TCS Daily

About That National Intelligence Estimate...

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The important thing about the now infamous National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is not so much what it says, but rather what it reveals about how different politicians might use it.

On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told TV watchers that the estimate that appeared in the press almost two weeks ago "wasn't a terribly shocking assessment. It was something that I could have written myself." Truer words have never been spoken. Heck, my lawn guy could have written it himself:

"Hola, Jorge, what do you think will happen in Iraq?"

"It could go very badly. Or maybe it could stay like it is now."

Sounds just like the estimate. Not that one would know it from Bush-administration critics who characterize it as wholly pessimistic. Here's a reminder of how the New York Times first described it:

"The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms."

The 'one hand, other hand' analysis is what one would expect from an institution that has been pilloried lately for drawing firm but incorrect conclusions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And from an institution that was pilloried in the past for other errors in judgment: The CIA got the size of the Soviet economy wrong. It got the fall of the Shah of Iran wrong. It failed to predict India's detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Indeed, intelligence analysis more often than not has a heavy quotient of C-Y-A. The ambivalence isn't motivated only by analysts' self-preservation instincts. It's also motivated by the fact that predicting world events with certainty is impossibly hard.

Which is why it's not enough for a president to make foreign policy based on "hard evidence," to quote John Kerry's Democratic convention speech. Rather, a president has to make foreign policy based on his convictions, his judgment, and his will.

Kerry doesn't agree with that: "As President, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system -- so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics. And as President, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to."

To complete Kerry's thought, the U.S. would "have to" go to war if and only if the president had "hard evidence" of such a need.

Kind of like the hard evidence Kerry's foreign-policy brains trust -- Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Bill Cohen -- wanted to have before going after Osama bin Laden. In their 9/11 Commission testimony, those officials regularly cited the lack of actionable intelligence as their reason for doing nothing.

Consider that the Clinton administration never launched a military attack against the terrorist group after it bombed the U.S.S. Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, killing 17 U.S. sailors. CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks presented the administration with 14 military options, according to the commission staff report. But Clinton's SecDef Cohen said that "we did not have specific information that this was bin Laden" (attacking the Cole) and that military retaliation against Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan "would not have been effective." The administration also resisted sending special forces to Afghanistan.

In another instance, Clinton administration NSC Adviser Samuel Berger and counterterrorism group chair Richard Clarke decided in 1996 not to bring Bin Laden to the U.S. from his hideout in Sudan. There was no legal basis for bringing him to the U.S. nor holding him here, Berger told the commission. Berger, a lawyer, said he was not aware of any intelligence that bin Laden was responsible for any act against a U.S. citizen, and consequently bin Laden could not be indicted.

There's no reason to believe that John Kerry -- ambivalent about his own personal likes and dislikes, let alone questions of war -- would be any less paralyzed than these pols were.

The Iraq National Intelligence Estimate gives Americans a pretty good illustration of the limits of intelligence. And Kerry's foreign-policy philosophy gives Americans a pretty good illustration of how, armed with such intelligence, he and his advisors would do absolutely nothing.


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