Council on Foreign Relations
GIDEON ROSE: Ladies and gentlemen, would people please take their seats and quiet down so we can get started?
Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations and to our session this evening, intelligence, policy and Iraq, with Paul Pillar.
Let me say a few things about tonight’s event. Please remember to turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys and all wireless devices. Second, the meeting tonight is on the record, not off the record. Third, it’s being teleconferenced so that council members around the nation and the world can participate via secure password-protected teleconference. So you’re never that far from the council no matter where you go.
Our speaker this evening is somebody who should be a familiar name to all of you, Paul Pillar, a pronounced, major national security expert who has spent the better part of the last two decades inside the intelligence community. He’s the kind of guy who could tell you what he did, but he’d have to kill you afterward. (Laughter.) He’s recently left the community. He is now teaching at Georgetown and has written an article for Foreign Affairs, which, of course, you all read since everyone goes home and reads their Foreign Affairs the first day they get it. And he’s here to speak to us tonight about the politicization of intelligence and the general status of intelligence as it relates to Iraq and more.
The problem with someone like Paul is there’s so many questions we could get him to talk about that it’s really going to be hard to limit it. Let me start, therefore, very briefly by asking you to give a very short—(word inaudible)—of the kinds of politicization that you argue occurred in the intelligence process in the run-up to the Iraq war.
PAUL R. PILLAR: Okay, if you’re talking about politicization getting in—really, first of all, separate it into two areas—the public use of intelligence, and secondly, the possible impact on the work of the intelligence community itself.
And the first one, the public use, what we’re talking about here is a highly selective use of, in many cases, raw intelligence—you know, uninformed by analysis, which is what we pay all those analysts in places like Langley and Fort Meade and Fort Bolling—Bolling Air Force Base—to do—in which the whole intelligence policy relationship kind of got stood on its head in that you have people in the policy arena doing the picking and choosing of raw (base?) of intelligence to make a point. And intelligence officers left who register varying degrees of private protest if there were issues of credibility or whatever. So that’s one whole area.
The other area is less obvious and harder to deal with, but certainly one of at least as much concern to professional intelligence officers, and that’s the possible impact (of ?) the work of the intelligence community itself. And there, the basic lesson we need to get is that politicization is not just a matter of arm twisting. You know, we had a couple of these inquiries—the Senate Intelligence Committee with a previous report that they issued, and the Silberman-Robb commission, which I hasten to add I think overall did an excellent job in cataloging some of the shortcomings with regard to intelligence work on the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction issue.
But in both cases, on the issue of this kind of politicization, they basically asked the question to analysts, were your arms twisted? And the answer they got, not surprisingly, was no. But politicization of this type, when it does occur, is almost never that blatant. It’s not a matter of direct pressure. It’s a matter of various other, more subtle, indirect ways, such as how does the intelligence community direct its resources on, you know, one particular angle versus another angle? Is it because of judgments that intelligence officers have made as to where the actual threats are? Or is it because of a series of politically inspired questions as to things to look at in order to develop a case, in this case, for war?
It could be the almost subconscious effect on dozens of analysts throughout the community looking at dozens of different issues, from aluminum tubes to UAVs to you name it, in which there are subtle differences where it’s hard to point to any one thing, but subtle differences that reflect that political environment.
And finally—and this is something that Silberman-Robb indeed did note—there is inconsistency in how draft assessments are treated in which ones that tend to conform with the policy preferences of the day make it through the gauntlet of review and coordination more easily than those that do not. The commission did not ask them the follow-on question, why were managers treating these inconsistently? And the answer to that—rather obvious in my view—is to avoid the unpleasantness of placing unwelcome assessments on the policymaker’s desk.
So you’ve got those two broad areas—the public use and the possible impact on the intelligence community’s work itself. And in the latter case, it’s always a matter of subtle, indirect influence, not a matter of blatant twisting of arms.
ROSE: So, if this process of politicization in various guises hadn’t occurred, the picture that the intelligence community would have presented would have differed how? Perhaps it would look like Scandinavia, or what?
PILLAR: No, not at all. With regard to the weapons of mass destruction issue, it—you know, I suspect we would not have had, you know, fundamental differences in the judgments. You know, what we had was a, you know, widely shared—very widely shared—but, as it turned out, mistaken perception of the state of programs and stockpiles and so on.
Some of these after-the-fact inquiries, such as that of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appropriately zeroed in on issues of wording and nuance and caveat and emphasis. And that’s where I think the difference would have been—those subconscious or unconscious effects on those dozens of analysts writing those many different sentences and various assessments. Things would have been trimmed and emphasized a little bit differently.
But I’d hasten to add that on the two big issues on Iraq that were used by the administration, there’s a basic, fundamental difference between this one—the weapons of mass destruction issue—in which there was faulty intelligence analysis, insufficient collection in which we had a widely shared and, as it turned out, incorrect view, and then the issue of terrorism and alleged relationships or links with terrorist groups, and specifically al Qaeda, which, to put it quite bluntly, was a manufactured issue. And there, there was nothing that was produced by the community in terms of its own assessments that judged any such relationship to anything close to an alliance or a patron-sponsor relationship. Nonetheless, we’re well aware of how that issue was handled publicly and conveying the impression of an alliance, using raw bits of intelligence, which we then, you know, read in laundry lists in places like the Weekly Standard, as a basis for making that case. That was one of the more obvious instances in which that kind of politicization took place.
ROSE: Albert Hirschman famously described the responses to organizations in decline or crisis as exit, voice or loyalty, arguing that people confronted with that kind of situation can leave, can try to change things from the inside, or can just keep quiet and go with the flow. How did people respond to these pressures from above? How did you respond to them?
PILLAR: The great majority of people who were wearing the badge respond when they come to work each day by trying to provide the best possible collection and analysis of intelligence that they can and being painfully aware of some of the constraints, which become particularly acute when they have to do something like present a paper face to face to a policymaker or testify before a congressional committee on the Hill, where they are very much aware of the fact that they are representing the executive branch, that there are serious constraints. They would not treat things in the same way they would, undoubtedly, treat them if they were carrying before the same committee in a private capacity.
A lot has been made, Gideon, of certain individual stories—people who depart and resign, you know, retire early. I think a lot of that’s been overblown, quite frankly. I mean, in my own case, I retired last year. That’s exactly when I wanted to retire for 30 years. As I was telling some people during the reception, I’m a professor who was locked inside a bureaucrat’s body and I’m glad to be out of it. (Laughter.) You know, every individual’s case is different. There’s a different personal story. There’s, you know, some of my colleagues who I think have had their names in the paper as, well, an early retirement, you know, forced out—something like this. In any one instance, it might have been a case of, you know, the pros and cons between retiring now versus retiring later being almost in balance, and then one day, you know, there’s just enough to tip the balance where somebody goes home and tells his spouse, honey, now’s the time to do it; I’m going to retire. And that’s, you know, that’s not really a new story. It shouldn’t be, but a lot of news stories have been made out of this.
ROSE: Well, let me press you on this point. Why didn’t you retire earlier? Why was this article appearing in the March-April 2006 Foreign Affairs rather than the March-April 2003 Foreign Affairs?
PILLAR: My current job is as a political scientist and policy analyst. Part of my job—my current one—is to write cogent essays on matters of public importance. That’s what I tried to do in this instance. My previous job before I retired last year was to provide the best possible intelligence analysis and to manage that analysis for whoever the policymaker is of the day. I tried to do that job. Sometimes we did it well, sometimes we didn’t. But I was doing one job before, now I’m doing a different job.
ROSE: Okay. So we have this article about a deluded leader living in a bubble, stumbling into war after being fed a steady diet of spin and lies by his sycophantic or ideologically extremist underlings. (Laughter.) Of course, I’m talking about the portrait of Saddam—(laughter)—in the May-June issue.
PILLAR: May-June issue—that’s—
ROSE: What’s kind of striking, though, is that it’s not—doesn’t seem to be all that far off, and what I find bizarre is that the penalties for dissent in the U.S. were substantially less than they were in Iraq. (Laughter.) There is a tidbit in the Saddam article about how a general who disagreed ended up sent in pieces to his wife later on and Shinseki retired. And yet, it seems that the very modest pressures to not buck the trend, to continue to serve as a good soldier, to not incur the wrath of one’s superiors, or even, as you just said, to avoid the displeasure of putting on your boss’s desk something they didn’t want to see, was enough to, in some ways, pervert not just the intelligence community bureaucracy but the diplomatic bureaucracy—from the Gordon-Trainor book, the military bureaucracy comes off horribly.
So are we learning here that you don’t need to be Saddam Hussein in order to get everybody beneath you to bend to your will.
PILLAR: I don’t think it’s that extreme, Gideon. In fact, you know, myself and others did a number of things that, in retrospect, could be seen as taking risks, knowing full well that we would not be chopped up and delivered to our wives the next day.
Let me just cite one example—and I continued to write in a private capacity on the outside while I was still wearing the government badge. One point I’ve made when I’ve been asked about this about oh, why, you know, why didn’t you reveal this stuff earlier—as we’ve talked about—as revelations as subjects in my article in the journal. In fact, there’s very little in that article that is a new revelation in the sense of something that hasn’t been reported, you know, in the media in one form or another before.
And let me go beyond that and not just mention reporting of a fact, but giving my perspective—the whole issue of the, you know, alleged alliance with al Qaeda, and specifically, what did or did not Secretary Powell’s presentation at the United Nations in February of 2003 really demonstrate in that? And one point I made briefly in the article was if you really go back over that transcript and read it very carefully, it doesn’t really say there’s any kind of assistance or cooperation or alliance, although clearly that was part of the impression that it was designed to create.
Well, I wrote back in 2003 an additional introduction to my book on counterterrorism while I was still wearing the badge—and, of course, it had to go through all the approvals and everything for a current employee—in which I said exactly the same thing. And I had some people read that and say my goodness, how did you get that approved? Now, of course, you know, some introduction in the second edition of the book isn’t going to get the attention as a Foreign Affairs article will, but it was out there. And if you wanted my take on that particular topic, you could have read this book, you know, two and a half years ago.
ROSE: Diverging for a second—I know people, including a lot of people in the agency, who think that that by itself is a problem and that Sharra’s book and that people shouldn’t be speaking out in public on matters relation to their professional capacities while their inside the intelligence services.
PILLAR: That’s right—well, yeah. Well, Mike Sharra’s book was exceptional in that regard, which was, you know, a direct and very extended criticism of current policy. And it’s hard to point to things that are anything comparable to that. And there have been a lot of reactions procedurally in terms of how rules are interpreted as a result of Mike’s book. You’re right, and I and others have, you know, gotten the criticism from both directions. One direction—you know, why weren’t you saying this sort of stuff publicly earlier? And the other direction, which I was getting at the time—why are you saying these things publicly? I don’t know. There’s a balance to be struck.
I think it would be a grave mistake to have—wearing a government badge, being in the intelligence community or anywhere else—a prohibition against engaging in substantive discussion and debate in publication and speaking on the outside, because one of the things that would do, it would be a major disincentive for employment in our security services or government generally if people who, you know, are intellectually active, want to stay engaged are told no, you just can’t do that sort of thing. You can’t give talks like this or the kind of talk I gave that was off the record that Bob Novak made a column out of. You can’t talk to a class. You can’t do this. You know, if those sorts of restrictions had been placed on me, I think I would have left the service much earlier.
ROSE: Let’s turn to some substantive matters for a second. You write that there was a strong consensus among serious observers before the war that containment was working and that Saddam was still in a box. I remember actually saying—we (on over?) in the final version were saying gee, was that—would I really go along with that plea? Do you stand by that? It seems to me that there were a lot of people before the war and the Ken Pollack’s of the world and—(inaudible)—saying gee, containment is breaking down and having legitimate worry.
PILLAR: I think your extended piece in the new issue of the journal from Joint Forces Command history does a lot to support that in terms of how the sanctions eroded greatly, or contributed to the erosion, as well as all their own procedures to the Iraqi military capacity.
That said, there certainly was the very legitimate argument along two grounds. One, sanctions themselves were eroding in the sense that we had sanctions fatigue, and the Europeans and others were making it clear that there were limits. Secondly, there was the point on the military side that Operation Southern Watch and the other efforts to enforce the no-fly zones and so on, which entailed a substantial military presence in Saudi Arabia, was itself a liability.
Now, one immediately has to respond to that—well, which is the greater negative in terms of impact on U.S. perception in the Middle East? Is it the troop presence in Saudi Arabia or is it actually fighting a war with a lot of casualties in Iraq? I mean, you can argue that one out.
But yes, there are legitimate—there was a legitimate case to be made. I personally think it was outweighed by the opposite case, but it was legitimate.
ROSE: You mentioned the second edition of your book on terrorism. I remember reading the first edition carefully thinking it was the best thing written on the subject at the time—and nonetheless, quite surprised when planes struck the World Trade Center not too long afterwards and by 19 hijackers ordered by a guy in a cave in Afghanistan. Is the lesson of 9/11 and the lesson of the Iraqi WMD the same, which is we don’t know what’s going on, either what’s coming or what’s not coming, and that no matter what we do, we get screwed?
PILLAR: Well, in terms of 9/11 and being surprised, it’s the tactical surprise, and that’s a fact of life with regard to international terrorism. It wasn’t a strategic surprise, you know. And you can go—you can look at my book, which was mainly about counterterrorism, but you can look in a whole lot of other things. You know, the strategic appreciation of the threat from jihadist terrorism and al Qaeda in particular was profound. It motivated extensive efforts by the United States government through most of the Clinton administration and leading into the first few months of the Bush administration. I’ve had people, for example, read Steve Coll’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “Ghost Wars” and react to it by commenting to me, my goodness, I didn’t know all that stuff was going on—that stuff being, extensive over several years, diplomatic, military, intelligence and other efforts to go after this particular leader and this particular group.
One of the myths that’s been unfortunately accentuated by the 9/11 commission—because they set as part of their agenda—as their agenda getting public support for their particular plan for intelligence community reorganization—was the myth that there was a strategic lack of awareness of this threat. That’s simply not true. And if there were still more things that weren’t done—and a couple of things that come to mind are, number one, very extensive and expensive security countermeasures of the sort that we did enact after 9/11—you know, Department of Homeland Security and all the rest. Or number two, doing something like Operation Enduring Freedom, the military intervention in Afghanistan, before 9/11. There were very good reasons we didn’t do that. I mean, the main reason we didn’t do the second was that there were important other policy considerations—foreign policy considerations—involving South Asia, involving Pakistan, involving Afghanistan, the policymakers being worried about, you know, the Pakistani nuclear equation vis-a-vis India and all those sorts of things.
And as to why not, you know, extensive new, major, counterterrorist security measures, it’s been a fact of life for decades in this republic that we as a people do not do expensive, risky things just based on warning. We do them after a disaster has occurred. And I think that the outstanding recent example is Hurricane Katrina and the failure to protect New Orleans from a much-predicted—much-predicted—hurricane-induced flood. Before it happens, pennies are pinched, the Corps of Engineers’ budget is being cut. After it happens, $60 billion appropriated at the flick of a gavel. This was just another example of that.
ROSE: Oh, but of course, the Bush administration’s preemption policy was a direct response to that. And yet, in the Iraq case, it seems to have had its own comeuppance.
So to what extent is the—do I sense that the lessons of Iraq contradict the lessons of 9/11 and vice versa?
PILLAR: I don’t see it in those sort of contradictory terms. The idea of preemption, in my personal view, is not a universally workable solution to apply to the international terrorist threat, particularly as it relates to the way that threat has evolved to one of more groups than of states. There was a lot of effort to try to preempt the group. And we talk about renditions and going after the infrastructure and going after finances. Extensive efforts were being made on that back in the 1990s. Some of them have become more effective since 9/11 because our officials can go and pound on the tables of their foreign counterparts and say we mean it this time. Yes, we want you to freeze those funds and the American people are really upset about it now, which is what they couldn’t say in 1997 or ‘98 or ‘99. So I don’t see that as a sort of direct contradiction. It’s really nonparallel issues.
ROSE: I’m going to turn it over to our audience in one second. Let me just ask one last question.
You have spent the better part of your career inside the system dealing with incredibly classified intelligence obtained through various secret methods. The vast majority of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations have to—and the public at large, need I say—have to form their opinions and choices about foreign policy and political matters without the benefit of that. How different does the world look when you have to rely only on open source intelligence from the way the world looks when you’re dealing every day with the secret stream of stuff that comes in from all our various methods?
PILLAR: Well, most things on most of the important aspects that figure in the policy debates, it doesn’t look that much different at all. And just to take the example of Iraq and before the decisions or before we actually went to war, the assessments that I referenced in the article about likely postwar challenges, almost none of that—almost none—was based on, you know, secret information. It was a matter of assessment based on the expertise of experts we could consult with which, in turn, was based on history, culture, geopolitical facts that really are all open source. There’s not a matter of secrets there.
That said, I think your question, Gideon, is a useful hook on which to issue the reminder of when we look at other issues like Iran, like North Korea—we have this very salient issue of the Iranian nuclear program that’s troubling us now—we have to remind ourselves just what we don’t know—what we don’t know. The we—I mean not just the public, not just members of the Council on Foreign Relations, but everybody, including the ones reading the cables at Langley.
I noticed that Ambassador Negroponte had some testimony on the Hill a couple of weeks ago—the annual worldwide threat testimony—in which he made a statement that got some press attention about North Korea. Now, we’ve had this widespread presumption that North Korea probably already has some bombs in the basement. And Mr. Negroponte said well, we don’t know that; we don’t know whether they have nuclear weapons. And I had a journalist call me up and ask, why would he say that? You know, why would the DNI say publicly we don’t know that? I said I think he said it because it’s true. We don’t know that. You know, there are sound bases for making the analytic judgment based on how many reactors they’ve had going and how much plutonium they could have produced and so on, that they probably have enough fissile material for several weapons, but we don’t know that.
And in the case of Iran, the public debate—much of it—seems to have taken it as an article of faith and taken it for granted that this country, this regime, is definitely pursuing nuclear weapons. My own personal assessment is that that is their current course—current course. But again, we don’t know that. There isn’t some secret out there. There isn’t some report out there, that I’m aware of, that closes that issue, that says for sure that that’s the case. So yeah, there’s a lot of ignorance there, but don’t—maybe it’s in one sense a bright note and in another sense a gloomy note. But those of you who don’t read the secret cables really aren’t that far behind, you know, on most of the important issues of foreign policy, those who do.
ROSE: Okay. With that, let’s turn it over to the audience. Let me just remind you to wait for the microphone and speak directly into it, to stand, state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question, and keep it concise so that we can get as many in as possible.
Yes, over here.
QUESTIONER: Gary Sick, Columbia University. I first of all want to say that the professionals that I talk to all say that you are the professional’s professional and that they really do respect what you say and where you come from, and that means a lot to me.
I had the opportunity to talk to a group of CIA analysts recently at a retreat sort of operation and I was struck by the fact that the question that I kept getting from the floor, from these people who were senior analysts with the CIA, were how do you deliver bad news to the boss? How do you tell him that what he thinks or what he wants to think isn’t really true? And I tried to answer that question, but I wonder what your answer is to that question.
PILLAR: Well, Gary, there are many, you know, courses that try to find a way to work around exactly that sort of dilemma. One of the first things that come to mind is—and I’ve had many policymakers, you know, react to intelligence assessments, including ones that aren’t very optimistic, by saying you aren’t showing us the opportunities. You’re just showing us the problems. Show us the opportunities. Now, that’s a very legitimate demand to make, a very legitimate question to make. And good intelligence analysis ought to not have to wait for that demand to be made, but to, you know, work it in to the assessment.
So even the gloomiest, least welcome kind of analysis always ought to be—this is what ought to go through analysts’ mind—ought to be coupled with all right, so it’s a bad situation. So what can we do to help make sense of it, at least to show the opportunities for making it less bad? And that’s the main thing that comes to mind as something that—the community by and large tries to do this—sometimes not always successfully, as is indicated by the fact that policymakers do come back with the oh, you just gave me the bad news; you didn’t give me the opportunities. That’s the main thing to do.
QUESTIONER: But doesn’t that shade over to being policy prescriptive if you’re trying to point the—
PILLAR: Yes, it comes very close to it. And actually, the people who get most nervous about the policy prescriptiveness of things or coming close to that line are the intelligence officers. And in discussions in Washington—particularly not so much the papers, but the face-to-face meetings—usually the policy types are much more relaxed about, you know, seeing the intel types just participate fully in the debate and discussion and not try to draw some line—well, I’m the intelligence person, so I’m going to make this assessment, but I’m not going to go beyond that.
It is still incumbent on the intelligence types to recognize and observe that line, even if there are attempts on the other side of the table to draw them in. But yes, that’s always a fine line that’s being walked. You’re right.
ROSE: Over here.
QUESTIONER: Maurice Tempelsman, Leon Tempelsman & Son. Thank you very much for a very enlightening presentation.
Let me approach my question from a perspective of methodology. The facts are not looked at deus ex machina. You can look at them through a perspective of capability. You can look at it through a perspective of intention. But there’s a third dimension, which is context and the judgment of how much context affects precisely the subjectivity that is inherent in your statement of politicization.
And let’s step back from the current even to the Cold War and taking a look at heavy investment in intelligence during the Cold War over many years, the conclusions that were drawn at the time, ranging all the way from the missile gap and Adlai Stevenson’s presentations to the U.N.
What lessons can we draw with the distance of history and the advantage of a situation, which is closer to having played out, and therefore, we can analyze better? What lessons can we draw in order to particularly evaluate the effect of context on how information is judged and how that is taken into the decision-making process?
PILLAR: I think it takes a whole course to really answer your question, and I’ll try to answer it this way. We—the collective we, whether it’s an intelligence officer or the public that is looking critically at assertions or statements based on intelligence—we need to remind ourselves that the zeitgeist, the context of the moment, does change. And you know, I’ve written about this one very intense, very salient, very recent and very important issue. And in my professional experience, going back over the last three decades, I haven’t seen anything quite like this. There are a couple of things that start to come close to it.
Nonetheless—I think this is what your question is implying, and I agree with the implication that we always need to be aware that even though we somehow think we’ve overcome whatever it was—the bias or the zeitgeist—that’s afflicted us most recently, there’s going to be another one around the corner, and we’re going to be wading deeply into it before we realize that we’ve waded into it.
So in the Iraq case, for example, even if there is a great increase in skepticism about things like preemptive attacks and weapons of mass destruction by rogue states and everything, even if whatever biases or blinders we might have had on that set of issues is somehow corrected or balanced—I’m not suggesting we’re going to be able to succeed in doing that—there’s going to be some other issue entirely different that will be a subject of headlines, say, five years from now. And it will be the subject of intelligence officers trying to write assessments that are going to become controversial. We can’t even predict now, but we’re going to have to remember before that whatever that debate on whatever that subject, this is going to come up, that there’s going to be some kind of zeitgeist. There’s going to be some kind of context that’s going to have its own biases and its own pressures on people like intelligence officers, and we’re going to try to recognize it as early as we can. That’s the only way I can respond.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—and former head of the Congressional Research Service, Foreign and Defense Policy Division.
There’s been a great deal of attention and focusing on the intelligence policymaking relationship on the question of whether the policymakers influenced or shaped the kinds of judgments that the intelligence community came out with, and you’ve addressed that, I think, with great sensitivity.
But it was almost my understanding that once the intelligence community came out with its majority judgments, it was the responsibility of the policymakers to then challenge that from left, right and center, and not to just say oh, we now have an intelligence judgment that allows us to take a prescribed set of policies.
In your experience, are there cases where the policymakers have seriously challenged the intelligence judgment to come out with a more sophisticated understanding and a better sense of what policy should be, had they not seriously challenged the intelligence community judgments?
PILLAR: They should challenge. And I think the general answer is yes, there have been instances, but it’s hard to point to any one that’s a net-plus because all of the challenges that come to mind—not just in this recent past with the issue we’ve been dealing with, but others in my experience—have been always challenges in one direction. You know, it’s sort of like the statisticians talking about one-tailed versus two-tailed tests. And quite frankly, some of the things that have been described as policymaker challenges to the intelligence have not been that at all, but if anything, have been the other way around.
I’ll get very specific here—Mr. Bolton on some of his issues of concern regarding Cuba and regarding Syria. Some of what he did—and of course, this came up when his nomination was in question for U.N. ambassador. Some of what he did was defended on grounds that well, he was just challenging what the intelligence officers were saying. No, it’s the exact opposite. He came up with a judgment, tried to get the community to sign onto it and wouldn’t countenance being challenged by intelligence officers who said wait a minute, the intelligence doesn’t go that far. And so the response according to reports—I wasn’t a fly on the wall in this case—was, number one, to respond with an angry fit; and number two, when that didn’t work, to go to the person’s boss and try to get him or her removed from their job.
That is one of the rare, rare instances of what I would describe as blatant attempts at politicization. My point that I made in response to getting this first question, you recall, was that politicization, when it does occur, is almost never in response to that sort of thing. At a minimum, you’ll get intelligence officers’ dander up.
But I have a hard time thinking of any one instance in which there was a, you know, very beneficial, balanced, you know, two-tailed test challenged in both directions where the attitude is—this would be wonderful if this is the policymaker response—I’m totally open, you know; I don’t have a policy direction here. I don’t want to be wrong in this direction and I don’t want to be wrong in that direction, so let me challenge you on both. That would be the best possible thing. I can’t think of any one instance when that’s happened. It’s always a challenge in one direction. And sometimes—sometimes—that helps—and you know, some of the Team B stuff on strategic forces and so on.
I think, in retrospect, one can say, on balance, some of that kind of challenge, even though it was in one direction, was probably—brought us collectively closer to a more accurate perception. So you know, I’d name an example like that. But the best instance is if it’s challenge based on total openness, challenge in both directions. And I can’t think of any instance of that.
ROSE: Right here in front.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Pillar, my name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. I’ve been in the government a couple of times, which included a couple of excursions over to Langley.
Your article is very good analysis of the intelligence process. It’s become—it’s kind of a pitch—been characterized, as Gideon—you know, that the war was a mistake. And you’ve had some very good, profound analysis—policy analysis evidence in some of your remarks today.
So my question is going to be, what is your bottom line about the war, and just why? And let me just give you three reference points that you can take. David Kay is on the record several times saying he thought the war was a good idea mainly because he feared the scientists were going to get the WMD or sell the WMD to the terrorists. Secretary Rumsfeld in this room when I asked him after the war, long after the war, what was your reason, he said because we were afraid that WMD—that Saddam would get WMD or he would give it to the terrorists. And the third one is President Bush in his interview with Bob Woodward when Woodward said there were no WMDs; Bush says well, but he would have gotten it quickly and that was good enough for me.
What is your view on the war?
PILLAR: Well, I’ll answer that in two parts. One, if you want my bottom line right up front, I believe the war was a mistake. And I answer that mainly from the standpoint of an old counterterrorist officer who considers international terrorism, you know, one of my main concerns. There was absolutely no question in my mind that, on balance, the impact of this effort on the danger of international terrorism, killing more Americans, has made it worse. Iraq is the newest and most salient jihad of the radical Islamists. It’s serving some of the same function that Afghanistan served before as a training ground, as an inspiration, as a networking opportunity. And on top of that, since it’s we rather than the Soviets who are the invaders, there’s a huge propaganda bonus for the extremists. We can see it in the polls. We can see it in a lot of other things. It has made things worse with regard to countering terrorism.
The second part of my response to your question, though—and this gets back to some of the things—the way I think the argument I make in the article, I hope, is treated—there were legitimate grounds for arguing for Operation Iraqi Freedom—totally different grounds—not the WMD stuff and certainly not the terrorist stuff. As I say, the business about al Qaeda linkages was basically a manufactured issue, and I commend to you Peter Bergen’s op-ed in The New York Times the other day in terms of, you know, how this issue has popped up again a little bit. I think Peter batted it down quite effectively.
Some people who have commended what I wrote—mostly old friends and colleagues in the intelligence community—think I was too kind to the administration in imputing as their major motive for this operation the desire to shake up the sclerotic politics of the Middle East and try to use it as a catalyst for democratization. Some people say oh, you should talk about Israel and oil and Halliburton and all kinds of other motives like that. And I’m not denying that some of these other things were factors. But I think, you know, most of what we’ve been hearing more recently from the administration about democratic change was all along the main motivation. And there was a legitimate argument to be made along those lines.
I happen to believe that the administration is right that there does need to be change in that region, that the closed political and economic systems do have a lot to do with extremists and terrorist threats against the United States. And the administration has done some effective things and continues to do it on other grounds—not the Iraq war, but things like the Middle East Partnership Initiative and other things designed over the long term to try to lay the basis for a more open, more democratic, more liberal set of societies in the Middle East.
Now, one could have argued that—and some people whom I respect, who aren’t part of the administration, but who know an awful lot about the Middle East, were on balance in favor of the war because for precisely that reason: that this roll of the dice, known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, was worth the risk in order to bring about this—try to bring about this needed shaking up of the Middle East. There will be an alternative view with which I would identify myself, that even though you need the change and even though you can do these other things—like these other programs I mentioned, and they’re important—that this particular effort to use military force as a kind of catalyst was more likely to backfire. We needed—we, the country—needed a debate between those opposing points of view. And there were other relevant points of view that could have been and should have been part of that debate, including the viewpoint that we don’t really need to care about, you know, the internal structures in the Middle East. That’s another argument; I happen to disagree with it.
But we never had that debate. Instead, we’ve spent all our time and effort talking about things like aluminum tubes and did Mohamed Atta have a meeting in Prague. And I don’t think those were the most important things that needed to be debated in deciding whether or not this particular expedition was on balance and worthwhile.
ROSE: Did I hear you correctly? Did you just say that some of your old colleagues in the intelligence community thought that Israel, Halliburton and oil were important reasons why we went to war?
PILLAR: No, I shouldn’t have identified that just with old colleagues in the intelligence community. I mean, of course, there’s the—I think the now well-known piece by Walt and Mearsheimer on the Israel angle. Oil and—you know, of course, oil’s a factor. Some of you may have seen Ted Koppel’s piece a month or so ago on that in which he said, you know, we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. I agree with that. I have hesitated to say oil as a motive because that immediately gets in the shortened version of remarks or an article, that it becomes translated into the simplistic, Muslim-in-street view, oh, they conquered Iraq to control oil.
No, I don’t think that was the case at all. It figured in different ways. One, Iraq’s oil wealth is one of the reasons it’s very important and why, if you were hoping to pick one place to be a catalyst to shake up the rest of the region, that’s one of the reasons, because it’s important for that reason. And the other way it worked in is that some of the pro-war elements—and I think Mr. Wolfowitz, for one, was very explicit about this—had the belief that because of Iraq’s oil wealth, we would not have to worry about a costly reconstruction because it would pay for itself. Well, of course, it hasn’t worked out that way. But it’s not a matter of well, we just conquered this country to control the oil resources. I never believed that for a moment.
ROSE: Ted Sorensen.
QUESTIONER: Thanks very much for a very good presentation. Your last answer convinces me I should ask the question I’ve been trying to ask all along.
Regardless of (fables ?) like policymaker, were any of those who politicized the intelligence through distortion, arbitrary selection and so on officially inside the intelligence community?
PILLAR: I have suggested—although I identified this as one that is less obvious in the public use and, you know, in the non-use of intelligence in decision-making—that yes, I believe in the subtle ways I described earlier in response to a previous question there was what I would describe as politicization. It’s not necessarily even conscious. It’s not inspired by a political or policy preference. It’s more of a response to an atmosphere, a pressure, a zeitgeist, the sorts of things we talked about before, but the intelligence community is not blameless.
I don’t want to—if you’re trying to get at, you know, particular individuals or particular officials, I just don’t want to do that because I don’t think it’s mainly a problem of that. It’s mainly a matter of structure, atmosphere and how this particular issue played out as it was used by this particular administration.
If all of us in the community were men and women of perfect courage as well as insight, the intelligence community would have said different things and would have made different judgments, at least in the way that I’ve suggested earlier.
ROSE: Over here. No, you first, and then Gary.
QUESTIONER: My name in James Tunkey and I’m with a company called Eye on Asia.
I’d like to pick up on Ted’s point but perhaps go at it from a different angle. Leadership is very important. What leadership qualities should the American people be demanding of their intelligence leaders?
PILLAR: I think the main qualities are those that we’d demand in any other highly responsible position of public service. It’s not unique to intelligence. It’s a matter of integrity, knowledge, commitment, all those sorts of things.
In terms of what might be different with regard to the intelligence community leadership, hard to separate it, you know, separate the qualities of the leaders from the structure and the atmosphere in which they have to operate. I mean, I’ve made some suggestions in my piece about perhaps redoing the structure a bit while stopping short of recommending any new reorganization next week in a way that, you know—a man or a woman of intelligence, character and integrity and all those other qualities that we would value—say in any Cabinet secretary—would function very effectively as leader of our community.
One of the, you know, best-remembered directors of Central Intelligence is George H.W. Bush. He only served for a year back in 1976 toward the end of the Ford administration. But that center out there in Langley is named after him and that reflects a lot of sentiment among those who had some experience with the elder Mr. Bush as director of the very high respect he earned in just that one year. And he was a politician. He was a political figure. Some people have criticized the issue of, you know, the appointment of Mr. Goss, the current director of CIA. Well, this is an elected politician, a Republican—you know, all this. I think Mr. Goss does not deserve some of the bad press that he’s gotten. And indeed, there are some respects in which an elected politician, be he a Republican or a Democrat, has insights into certain things that people like myself who have been career, you know, analysts or bureaucrats don’t have—trying to make sense, for example, of this political morass in Iraq and going back over these last couple of elections for the constituent assembly and the later legislature.
I was in the little bit of time that—I sort of overlapped. I say sort of because I was really working for the National Intelligence Council and not really part of the CIA, but was in, you know, some briefings. I was quite impressed with Mr. Goss, as someone who has stood for office himself—his understanding of and insight into some of the questions that were related to elections and that part of the political process, which your typical analyst is just not going to have the experience to relate to.
ROSE: Let me (think about that ?).
We have a question from a national member, William Lockhauser (ph) from Reston, Virginia, who asks, how accurate do you think the assessment—how accurate is the intelligence coming from Iraq being currently presented to the president?
And what I would say in that regard—we had a session here the other day with the council fellow, Vali Nasr, and one of the things he was saying was that there were some taboo subjects. Used to be you couldn’t talk about the insurgency—they didn’t want to hear. Then you couldn’t talk about communal conflict—didn’t want to hear it in the military. And now he was saying there’s some things like foreign aid to various forces—talking about Jordan and Saudi Arabia and helping the Sunnis—that people don’t want to hear about it.
Do you think the policy—and so, therefore, were not getting reported back up the chain. Do you think that there are—is an accurate picture of what’s going on in Iraq being presented to senior policymakers today?
PILLAR: Well, greetings to Reston, first of all. I wasn’t aware, you know, when I was still wearing the badge, and I don’t perceive now, that sort of thing. I simply don’t. There are issues that arise in terms of what kind of terminology to use publicly and what things are emphasized publicly with regard to well, is it the Syrians and Iranians causing all this mess or is it more home grown? But in terms of what is being reported inside, I’m not aware of any, you know, curtailment of information. What happens when something, you know, makes it as far as the White House, and you know, what happens inside there I just don’t know. But in terms of things coming out of the field and things coming out of the intelligence community, I don’t think that’s a problem.
ROSE: Do you think an accurate picture is being given to the people back home?
PILLAR: I think so, yes. And I would note—you know, I give General Abizaid a lot of credit. He’s the one who very early on, you know, used the term insurgency—you know, well before many others, you know, felt comfortable using that term. And I think he was right to do that.
ROSE: Gary Rosen.
QUESTIONER: I’m Gary Rosen from Commentary Magazine.
I wanted to press you a little bit more on what you understand the motives of the administration to have been in going to war. I was struck in the article early on. You say explicitly that intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs did not drive its decision to go to war, yet you go on to say that there was this wide consensus in the United States and abroad that sanctions were working and that we had Saddam in a box.
To my mind, thinking back on that moment, there were lots of people outside of the administration—people in the journalistic community, who by no means are thought of as neoconservatives—Bill Keller, David Remnick, Ken Pollack—coming from a background like yours—Fareed Zakaria—who thought that sanctions were in fact not working. So lots of people across the spectrum. But then you go on to say that the administration arrived at so different a policy solution—that is, rejected sanction—shows that the decision to topple Saddam was driven by other factors—namely, the notion of spreading democracy and liberalization of the Middle East.
How are you certain of that? How do you know what their real motives were?
PILLAR: I don’t know any more than I know what the motives of the mullahs in Tehran are about whether they’re seeking nuclear weapons. I don’t think I said there was a consensus, you know, against the war. I think I said, you know, there were a lot of people who believed that. You cited some of the distribution opinion in the United States. I think if you broaden that to outside the United States and look at our European allies where the same perceptions about the weapons program were very widely shared but the policy consensus—and there, I think, you could call it a consensus—was very different and very much opposed.
So, you know, if you look at that whole, broad spectrum inside and outside the U.S. of policy preferences on the war and try to correlate that—because it doesn’t correlate very well—with the even more broadly held, mistaken perception about the weapons, it clearly wasn’t the main reason. Because people who shared the perception had very different policy preferences. Was it an important, you know, part of the case? Of course it was. It was an essential part of the case. But in terms of what drove it—you know, if we were to expand on this topic—I were to expand, and I’d go back to, you know, 1991, the whole sense of unfinished business, not overthrowing Saddam then, there is a neoconservative literature out there where I think you can trace this concern about Iraq that goes far beyond the WMD issue.
ROSE: Just two more questions because we’re running out of time.
Here in the front.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. John Temple Swing.
I was fascinated by the news reporting on your article, which I heard a good deal about in public radio and other sources before I actually read your article. And most of the sense I got from reading all the news reports was that your article more or less proved conclusively, or at lest convincingly, that the administration did not base its reason for going to war on the intelligence it was getting from the intelligence community, and that in a very large sense, therefore, it was irrelevant. I did not read that or find that in your actual article, and I haven’t heard that really here tonight.
So was the initial reporting on your article wrong?
PILLAR: No, it’s not. Read the article again. (Laughter.) And I’ll just recap a couple of things. There was a point that was just raised by Mr. Rosen with regard to how the whole WMD issue did or did not figure into it. On the other big, you know, public selling issue—the supposed, you know, alliance with Saddam—the intelligence community was not saying that at all. In fact, they were saying something much different. There was not an alliance. It was, at most, you know, two very different parties that are opposed in many ways that were kind of keeping track of each other. They had a couple of contacts years ago in Sudan and that was it. So the public line was diametrically opposed.
There’s the issue of all right, even though we all seem to agree he’s got a weapons program, how long is it going to be before he gets them? Even the badly flawed, infamous national intelligence estimate on the subject said he’s probably still several years away from getting it—not urgent. We had the vice president say I think he’s real close to getting them and it is urgent. And then there’s whole issue of what kind of challenges are we going to have to deal with after we invade?
And part of, you know, the first section of the article was the assessments being offered was we’re going to have a mess. It’s going to be long, difficult, turbulent. We’re going to have these different ethnic and sectarian communities at their throats. We’re going to have a civil war if we’re not going to sit on top of it. No evidence that that really was cranked into the decision at all. So I think there’s ample evidence that no, this decision did not rest on what the intelligence community offered.
ROSE: Did you think that at any point anybody in senior positions in the administration believed that Iraq was connected to 9/11?
PILLAR: I think there is some evidence with one or two people. Mr. Wolfowitz seems to be one, from one or two quotes that I’ve seen. I hope that didn’t last very long, but I can’t rule it out. At lest a couple of people for at least a while believed that, yes.
ROSE: Last question over here—unfortunately.
QUESTIONER: I’m David Robinson. A technical question: The change that’s come about—I’m a physicist. If you look at the NIE, you see when there was an expert on atomic energy, he said aluminum tubes were not for centrifuges. When you had an Air Force person looking at airplanes, he said those airplanes are not useful for us to spread germ warfare. I don’t know if there was anybody there who knew about biological warfare, but anybody who said that it’s good to have mobile labs making biological weapons where you need extra pressure—internal pressure—and a lot of safety would say that’s a stupid way to do it. These dissenting voices at least (enter into it ?). Now with the new and then—nonetheless, the consensus was opposed to that. And the same person who said—Air Force—the planes weren’t right would say that the tubes were okay because he was an Air Force guy.
Is there a—with the new changes, do you think these dissenting voices could make it into an intelligence estimate?
PILLAR: They do—they did make it in.
QUESTIONER: No, I was talking about with the centralization, which came afterwards. Do you think they could still get that kind of information?
PILLAR: Oh, yes. That has no affect on it whatsoever. You mean the December ‘04 intelligence reorganization? Has no affect on it whatsoever. You’re still going to have—if particular agencies have dissents on views in community documents, including national intelligence estimates, they will be there.
I’ll make this my closing point. We had all that discussion and debate about that reorganization, that the scheme the 9/11 commission came up with didn’t address this set of issues at all—did not address it at all. I don’t think it makes it any worse, but it doesn’t make it any better.
Basically, the DNI—Ambassador Negroponte is in the same position vis-a-vis the White House and the policymakers that a DCI like George Tenet was. There are a lot of other flaws that we don’t have time to go into now, in my view, with regard to—not a lot, but some other flaws—with regard to the reorganization. I think the Congress will have to readdress it. I was on the Hill just yesterday talking to some House members making this point. I don’t know if they’ll readdress it next year or three years from now or five years from now, but my message to them was whenever you do readdress it—and some of these flaws have to do with things like ambiguity in the DNI’s authority—whenever you do readdress it, address this set of issues, too. You didn’t last time.
ROSE: With that, Paul, we could talk about this for a very long time. Unfortunately, one of the council’s most hallowed traditions is letting everybody get out of here at the right time. So with that, we’re going to close it up. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
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