To the literature on deception in war, we must now add a new chapter -- on self-deception. For that is the ultimate explanation for how the U.S. military went to war in Iraq in 2003 equipped with gas masks and chemical-biological suits to protect itself against weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
The presidential commission that released its report Thursday was scathing about this intelligence failure. It described an intelligence community that is "headstrong," "too slow" and "a community in name only." It dissected reports that were "riddled with errors," "disastrously one-sided" and relied on information from "sources who were telling lies." The commission's conclusion was simply worded but devastating: "The harm done to American credibility by our all too public intelligence failings in Iraq will take years to undo."
The report blamed everyone involved in the WMD fiasco except the Bush administration officials who actually made the decision to go to war. "We were not authorized to investigate how policy-makers used the intelligence assessments they received," the commission said.
That omission is unfortunate. If there is one thing that has become clear in the history of U.S. intelligence over the past 50 years, it's that the CIA is not, in fact, a rogue agency. It is shaped, often to a fault, by the priorities and pet projects of whoever is in the White House. Intelligence supports policy, but it doesn't make it.
The Bush administration must examine its own role in the process of self-deception over Iraqi WMD, above all to guard against future mistakes. It wasn't Saddam Hussein who deceived America; he claimed repeatedly that he had no WMD. It was America that deceived itself. The commission said it didn't find evidence of any direct political pressure on analysts to skew their judgments. But it hints at the real-life atmosphere in which the disastrous mistakes were made: "It is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."
The self-deception began with the intelligence community's failures prior to the 1991 Gulf War in assessing how far Iraq had advanced in its nuclear and chemical weapons programs. "Shaken by the magnitude of their errors, intelligence analysts were determined not to fall victim again to the same mistake." So they made a new one, which was to assume the worst possible case about Iraq's WMD. They wove together suppositions, preconceptions and shreds of real information. Incredibly, in the egregious case of a defector to Germany who had provided fabricated "intelligence" about Iraqi mobile biological labs, the CIA passed the information to policy-makers without ever confirming it independently.
When it came time to write the decisive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD in October 2002, the analysts took their assumptions "and swathed them in the mystique of intelligence, providing secret information that seemed to support them but was in fact nearly worthless, if not misleading."
One of the valuable services of the report is that it offers a clear plan for the new DNI-designate, John Negroponte, in how to put the pieces together coherently.
The commission's most important recommendation is to create at the CIA a new Human Intelligence Directorate (HID). The present Directorate of Operations (DO) would be subordinate to the HID, which would study unconventional ways to gather information. This recommendation seems an attempt to break the DO's cultural hegemony within the intelligence community, and I'm afraid it's necessary. These secret warriors have served the country bravely, but as the commission notes, they have "an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations." That must stop.