Saturday Mailbox

SATURDAY MAILBOX

April 17, 2004

Bush bungled interpretation of intelligence

I have watched with growing incredulity as President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other members of the administration continue to hide behind the absence of any "actionable intelligence" in the pre-9/11 intelligence briefings presented by CIA staffers ("Bush defends his actions in summer before 9/11," April 12).

While "actionable intelligence" may exist in the tactical environment of the modern battlefield, in these days of strategic intelligence (the type world leaders must depend on for major decisions) "actionable intelligence" is almost an oxymoron.

In today's strategic intelligence - of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) and presidential briefing memoranda - there are no smoking guns, no clear, unambiguous jewels of information.

There are only bits and pieces of information - bits and pieces that professional intelligence analysts pore over daily (sifting among the dregs and chaff, connecting the dots and rechecking their work) before presenting professional, well-qualified assessments to the leadership.

If a presidential daily briefing suggested there were al-Qaida cells operating inside the borders of the United States, a prudent man would have insisted on more information, insisted on increased cooperation among the FBI, CIA and State Department, and insisted on increased surveillance of the FBI's immigration and terrorism watch lists.

However, it seems our president assumed the FBI and CIA were working on it and went to play golf in Crawford, Texas - because there was no "actionable intelligence."

And yet after Sept. 11, 2001, when this administration was ramping up for an invasion of Iraq, it chose to take those same ambiguous bits and pieces of information, ignore footnotes in NIEs and create an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

This suggests that analysis of data and of multiple, confusing and conflicting inputs must never be taken out of the hands of professionals and given to presidents, vice presidents, Cabinet officers and their hastily cobbled together intelligence cells.

Frank Dauteuil

Columbia

The writer is a retired government employee who worked for more than 40 years in the U.S. intelligence community.

Bush team asked the wrong questions

Understanding a threat and doing something about it are two different things ("`Bush understood threat,' Rice says," April 9).

Any creative thinker will tell you that until the right questions are asked, answers will be few.

Imagine for a moment that the domestic threat from al-Qaida had been acknowledged by the Bush team in early 2001. What might have transpired?

Clearly, the best minds at our intelligence agencies would have been tasked to construct models of terrorist attack. And once it was recognized that hijackings and aerial assaults on cities were realistic and achievable (and this possibility was in fact mentioned in intelligence briefings before Sept. 11, 2001), the methods by which these attacks might be carried out would have been examined.

It would have required no great sense of imagination for the administration to have issued inquiries to flight schools. The administration also could have made darn sure al-Qaida agents weren't already in the United States.

From day one, however, the Bush team didn't ask the right questions because they had their six-shooters aimed elsewhere.

Lea Jones

Sparks

The president made an honorable choice

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a travesty. All Americans agree on that. Why can't we agree that, in the aftermath, our president, tasked with unimaginably difficult decisions, made a hard but honorable decision to invade Iraq?

He decided that we would take on Saddam Hussein for three reasons, based on intelligence (whose accuracy and validity are fodder for another debate) that showed:

That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could harm the American people.

That there was a link between the terrorism of al-Qaida and Mr. Hussein.

That human rights violations of the worst kind were being perpetrated in Iraq.

If President Bush was mistaken about any of those three points, I forgive him for that. But he surely wasn't wrong about all three of them.

I am simple, plain-spoken and perhaps naive, but no more so than the average American. I don't think Mr. Bush is a genius or a saint (few of us are).

I do think he is an honorable man who was confronted with making decisions under circumstances most of us can hardly imagine.

Because he is our leader, I put my faith in the decisions he makes. I don't believe that he is above reproach. I do think he should be called upon to answer for his decisions.

But I believe, above all else, that self-serving, rancorous, partisan criticism has no place in the battle that he is waging on our behalf.

M. Hancock

Baltimore

Students do care about war in Iraq

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