WARREN BASS: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.
I’d like to welcome you to this evening’s meeting with Paul Pillar. My name is Warren Bass. I have always aspired to be Gideon Rose, though I’m afraid I’m not Gideon Rose. He sends his regrets and is trapped on the tarmac at LaGuardia, so I’ve been asked to pinch-hit for him. I’m an old colleague of Gideon’s from Foreign Affairs Magazine. I’m currently working as an editor at The Washington Post in the paper’s Book World section. It’s a pleasure to be with you tonight.
Before we get started, I’d ask you to turn off your cell phones, your BlackBerrys, any other hardware you may be carrying around with you—or at least set them on “stun.”
I would like to remind you that this meeting is—unlike many council meetings, this is on the record, so both your questions and Dr. Pillar’s answers will be in the public domain.
And with that, let me turn to our guest, who as you know, has done—had not only a distinguished career inside the U.S. intelligence community as a career intelligence professional with a particular expertise on the Middle East, Iraq and terrorism, but has complicated his post-intelligence community life by writing a highly influential piece in Foreign Affairs. As an editor of Foreign Affairs, I can say with some authority that not everything that we used to publish winds up on page one of The Washington Post above the fold. Let me—(laughter)—much to our regret.
Let me just start it off by saying, you were—as the national intelligence officer for the Middle East between the highly momentous years of 2002 to 2005, you had a remarkable ringside seat into the Bush administration’s deliberations about whether to go to war in Iraq. You’ve written in Foreign Affairs that what was striking about the use of intelligence, to some degree, was not so much how it was used but to the degree to which it was ignored. You write that if there was any policy implication to the bulk and thrust of U.S. prewar intelligence on Iraq, it was to carry on with the containment policy that, you argue, had been keeping Saddam more or less boxed up.
Perhaps we can get the ball rolling tonight by asking you, as you saw it, on what basis the United States invaded Iraq. (Laughter.)
PAUL PILLAR: Well, I give the administration, in the view of some of the people who responded to what I’ve written, too much credit, but I really believe this: that the main motivation for Operation Iraqi Freedom was to stir up the politics and economics of the Middle East and use regime change in Iraq as a stimulus for regime change and other kinds of changes elsewhere in the region, leading to more open political and economic structures.
In short, the rhetoric that we have heard more recently from the administration, including President Bush’s eloquent second inaugural address about democratization, I believe is sincere and honest with regard to the major reasons and major motivations.
Now as I say, some people take a more cynical view and think I should take a more cynical view, but based on my readings of the policy track we follow, I think that was the basic motivation.
BASS: All of which is to—there’s not a lot in that second inaugural address about WMD. There’s an argument about problems in Arab politics as being the root-generator that produced al Qaeda and led to what the inaugural calls “a day of fire” on 9/11. When you were—is it then—just to drill on this a little further. Your view that, in fact, the overriding impetus for going to Iraq was this concern about the shape of Arab politics and the attempt to change those political dynamics, and neither, in fact, Iraq’s WMD program nor the question of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.
PILLAR: Well, the WMD—I mean, I think we’ve had a couple of bits of testimony from major administration policymakers. Mr. Wolfowitz had an interview in Vanity Fair, which has been replayed a number of times, in which he said, basically, well, the WMD issue was one we could all agree on inside government; that’s why we pushed that, you know, as the major public rational. I think Mr. Feith in an interview in The New Yorker that was published last year said essentially the same thing.
And then with regard to the terrorism side of it, well, I think that’s rather clear what was going on. We had 9/11, one of the most traumatic events—one of the most dramatic and largest mood-changing events in American history. So in the wake of that and the much more militant posture, the more militant attitude of the American public, if you wanted to sell anything—whether it’s a war in Iraq or you name it—the best way to do it would be to link to what had become after 9/11 the main concern of the American people, the main fear of the American people: terrorism and, specifically, al Qaeda.
BASS: So just to push you on that point: It’s your contention that when the vice president or other members of the administration would either—would mention 9/11 and Saddam Hussein in the same breath or near to each other that was salesmanship?
PILLAR: Yeah, of course it’s salesmanship. And it’s partly—and what I’ve written about has to do with selective use of intelligence to try to create an impression. In the case of this issue, it was the impression of an alliance—to use the words that the president used in his “mission accomplished” speech—an alliance between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
But as you said, Warren, it really goes beyond specific uses of intelligence. It was more the rhetorical coupling. The repeated mention in the same breath—Iraq, 9/11, Iraq, 9/11. Of course, we saw the implication—or rather, the result of that in public opinion polls with regard to the number of Americans who, as of, say, March 2003, that believed either that Saddam Hussein or his regime was involved in 9/11. Even though, I think, by that time the president and other senior officials had said specifically, no, we’re not trying to say that he was responsible for that particular terrorist attack.
BASS: And just to be clear: You’re saying that this was done quite wittingly, that the intelligence products that the intelligence community was handing over to the administration had made it clear that the idea of linking 9/11 and the Iraq regime—those insinuations, as you put them—were being made wittingly?
PILLAR: There was nothing that the intelligence community produced with regard to assessments of terrorism that would say that there was an alliance of that nature or even likely to be an alliance in the future. The overall judgment of the analysts who were covering terrorist topics was that with regard to this regime—that of Saddam Hussein and this particular group, al Qaeda—what you had was more in the nature of two organizations that were trying to keep track of each other. They had has some contacts in the past, years ago in Sudan. They wanted to know what each other was doing, but nothing that approached anything that could be described as an alliance or a relationship between a sponsor and a client.
BASS: In your Foreign Affairs piece, you talk about a politicized and pressurized environment between the intelligence community and the Bush administration, which, you argue, generated a fair amount of ill will. And you said that this was all done quite subtly, in the piece.
I wonder if you could explain to us, perhaps with some examples, what this looked like in the real world, what this looked like in your day to day job? How did you feel that sort of subtle pressure on a day-to-day basis, memo to memo, meeting to meeting, e-mail to e-mail?
PILLAR: Well, probably the main thing day to day—and this is something that the Silberman and Robb commission mentioned as a phenomenon they observed, although they didn’t carry the casual linkage as far as I’m carrying it—differential treatment that different draft intelligence assessments get as they go through the procedure of being coordinated and approved. And you have to remember, anything that sees light of day as a published—published in the sense of a classified paper—intelligence assessment goes through usually multiple levels of review, various supervisors, branch chiefs and so on, weighing in, approving or disapproving, remanding, forcing changes. That can be a speedy process or it can be a long, very torturous process.
And one of the things the commission observed was that assessments that tended to support or conform with the case being made for war had an easier time making it through that gauntlet than those that did not. And the only thing I’m adding to what the commission found was to pose the question, what is the most important reason why that was the case? And I think the most important reason, besides the overall mind-set that turned out to be erroneous, was the desire to avoid the unpleasantness of putting unwelcome assessments on the desks of policymakers.
BASS: So how does this actually work? Because some of the gauntlet that—you’ve described there is a gauntlet that’s within the bureaucracy of the intelligence community, not directly in the purview of the policymakers—
PILLAR: Well, it’s all within the intelligence community—what I’m talking about—yeah.
BASS: So you feel that the pressure from the policy side to give us answer A rather answer B has sort of permeated down through the bureaucracy?
PILLAR: Through every level, yes. From the most senior levels through, you know, levels like my own to the level of the working analysts. I mean, it was quite apparent from—certainly from, I would say, early 2002—if not that, mid-2002—that we were going to war, that the decision had been made, and there is other reporting to this effect that supports that. And you know, intelligence analysts, they get paid to try to make sense of, you know, government decisions. Usually it’s foreign governments, but—(laughter). But you know, it would be a pretty obtuse intelligence analyst who couldn’t have discerned by fairly early in 2002 where the U.S. government was going and what the preferences of our own government were. So it was all too apparent.
BASS: Who’s putting the screws on in this process? Who’s sending this pressure going through? The pressure isn’t done amorphously; it has to be done individually and—
PILLAR: No, but it’s not—it’s not a matter of screws, Warren. That’s where—
BASS: That’s too harsh a way of phrasing it.
PILLAR: That’s where the inquiries of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Silberman-Robb commission, which overall did an excellent job, fall a little bit short. The question was posed, basically, to analysts: Were your arms twisted? And the answer that came back, unsurprisingly, was no. Unsurprising for two reasons.
One, it’s particularly damning for any analysts to admit foursquare that his or her analysis has been politicized. I mean, that’s an even more damning admission than to say you’ve made a more mundane kind of analytic error because it gets right to your analytic and professional integrity.
Also unsurprising because, certainly in my experience, the great majority of cases of actual politicization—successful politicization—are unvariably subtle. If you get someone trying to twist arms and be blatant about it, it’s almost always unsuccessful if for no other reason than you get a bunch of analysts’ dander up and in more of a resistance mode rather than a conforming mode. So it’s not turning screws, it’s not twisting arms.
You know, one of the reasons I think that this issue of politicization has tended to be reduced to the question of turning screws and twisting arms is it’s almost looked at as some kind of game. You know, you have the intelligence team against the policy team, and the question is, was there a foul that the refs didn’t see? And if the intelligence team didn’t score points when they were supposed to score points, was it because they were fouled by the policy team?
Well, it’s not a game. The intelligence people and the policy people are supposed to be on the same team on behalf of the same national interests. And we ought to be concerned, you know, even if there are no flagrant fouls, there’s no place where the ref is going to pull out his handkerchief and throw it on the ground. We ought to be concerned any time that there is an environment created that discourages, rather than encourages, intelligence analysts from producing their best, most objective product. And even if it falls short of a flagrant foul, that’s an issue of importance.
BASS: I’m going to ask a sort of terrible copy editor’s question here, which is, you talk about an environment being created without saying who’s creating the environment. Were there certain parts of the interagency process—whether it was the Pentagon, the Office of the Vice President, State Department—were there certain agencies or certain players you feel were doing more to create this sort of more pernicious environment than others?
PILLAR: Well, it’s mainly, Warren, just the fact that I mentioned earlier, the decision had been made. It was painfully obvious to all that the decision had been made. So it doesn’t have to come down to this office or that office. I mean, you’ve mentioned two offices—two of the three that you mentioned, Office of the Vice President and Office of Secretary of Defense, who clearly were on the forefront. But again, it’s not a matter of, you know, this policymaker twisting the arm of this intelligence analyst. It’s much more a matter of the overall environment in which the whole community was working.
There have been some—because me and my brothers in the press don’t always get everything exactly right—there have been some conflicting press reports about intelligence community assessments of what postwar Iraq might look like. I wonder if you can give us a sense of what the principals were told and when they were told it about what postwar Iraq might look like, both in terms of when the community first assembled a National Intelligence Estimate—a full-blown NIE—on postwar Iraq and on other less elaborate products of the intelligence community. What did the policymakers have and when did they have them?
PILLAR: The products most germane to your question, Warren, included a couple of intelligence community assessments, which are identical to National Intelligence Estimates, except for one last level of review by the National Foreign Intelligence Board. But they involve all the same agencies, they involve the same analysts, the same community of organizations. And a couple of months before we went to war back in January 2003, the community offered on its own initiative—it wasn’t asked, but on its own initiative just as an effort to be proactive and to try to be as helpful as we could in helping the policymaker make sense of and deal with the situation that was about to be created—offered some judgments about the likely challenges that would be faced by whoever was going to be in charge in Iraq once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, as well as some of the consequences in the Middle East region would be.
And with regard to the first area, the principle challenges, the main—the biggest challenges that were highlighted by the community was that that challenge would be trying to transform Iraq, which had been under the yoke of a repressive authoritarian regime for a long time; trying to transform it into something remotely resembling a liberal democracy, that this would be very difficult, that the political culture in Iraq was not very fertile for such a transformation; that the transformation, therefore, would be long, difficult and turbulent. That the Iraqis—and this is not to say that over the long term they can’t eventually enjoy the sort of liberal democratic values that we all enjoy, but certainly in the short- to mid-term—would be constrained by that political culture in which there are no habits of loyal opposition or alternation of power and in which a whole generation of Iraqis came to equate losing power with losing their lives. That’s not a very conducive environment in which to plant the seeds of liberal democracy.
The next most important thing closely related to that that was highlighted was the fractious nature of Iraqi politics and society, characterized by ethnic and sectarian divisions that we’ve come to know all too well more recently amongst the Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs and the Kurds; that we could expect that the level of conflict amongst those communities would be high to the point of violence if you didn’t have a coalition force sitting on top of it and somehow preventing it from breaking into something akin to a civil war.
And there were other judgments, too. On the economics side, for example, the judgment that, given the oil wealth of Iraq, that challenge wasn’t quite as great as the one of political transformation. But when you bear in mind things like Iraqi debt and the reparations from the first war and so on, something akin to a Marshall Plan probably would be needed to get the Iraqi economy on its feet. Those are just some of the highlights of what was transmitted.
BASS: That document, you say, was spontaneously offered by the intelligence community without prompting?
BASS: Where did that push within the intelligence community come from? Did it come from—
PILLAR: From me.
BASS: From you?
PILLAR: Yeah. Part of the job—you know, I was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. Part of the job of NIOs and the National Intelligence Council is not to sit back and wait for requests to come in—we certainly try to respond to requests when they do come in, but to, as I say, try to be anticipatory to anticipate the sorts of problems and questions and threats and challenges that our policymakers will have to be dealing with in the weeks, months and years ahead.
BASS: And I’m inferring that your bosses thought this was the sort of proactive thing that an NIO should be doing or it wouldn’t have gotten out?
PILLAR: Of course, yes.
BASS: You also mentioned that one of the key points of that judgment was that Iraq could splinter or turn chaotic if there wasn’t a significant postwar force sitting on it. Did that document have any sense of the size that would be needed of that force?
PILLAR: I mean, that’s a blue force judgment that is not the proper thing for an intelligence assessment to say.
BASS: The atmosphere that you describe is clearly a challenging one for a career intelligence officer to work into. And you clearly felt that the intelligence community wasn’t being used properly by an administration that was facing an extremely momentous decision on our Iraq policy. Beyond this document that you’ve described as something that you initiated, did you discuss your concerns in any other ways within the intelligence community or with the Congress?
PILLAR: Well, we had sessions, of course, with interested committees, which in our case are usually the intelligence committees. I would say the Senate one tended to be the more active one under the chairmanship of former Senator Graham. And as you may recall—this is a matter of public record—the infamous NIE on weapons of mass destruction that was published in 2002 was in response to a request from those same senators. It was not a request from the administration.
They had also asked us to address a number of other issues—not just the question of stockpiles or programs for developing weapons, but also, for example, the issue of what use, if any, Saddam Hussein would make of any weapons of mass destruction he did have. And that was addressed in the infamous NIE. It was not something we were asked to look at by the administration and it was not something we were asked to make public.
One of the responses by the Senate Intelligence Committee, having received that estimate and also looking at what had been presented publicly—including a so-called white paper that we had produced at the request of the administration that laid out judgments about the weapons programs, but did not include the issue of use—one of the responses of the senators was, well, wait a minute; you’ve issued this public paper that talks about the weapons program, but here you’ve made other important judgments. We’re about to take a vote here about usage and the main judgment about usage in the estimate was that Saddam Hussein would be unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction he had, unless his regime was placed in extremis, such as if we invaded to try to overthrow him.
The senators, not surprisingly, considered this a rather important judgment and pressed us—pressed the DCI to make this public. And as a result, there was an unclassified letter—this is the form it took—an unclassified letter from the DCI to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which essentially laid out this judgment. But this was thanks to the insistence of a number of the members of that committee that that judgment was made public.
BASS: You’ve described some actions on your part in what was clearly a time you were finding it uncomfortable to do your job. Did you at any point feel that things were just so fouled up that it was actually your responsibility to think about resigning and taking these protests public?
PILLAR: A couple of points, Warren.
One, there’s very little in this article that I wrote in Foreign Affairs that is new stuff in the sense of facts that have not been reported in one form or another, even some of what I described as the prewar assessments of likely postwar challenges. A bunch of that stuff leaked out, I think it was in 2004, the one time I had my picture in The New York Times. It was a Doug Gel (ph) article that was about one of these leaks.
All I did in this most recent piece that I wrote was to pull this all together, call a spade a spade, offer some analysis on things like what constitutes politicization, and make the argument that this whole issue of intelligence-policy relations is a problem area that needs more attention than it has gotten. So with that background, I mean, the question is, I think, you know, the question—not to object to your question, Warren—but you know, I think it’s in a sense not properly framed.
You know, my job when I was still wearing the badge, like all of my other colleagues, was to provide the best possible intelligence and analysis that we possibly could to the policymakers. Sometimes we did fairly well, other times we didn’t. And you know, whatever one might think of a particular initiative—whether it’s this military expedition or anything else—the first responsibility was to try to help the policymaker make sense of problems and threats and challenges overseas, and that’s what we tried to do.
BASS: Before I turn it over to my colleagues in the audience, let me ask you one small and easy and uncomplicated last question from me.
Do you have a sense that any lessons have been learned from some of the problems that you describe in the piece and in your comments to us? To put it in another, perhaps more pointed, way, is the same syndrome that you’ve now stated your concerns about, is that still at work on our Iran policy deliberations today?
PILLAR: Well, we ought to be alert to it. And the very fact that we are alert to it—and the “we” in this case means everybody in this room—the press, the Congress, the public—is itself a kind of safeguard. But it’s good that you raised the issue of Iran because it’s important to bear in mind what we don’t know about Iran.
To a large extent, the state of our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the Iraqi weapons programs is reflected to a large degree in the state of our knowledge or lack of knowledge about the Iranian programs. There seems to be, as a matter of common currency out there, the assumption that Iran is definitely pursuing acquisition of a nuclear weapon. And so the question is, how do we delay that and how—you know, all the deliberations we read about every day involving the E-3 and the Russians and everything else.
That may be true, but we don’t know it. We don’t know that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. There are some fairly good bases for making an analytical inference, an analytical judgment that that’s the direction they’re headed—although I would be quick to raise the point that even if they’re headed in that direction now, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an irreversible direction, depending on what we do and what others do.
But the main point with regard to your question, Warren, is we don’t know that. And in testimony the other day, Ambassador Negroponte and General Maples made some references to North Korea as another example. And I had at least one journalist ask me after Ambassador Negroponte made the point that we don’t know that North Korea has nuclear weapons—I was asked, why did he say that? And my answer was I think he said it because it’s true. We don’t know. And there’s been this, you know, sort of common assumption—and again, there’s an analytical basis for making a judgment along these lines—that North Korea has, you know, enough fissile material for perhaps several weapons, but we don’t know that.
And one of the lessons, I think, from the Iraq case is to remember that what are really just analytic judgments too often get interpreted as assertions of fact. And that was true—and bearing in mind all the faults in the intelligence analysis on that subject, which the Silberman-Robb commission did an excellent job of detailing—but there was also a fault in reading it—and I’m talking about the Congress, the public, the press and everyone else reading it.
When you have a page that says “key judgments,” that’s exactly what they are—judgments, not key facts. And so we ought to apply these lessons to cases like Iran and North Korea and remember how much we don’t know.
BASS: That’s a truly sobering point to turn it over to the audience on.
Just a few reminders. I think most of you know the drill. Please wait for the mike and please speak directly into it. Please stand and give your name and affiliation and please try to keep your questions as concise as possible so we can get as many of them in.
I see Mr. Kalb.
QUESTIONER: Bernard Kalb. Two questions. I’ll talk twice as fast so I can get them both in.
Against what you said, Paul, the fact that it was painfully obvious that the decision for war had been made in connection with Iraq, do you find it to be painfully obvious that a decision for war has been made about Iran? First question.
And the second one is, in the very first paragraph of your article, you talked about, “I witnessed all these disturbing developments.” And you’ve talked about—Warren raised the question of resignation. I’m interested as well—without, I hope, encroaching on personal terrain, and we talked before the meeting got under way—what was the journey like to go from living classified to going public in revealing what you tend now to minimize in saying it’s all been known for the most part—(off mike)—reminded us all, made the front page above the fold.
PILLAR: Well, on the first question on Iran, fortunately—in my view, fortunately we aren’t on a road to war with Iran. Although I do confess to being somewhat disturbed by the number of times I hear mentioned—not by the administration necessarily, but by columnists or members of Congress - about the military options that are on the table. My own view is, whatever sense it might make to talk about the military options, we really don’t have much of an option when you consider the operation in reality of trying to do something to set back an Iranian nuclear weapons program. I think that’d be a huge, grave mistake. But I don’t think we’re on that course. It’s not comparable to Iraq.
On the second question, I guess, you know, my transition, or my journey, I benefited from the fact that it wasn’t all that abrupt a transition. I had a bit of a public profile and people on the other side of the issue, so to speak, were kind of coming after me even while I was still wearing the badge. And this dates back to 2002; for example, I gave a little talk to a class back in early 2002—it was like February—over at Johns Hopkins SAIS. It was off the record, just a classroom and guest lecturer talking about how to think about terrorism. One of the students asked me about—well, basically the question was gee, Mr. Pillar, it sounds like even though you issued the customary disclaimer at the start of your lecture that you’re not speaking in an official capacity, it sounds like you agree with basically everything that the administration’s doing in counterterrorism. And my response was, well, yeah, I agree with the great majority of it, but if you’re pressing me for where I disagree—and this was just a couple of days after the “axis of evil” State of the Union address—I said, if you’re pressing me for oh, I disagree, I would be a little more clear in maintaining the distinction between the issue of counterterrorism and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. They’ve gotten blurred together rhetorically, but I really would keep them separate.
Well, there was some—you know, some leaker, and then a couple of weeks later in Inside Magazine there was a badly garbled piece with the headline “Senior intelligence official blasts president’s speech.” And then, of course, I had subsequent treatment by people like Robert Novak, when there were further CIA leaks and so on. So I really—I didn’t suddenly come in from the cold. I was really in the heat, you know, at least from a couple of years before I retired.
QUESTIONER: Hi. I’m Wendy Frieman. I quit my job; I’m from nowhere. (Laughter.) I want to go—(laughs)—it’s true.
I want to go back to something you said early on about the intelligence assessments that got up to the top were the ones that the policymakers already agreed with. Surely this has to be as old a problem as the CIA is an old institution. Why is it worse now, and is it true across the board, and if it is, why have a CIA, and why not have a research department attached to the White House to hunt down all the facts they need to support their policy? (Laughter.)
PILLAR: Well, I think your question has a premise that’s very useful to bring out, and that is we’re not talking exclusively about one administration and one issue. What we’ve had with this administration and this issue is a particularly salient, particularly intense example of something, as your question implied, that is not totally unknown in the past. And indeed, in my article, I mention, for example, the whole Gulf of Tonkin incident or even go back to the Maine incident in the Spanish-American War.
Those of us in my generation, intelligence officer, we felt a little bit of the same sort of thing—I didn’t go back as far as the Gulf of Tonkin; I was doing other things then—but a little bit of the same sort of thing in, say, the early Reagan years, early 1980s, in which, just as more recently there was the tendency to see Saddam Hussein behind every little bit of trouble, back then there was a tendency to see Moscow behind every little bit of trouble in the third world. It didn’t become quite as intense and didn’t go as far because there wasn’t a momentous decision like initiating an offensive war that was at stake. That was at stake in this case, and I think that’s why this one was so much more intense than the others.
Now, what was the second question about—oh, why not just have a, basically a speech-writing staff? Well, we do have those, and that’s a legitimate expenditure of the taxpayer funds, I guess. But to say that you’re going to rely totally on that, as opposed to having a community of collectors and analysts who at least are supposed to and, for the most part, do strive to provide something more objective, I think would be a big mistake to just write off—
PILLAR: It applied far more intensely and obviously to the Iraq case. I think the basic reason for that is it takes an awful lot of effort to muster public support for something like initiating an offensive war, the first offensive war we’ve initiated in over a century. That’s a momentous step that wasn’t taken in the other instances.
BASS: In the middle, in the back there.
QUESTIONER: J.T. Smith of Covington and Burling. Jim Risen, I don’t even know how you pronounce his name—
QUESTIONER:—in his book has a story to the effect that 30-plus Iraqi ex-pats, at considerable personal risk, agreed to travel back to Iraq and ask friends and relatives allegedly involved in WMD programs whether there were WMD programs and safely, thank God, reported back. And according to Risen, their research did not find its way into upper-level intelligence reports. Were you witting of this effort, and were you involved in the decision not to include that intelligence in ultimate assessments, if you can comment?
PILLAR: I’ve read Jim Risen’s book, and I think it gives a pretty good sense of the atmospherics that I was talking about with regard to the inexorable march to war. The specific answer to your question is no, I was not witting and no, I was not involved in that. And I just—I can’t either vouch for or refute Risen’s version of that particular effort.
BASS: Barbara Slavin.
QUESTIONER: Barbara Slavin, USA Today.
Talk a little bit about U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda and how much damage do you think was done when President Bush put Iran on the quote-unquote “axis of evil” after the Iranians had helped overthrow the Taliban. Thanks.
PILLAR: I think one of the missed opportunities that we’ve had with regard to U.S. relations with Middle East countries has to do with the U.S.-Iranian relations. And Barbara, what you mentioned on Afghanistan was an opportunity that could have been built upon. There was a lot of cooperation, thanks not just to the Iranians, but some very skillful diplomacy by people like Jim Dobbins and Zal Khalilzad. And it’s unfortunate, in my view, that we couldn’t have built upon that in the Iraq case, where U.S. and Iranian interests are certainly in conflict in some respects, but parallel each other in other respects. But now we’ve got—I think we’ve got issues of rhetoric and tenor and attitude on both sides. There’s the Washington side, which you addressed in your question, and now we’ve got—since the Iranian presidential election with the absolutely execrable rhetoric on the part of Mr. Ahmadinejad, another hurdle to trying to repair previous damage and make good on this opportunity. I’m not very optimistic, frankly, but I’m sad that we’ve missed a possible opportunity—the “we” being U.S. and Iran—(word inaudible).
BASS: Dan Schorr.
QUESTIONER: Dan Schorr, National Public Radio.
I’ve listened to you quite fascinated. When something has happened which would not have been possible some years ago, that intelligence officers would find a loyalty, an ethic that required—(inaudible)—into the good night saying they wanted to spend more time with their families. Talk a little bit about the ethic, an almost whistle-blowing ethic, that you find in your case and a few others.
PILLAR: Well, I do want to spend more time with my family. (Laughter.) And following on my earlier comment about the fact that what I’ve written isn’t really revelations. I’m not a whistleblower. I’m a political scientist, policy analyst and essayist. My job previously, before I took off the badge last year, was to provide the best possible intelligence to whoever our policymaker was, whoever had been elected by the American people. My job now, besides teaching students, is to write cogent essays on issues of high importance. This happens to be one issue where I have some personal perspective to provide, based on my previous career.
But other than that, I consider myself—I was trying to do my job when I was wearing the badge and now I’m trying to do my current job, and I really don’t see it as much more momentous than that, even though I do think I’ve got some insights to add and I hope I’m able to stimulate something of a debate that goes beyond, you know, pro-administration versus anti-administration, Democrat versus Republican, but rather that more attention will be devoted to this issue.
You know, we had—we had the intelligence reorganization legislation in December 2004. It didn’t address this issue at all—didn’t make it worse, but didn’t make it better, either. And I’ve had some meetings with members on the Hill, I met with a couple of senators this afternoon, and part of my advice or message to them is you’re going to have to readdress some of this stuff again about where the intelligence community sits in the executive branch, what its relationships are with the policymaker and, when you do, please keep this problem in mind. It needs more discussion, it needs more debate. I know that’s a bit aggressive for your question, but it stimulated some thought.
BASS: David Corn.
QUESTIONER: David Corn from The Nation.
I’m still a little confused. When it comes (to) looking at the process that went on with the CIA and how it interacted with the policymakers, are you saying that the pressure that was felt within the CIA was internally generated in response to perhaps please policymakers? Did any of it come—was any of it sort of imposed, you know, directly or indirectly, from policymakers? Because at the end of the day, is it the issue that the NIE was wrong, or that the Bush administration didn’t care about NIE, or that the Bush administration overstated—they overstated intelligence, or is it sort of a murky combination of all for which there’s no good intelligence analysis to explain?
PILLAR: Well, what I’ve tried to describe, David, is what I labeled a dysfunctional relationship which has several facets which are really reflected in the different parts of your question. One is the issue of not making use of whatever insights, however good or poor they may be, that the intelligence community has to offer on what is even one of the most momentous foreign policy or national security decisions that this country has made in recent decades. It just wasn’t used, and the fact that something like that estimate to which you refer was not asked for by the administration is a very important fact.
It also gets to the issue of public use of intelligence in a selective way, to make a case, particularly making a case where it diverges from what is the best judgment of the intelligence community, and there I’m referring specifically to those terrorist link issues where the judgment in the community was no, there wasn’t an alliance, but things were used selectively as well as the rhetoric, the rhetorical themes that Warren mentioned earlier, to create exactly that impression in the public.
And then finally it has to do with the possible political influence, even if it’s subtle, even if it’s indirect, on the work of the intelligence community itself—which, by the way, could take the form not just of judgments being shaded, and in the case of weapons of mass destruction, where you had dozens and dozens of analysts throughout the community making all kinds of decisions about how to word this judgment or that judgment on aluminum tubes or something else, you had huge numbers of opportunities for bias to creep in—but also the question of differential treatment of assessments.
And something else we didn’t talk about, but which I do talk about in the article, and that is just the sheer amount of time and resources and attention that the community is asked to devote to particular angles—not particular topics, but particular angles. And there I have in mind, again, this idea of an alliance between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein—enormous amount of time and attention to resources devoted to that one angle, not because it was a judgment of intelligence analysts that this is where we would find the next major terrorist threat, the next 9/11 emerging, not because there was a basis for thinking there was an alliance, based on what we already knew, but because it was pressed to look at it repeatedly, given that this was part of the public case for going to war. It was all those things.
Does that answer you question—I mean, it sounds like you’re trying to get me to say, well, pin the blame on this official rather than that official, and I’m not going to do that.
PILLAR: The manifestations that I just mentioned, those are—all of those things were the results. The causes were basically two things; one, the kind of structure of the—and the fact that we have an intelligence community working for policymakers, and not having even a quasi-independent status. And everybody up and down the line, to the most junior analyst, knows that.
And secondly, that with this particular issue and this particular administration, the decision was made early on and intelligence was not used primarily to inform decisions yet to be made; it was used primarily to muster support for a decision already made. That is a fundamental distinction, a fundamental difference, that completely changes the environment in which intelligence officers, from the most senior people down to the lowest analyst, work.
BASS: Stewart Patrick.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Stewart Patrick, Center for Global Development.
It strikes me that in retrospect, Paul, one of the obviously , in terms of the public presentation of the administration’s case for going to war, the critical presentation was made by Secretary of State Colin Powell on February 5th of 2003, there was obviously a few days between the State of the Union address and Secretary Powell’s presentation. Could you give comments on, from what you saw, about the process in which that presentation was made? There are a lot of stories in the (GQ ?) and others about folks going and working sort of very late hours to try to sift through some of these things, throwing out a lot of the chaff and attempting to keep the wheat. Do you have any comments on how that process went down?
PILLAR: Well—and I, blissfully, was not directly involved, although I was trying to get other work done in the same office suite, so I kind of saw bits and pieces from people who were working on it—that particular presentation was probably the most carefully prepared and vetted of all the public administration presentations, more so than State of the Union addresses, more so than the president’s Cincinnati speech, more so than any of the vice president’s speeches.
We should all give Secretary Powell a lot of credit for making his best effort not just to take things on faith, but to spend an entire weekend of his own getting down into the nitty-gritty, and I think, given that reason, Secretary Powell justifiably feels, well, let down, if not betrayed—at least, he wasn’t well-served by other people in the government, including other people in the intelligence community.
So there were good efforts to try to vet things as well as possible, but that didn’t get over some of the breakdowns which, again, were well-identified by a couple of the inquiries, like the Silberman-Robb commission, when it came to sources like “Curveball.”
The main breakdown, as I would see it, is insufficient communication between collectors and reports officers on the one hand and analysts on the other, so that even analysts who would be dealing, in this case, with someone like the secretary of State, could not really say first-hand everything that needed to be said about the credibility of a source and the circumstances in which information was collected. That was a failure, that’s something where steps have been taken to correct it, and it was a major problem.
The only other thing I’d say is my understanding, and I believe this is more in the nature of hearsay, my understanding was with regard to the last part of the presentation about the terrorism stuff, that if it were up totally to the secretary, he would have just ditched that entirely and would have stuck to the weapons of mass destruction material. But there was strong pressure, particularly from the office of the vice president, to include something on that. And those few minutes at the end of the presentation that you heard were all that Secretary Powell could swallow.
BASS: Lest I be accused of discriminating against one Kalb brother over the other, let me take Marvin Kalb.
QUESTIONER: I think at the very beginning you said that you thought that the major reasons the administration went to war in Iraq was that it wanted to build and spread democracy in the Middle East. Why didn’t it make that case to the American people?
PILLAR: Because it’s a lot harder to make a case based on that, which is a very political-sciencey kind of thing which I think quickly would make American eyes glaze over, than it is to make a case built on fear of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds and dictators putting WMD in the hands of terrorists. Now, those themes have a rhetorical appeal and a fear factor and an impact that abstruse discussions about contagion effects in democracy and that sort of thing would never have.
But, you know, I—that is a debate I wish (we had/we’d have ?). I am a firm believer in not just public support, but in foreign public support for foreign policy and national security decision-making. And one of the reasons—well, one reason is it’s just consistent with democratic values. The American people have a right to know the real reason we make major initiatives like going to war, and even things not quite as momentous as that.
But another reason is a more pragmatic one, that if you have a completely open debate, then the strengths and the weaknesses of a rationale for a major foreign policy decision get aired; they get discussed in Congress, in the press. And that was a debate that this country never really had. It had it in a very fragmentary way among some of the elite, some columnists addressing it. And the weaknesses as well as the strengths then were not well explored.
I think there is some rationale for that basic argument, and people whom I respect who are experts on the region—some of the ones I respect, not others—thought this roll of the dice, this military operations, was worth it, because we really did have to shake up the sclerotic politics of the region. But there are certain strong arguments in the other direction, that we would see more of the kinds of effects we’re seeing today of other governments elsewhere in the region, for example, being scared by political change, seeing the mess that’s occurred in Iraq.
We should have had that debate. We didn’t, but the short answer to your question is think about what has rhetorical appeal, not to the elite, but to the mass public in this country.
PILLAR: Your words, not mine.
BASS: David Ensor.
QUESTIONER: David Ensor of CNN.
Paul, you—I forget whether it’s in the article or somewhere else that I’ve seen you speak or write, you say, you talk about-and this is my question—what’s the answer, the answer to the problem of the intelligence community being shaken this way? And you suggest the answer in one place might be to make the chief intelligence officer a little more like the FBI director, appointed for seven years, correct?
PILLAR: Well, I mentioned the Fed as a possible exemplar of it.
QUESTIONER: The Fed, okay. What I would worry about in that idea is that I would suspect we’d have a Harry Hopkins pretty quickly. You’d have somebody in the White House who would do intelligence for the president the way he’d like, or we’d have special new little intelligence branch in the Department of Defense, that we already are getting, that the Secretary of Defense likes. So what is the solution? Is it really a Fed chairman, Negroponte?
PILLAR: Well, I threw out some ideas and ’m the first to admit that this does need more discussion and debate, and there are trade-offs and practical things to consider. One of the ones is what you mentioned, David, although as you noted, we already have some of that, and how can it be worse in terms of favorite people to listen to.
I mentioned the Fed model. If you read some of the criticisms of Mr. Greenspan over his recently conclude leadership of the Fed, one could argue, if you believe some of those criticisms, that maybe it wasn’t all that independent from (administration ?) economic policy after all.
There are other practical issues, like how do you organize things so that you don’t undermine the necessary cooperation that the intelligence community has with the Defense Department, other parts of the executive branch on a whole host of issues, counterterrorism and other things. How do you make sure that you don’t increase the distance between analysts and collectors, which would just make worse the problem I alluded to a couple of minutes ago about analysts not being sufficiently plugged in on issues of credibility and sources. There are all kinds of practical issues like that.
But the main thing we need is to just face this and to recognize that it’s a problem, and not to just ask a bunch of analysts whether their arms were twisted and you get then answer, no, they weren’t, and so conclude that it’s not a problem. I’d like to take a leaf from—I mentioned this in the article—from the British, where I think in Britain the discussion of this matter has been much more forthright, much more open. You had the Butler commission report, which did address this issue and stated that in the dodgy dossier, which was the British equivalent of the U.S. white paper on Iraqi WMD—this was the conclusion of the Butler report, one of its conclusions—that intelligence and policy had been improperly commingled, and that in the future they ought to be kept more separate.
Prime Minister Blair, in his response to the commission report, he opined that he didn’t think the substance would have been all that much different anyway, but he agreed with the basic conclusion that in the future it would be a good idea to keep intelligence and policy more distinct. I’m still waiting for similar declarations to be made on this side of the Atlantic.
So step one is to recognize the problem. Step two is to explore all these practical difficulties, including the ones that you just mentioned.
BASS: Just have time to squeeze one last question in, and I’ll take it from Richard Ben-Veniste.
QUESTIONER: Richard Ben-Veniste, Mayer, Brown, Rowe and Maw, Washington, D.C.
I’d like to go back to your earlier reference to lessons learned and to the comment you made about Americans’ right to know why we go to war, and use as a case in point the false connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda as one of the justifications for the invasion.
Lessons learned. In November 2004, according to exit polls, 70 percent of the people who voted Republican in that election, for the president, believed, as they stated, that Saddam was responsible in some way for 9/11. So lessons learned on the one side I think we know.
The lesson—(off mike)—on the other side of the equation, those who know the truth, who are capable perhaps of in some way influencing the effect of propaganda, what obligation do they have—if the Americans have the right to know what obligation do those who have the information have to the American public to tell the truth, and what is the lesson learned?
PILLAR: Well, I don’t know which people you’re referring to.
Congress obviously has a major role, and I think I paid some compliments to some members for the efforts they made. I mean, I’ll name names: people like Senator Levin, Senator Durbin, former Senator Graham were very aggressive on this, doing things like trying to make public some of those judgments I referred to earlier. And I commend them, even though I was one of the people on the other side of the witness table, you know, having a real hard time in some of these sessions behind closed committee-room doors. I think they were being appropriately persistent.
Again, most—the thing—almost all of what I’m talking about was out there. This is partly a lesson not just in who has a responsibility for raising this or that point; it’s partly a lesson on what gets the collective attention of this nation and the American people. And if you want to ask why some of the things I’ve talked about that—you know, that we provided to the policymaker and, indeed, did leak out weren’t given much attention in 2003 but they’re getting lots of attention now, well, you know, three years of war and 2,300 deaths and thousands of injuries and all the other costs and casualties and difficulties has a way of focusing the national mind. And I think that’s true not just with this war, it’s true of a lot of other things as well. It’s true of the terrorism issue, which you worked on in the commission and which Warren did. It’s true of—look at Hurricane Katrina and the failure to protect New Orleans from much-predicted hurricane-induced flood. What happened, you know, before the disaster? Well, pennies are pinched, Corps of Engineers budget is being cut. What happens after the disaster? Boom, $60 billion appropriated at the flick of a gavel.
These three years have gotten the nation’s attention in a way that it didn’t have it in the mood back in 2002-2003.
BASS: There is a forest of hands that are raised that we didn’t get to, and we could certainly go on all night. It’s been fascinating have Paul spend the—you spend the time with us, Paul, both because you—of the information that you’ve offered, the bits of news you may have perpetrated, wittingly or not, and the insight into the way the mind of a terrific intelligence professional actually works. Let me thank you for spending the time with us.
PILLAR: Thank you. (Applause.)
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