solid, the intelligence community’s failure on Iraq was still affecting our decision making.” He added, “That experience made some key policymakers very reluctant to consider robust options for dealing with the Syrian plant.”

It can be argued that the outcome was nonetheless positive because Israel, taking the action Bush could or would not take, destroyed the reactor. It seems clear today that ensuring Syria would not possess a nuclear reactor under Assad’s despotism was the right choice, particularly in light of the political and social chaos that subsequently descended upon that country. But for America the story illustrates what happens when the policy-intelligence process breaks down dramatically and publicly. In that circumstance, American policy makers become tightly constrained politically. When policy makers lose the trust of the intelligence community and the public, the consequences are serious.

Bruce Riedel is director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues on the staff of the National Security Council.

Image: Pullquote: When policy makers lose the trust of the intelligence community and the public, the consequences are serious.Essay Types: Essay