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Director Of Censored Intelligence
October 12, 2005
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, and author of Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press).
Two recent developments at the CIA make it clear that America’s premier intelligence-gathering agency is a mess. The first, CIA director Porter Goss' refusal to implement the disciplinary recommendations contained in the agency's inspector general 9/11 performance review, will no doubt attract far more attention.
But the second development is equally significant. That is the release, with no public fanfare at all, of a version of the CIA's internal inquiry into prewar Iraq intelligence. Conducted by a panel under former CIA Deputy Director Richard Kerr, the Iraq inquiry was supposed to get to the bottom of the hype on the now-notorious claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Both of these events says a great deal about political power, self-censorship and the Bush administration's determined effort to evade accountability for either the 9/11 attacks or its premeditated war against Iraq.
Inspector Generally Ignored
Way back in December 2002, the joint congressional committee investigating 9/11 requested that the CIA's inspector general make his own review and look into the specific roles of individuals, thus going beyond the congressional inquiry's institutional focus. The 9/11 Commission adopted the same focus and made the same request. The House and Senate intelligence committees also petitioned for the report to be released. The CIA inspector general, John L. Helgerson, subsequently spent 17 months exploring every nook and cranny of the agency’s performance prior to 9/11, completing the report in June 2004. The study fell into the pile in the interregnum between the resignation of George J. Tenet and appointment of Porter J. Goss as agency director in late September.
How did Goss handle the Helgerson report? As chairman of the House intelligence committee, Porter Goss had been among those requesting the study. As CIA director, however, Goss displayed much less interest in it, treating at it as a draft document, refusing to forward the report to the committees. All this after Goss swore under oath his commitment to accountability, openness to congressional oversight, and assertion that "I will be a working stiff taking directions." The House committee, at least, sent the CIA a letter demanding the document be provided to Congress. At the time, Goss was criticized for an action that kept a negative report from the public just before the 2004 election, but he argued the individuals named in the report had not had the opportunity to respond to it, and Goss held it back from the committee.
After nearly a year of stalling, Goss finally released the report to Congress last month. He refuses to release the report to the public. Although Goss insists the report unveiled no mysteries, the indications are otherwise.
The Helgerson report is variously said to implicate a dozen CIA officers or up to 20. All agree those named include agency counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black, Deputy Director for Operations James L. Pavitt, and top boss George Tenet. All those mentioned responded to the criticisms in the report—Tenet's denunciation is said to extend to 20 pages—and changes were made in the IG report as a consequence. By then, it was August 2005. Goss gave the report to Congress but waited another six weeks—and spurned appeals from both congressional intelligence committees—to reject making it public, or indeed taking any action against the individuals named by the inspector general. In a statement on October 5, Director Goss declared that "after great consideration" he would take no personnel actions. One reason for this lack of accountability is that Goss cannot proceed further without convening personnel review boards that would be required to adjudicate the IG claims and the individuals’ responses. Clearly, this administration wants no further formal investigations.
The spin game around the Helgerson report would be amusing were it not infuriating. Goss made out the study as just another routine post-mortem. "This report unveiled no mysteries," Goss declared, and the 20 systemic problems it identified were already being addressed "through a series of reforms identified by our own workforce." That was not surprising since the "systemic" problems were largely the same ones identified already in the investigations by the joint congressional panel and the 9/11 Commission.
But Inspector General Helgerson had specifically been tasked to pursue individual accountability. By rejecting action there, Porter Goss is effectively deep-sixing the entire report, which undoubtedly contains new data on the Bush administration's pre-9/11 counterterrorism policy.
How does Goss get away with it? Presumably, Director Goss tossed the Helgerson report into the circular file out of a desire to protect CIA agents. An advocate of risk-taking by the clandestine services, at the beginning of his watch Goss promised to support spooks caught out on a limb when the going gets rough. Clearly this is what he thinks he is doing. But he leaves the public with the distinct impression the CIA is covering up for the Bush administration. Nor is the public offered any evidence to support the CIA's claims that it went to extraordinary lengths to neutralize Al Qaeda before 9/11. Instead, the denial of this report to the public gives the impression that the CIA has the same approach to accountability as the military with its interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
A Crack In Cheney's Firewall
The other example of CIA secrecy and obfuscation is the new study on prewar intelligence about Iraq. Although the study appears at first glance to shield the Bush administration from claims it manipulated intelligence to fit its policy on Iraq, it doesn’t fully succeed. Released in the CIA journal Studies In Intelligence , the review was completed in July 2004 under the direction of former CIA deputy director Richard J. Kerr. It purports to offer an overall assessment of U.S. intelligence performance. There is much in here on data collection, how requirements are set for data collection, and the techniques for drawing conclusions, but that’s not what should interest most Americans. The Kerr report's commentary on the politicization of intelligence, a criticism it rejects, is the key content. Kerr notes that the case is less one of a pre-fabricated policy seeking out only useful intelligence judgments than it is of "policy deliberations deferring to the [Intelligence] Community in an area where classified information and technical analysis were seen as giving [intelligence] unique expertise."
This might have been the case if the CIA and other agencies had developed their judgments unfettered by Bush administration officials, but the report itself notes the wide variety of contacts and the constant push for data-demands that were "numerous and intense." The Kerr report tries to finesse the issue by noting that in major crises "serious pressure from policymakers almost always accompanies serious issues." That is certainly true but it does not excuse the CIA from caving to the pressure, or Richard Cheney, Scooter Libby, Condi Rice, Robert Joseph, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and others from making the kinds of demands they did in the way they made them. The Kerr report argues that pressures were more "nuanced" because intelligence judgments on Iraqi WMD were in accord with policy preferences. But, significantly, the Kerr panel could not bring itself to fully exonerate Bush officials despite the sensitivity it knew attached to this issue. Rather, the report ultimately punted: "Whether or not this climate contributed to the problem of . . . analytic performance . . . remains an open question."
Still, the Kerr report for the first time breaks the wall of denial: admitting the effects of pressure are an open question concedes that pressures existed. Boltonization is real. That is a most important development. Nevertheless, self-censorship remains at work here—the Kerr group could not bring itself to express a clear conclusion. That too says something about readiness to speak truth to power, and the level of candor that watchdogs and the American public should expect from their intelligence community.