Some worry U.S. may bend facts for policy

Intelligence: Analysts pressured to spin reports to support White House position, veterans say.

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration's unswerving position that Saddam Hussein's regime poses a direct threat to the United States and that its removal will lead to democratic change across the Mideast poses a dilemma for the nation's $30-billion-a-year intelligence agencies: What happens when their findings clash with the assumptions behind U.S. policy?

Some former intelligence officers and historians say they are seeing a worrisome pattern of Vietnam-style politicization of intelligence, with pressure to play up the threat from Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and to minimize the potential for Iraqi resistance and the threat the war poses to regional stability.

They note complaints from current CIA analysts as well as glimpses of deeply flawed evidence used by the administration to make the case for war, including documents purporting to show Iraq's attempts to buy uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons. The documents turned out to be forgeries, as CIA analysts had warned before the alleged uranium quest was used by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to illustrate the looming danger from Iraq.

More recently, as American and British troops were targeted by Iraqi irregulars, some news organizations were tipped to a secret CIA report prepared in February that detailed the threat from Hussein's fedayeen and paramilitary units. The leak was a sign that intelligence officers do not want to be blamed for underestimating the resistance U.S. troops could face.

Yesterday, a dispute broke out over intelligence analysis of Hussein's recent television appearances to determine whether they prove he survived the missile strikes that began the war. A Defense Department official told reporters all the video appearances were recorded before the war - but the CIA immediately disputed that, saying it had reached no such conclusion, according to the Associated Press.

The problem of intelligence being distorted or ignored is an old one, but it is particularly acute during crises, says Loch K. Johnson, an intelligence expert at the University of Georgia. "The intelligence people can spin their reports to get along with the White House," says Johnson, who has served as a congressional intelligence staff member. "Or the White House can ignore the intelligence estimates. Either way, the danger is that the country can delude itself. When you start bending the facts, you can make very bad decisions."

After Sept. 11, 2001, the intelligence agencies came under fire for failing to put together the clues in time to thwart the terrorist attacks. Now some critics are saying the agencies have gathered relevant information about Iraq, but it has been overwhelmed by the strong convictions of the president and his top advisers.

Patrick G. Eddington, a former CIA analyst, said current agency officers have contacted him and other agency veterans in recent weeks with complaints of political influence.

"We've heard from multiple sources inside the agency about the pressure to conform," says Eddington, who resigned from the agency in 1996 after accusing superiors of covering up evidence of possible causes of gulf war syndrome. "They say they feel pressure to shape estimates to support the administration's positions - or at least not contradict the administration's positions."

Eddington is an organizer of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, a group of former U.S. intelligence officers formed in January that has posted articles on the Internet charging that the war has corrupted the process of information-gathering and analysis.

While the intelligence veterans group has received little attention from U.S. media, members have been interviewed by Dutch, French, German and Spanish television networks, says 27-year CIA veteran Ray McGovern, another of the group's leaders. A five-member steering group has signed its articles, but McGovern said about 25 former officers have joined the new group.

McGovern says the tussles over reporting on Iraq recall debates he witnessed in 1964 inside the CIA over the Tonkin Gulf incident, in which two reported North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. ships were used by President Lyndon Johnson to justify bombing North Vietnam. Historians doubt the second attack cited by Johnson ever occurred; Johnson later said, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there."

"It's a problem whenever a U.S. administration sets its heart on a policy that cannot be supported by intelligence," says McGovern, who retired from the CIA in 1990.

Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, said the critics are misinformed and the criticism is misplaced. Of the intelligence veterans' group, he said, "They left the agency years ago, and they're hardly in a position to comment knowledgeably on current analysis."

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