At a time when the Bush administration is under renewed criticism from Congress for flawed intelligence collection on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs and Iraq’s alleged links to al Qaeda, it faces withering fire from perhaps a more formidable foe: it’s own intelligence agencies. As a result, a political firestorm is on the horizon that could ultimately flare out of control.
It has been an open secret that U.S. intelligence agencies felt pressured by the Bush administration to exaggerate the threat of Iraqi WMD and find alleged links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. But that latent anger has recently gone public in leaks of a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report questioning the credibility of intelligence provided by the administration’s closest allies in Iraq. It also surfaced in the disclosure that the CIA has notified the Justice Department that a criminal statute apparently was violated when someone allegedly divulged the identity of a CIA covert agent to the media. That someone was likely a senior administration official or two. With a now openly hostile intelligence community, those embarrassing revelations may be only the first of many to come.
To protect the lives of covert intelligence agents in the field, it is illegal to disclose their identities. Passed during the Reagan administration, the law was originally targeted at a private organization that was relying entirely on publicly available information to “out” the covert agents. Whoever thought that the statute might eventually be used to criminally prosecute senior administration officials? For an administration that often subtly questions the patriotism of its critics, the outing of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s wife -” as alleged revenge for his first-hand criticism of the Bush administration’s inflation of the Iraqi nuclear threat -” smacks of a double standard. Even by the standards of the knock-down, drag-out brawling common to the nation’s capital, that retribution was hitting below the belt.
And it’s not very prudent either. Putting the lives of intelligence agents in danger is the quickest way to create a vendetta in the mind of the kings of covert operations. The depth of animosity in the intelligence community is exemplified by the CIA’s notification to the Justice Department that the law apparently had been violated. CIA Director George Tenet, a former Clinton appointee who was allowed to keep his job when the Bush administration took office, had been heretofore compliant with administration pressure on the intelligence community to come up with the “right answers” on Iraq. Tenet has now either finally decided to fight back or, more likely, is under so much pressure inside the community that he has no choice. Unless the Justice Department can find some plausible excuse to quash a criminal investigation, the political fallout from that scandal could be intense.
Another indication that the intelligence agencies are not happy is the leaking of an internal DIA report questioning the credibility of defectors supposedly expert in Iraq’s WMD programs. Those defectors were provided by the administration’s strongest allies in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. The DIA noted that the defectors invented or exaggerated their credentials and provided very little useful information on Iraqi WMD.
Even the congressional criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraqi WMD programs and Hussein’s alleged links with al Qaeda at least partly mirrors the intelligence community’s ire. The House Intelligence Committee, usually not very critical of the intelligence community, is led by Representative Porter Goss, a Republican and former CIA agent. The leaders of the committee, Goss and Democrat Jane Harman, recently noted that there were “too many uncertainties” in the outdated and inadequate intelligence that the Bush administration used to justify the war. They further concluded: “The intelligence available to the U.S. on Iraq’s possession of W.M.D. and its programs and capabilities relating to such weapons after 1998, and its links to Al Qaeda, was fragmentary and sporadic.” That’s a nice way of saying that the Bush administration based its invasion of Iraq on only the scant new intelligence gathered after international weapons inspectors left five years ago.
Despite official pledges of cooperation, will the politicos at the White House return fire for the leaked DIA report or the CIA’s notification of apparent criminal violation? They should think twice before doing so. By outing an intelligence agent and by bringing undue pressure on the intelligence community to come up with an excessively threatening picture of pre-war Iraq, the administration is already in enough trouble with the keepers of the secrets. It may already be too late for the administration to avoid other embarrassing revelations by its own spooks. But unwisely escalating the bitter feud with a foe that holds most of the cards certainly can’t help the administration’s fortunes.