I just picked up the newly revised and expanded edition of Thomas Powers' Intelligence Wars, a compilation of his essays from The New York Review of Books. And in the preface to the new edition -- which is all I've had a chance to read so far -- he talks about the key structural problem with the CIA, which is, paradoxically, its 'responsiveness' -- its sensitivity, eagerness to please and validate the beliefs, agendas, aims, even the fantasies of its master, the sitting President of the United States.
(For some sense of this 'responsiveness', see this highly telling, though perhaps now much-regretted column by Jim Hoagland from October 20, 2002 in which Hoagland describes how steady pressure from the White House got the Agency to get religion on Iraq and WMD. Actually, to be more precise, it describes how pressure from the White House led not only to getting religion but to the elevation of what we might call the most 'responsive' folks at Langley. Later, of course, Hoagland shifted gears to the 'CIA sold the White House a bill of goods' thesis after word came down from HQ to stop zigging and start zagging.)
Today, everyone is waiting with frenzied expectation to see what's going to be contained in that soon-to-be-released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq intelligence failures.
Here's one thing I suspect we'll hear about.
Remember those aluminum tubes?
Those were the tubes imported by Iraq which were so precisely and finely manufactured that they could only have been intended for use in gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. That was the story at least -- the tubes that launched a thousand ships in the tragicomic Dubyiad.
There were always doubters, of course. And some rather important ones, particularly the experts at the Department of Energy -- the folks in the US government who actually have real experience in enriching uranium and making nuclear weapons, a rather potent credential.
They didn't think the aluminum tubes were for nukes.
Yet that seemingly qualified verdict was overruled by contending voices at the CIA, particularly one analyst who took up the tubes case aggressively.
As David Albright wrote in March 2003, "For over a year and a half, an analyst at the CIA has been pushing the aluminum tube story, despite consistent disagreement by a wide range of experts in the United States and abroad. His opinion, however, obtained traction in the summer of 2002 with senior members of the Bush Administration, including the President."
In any case, who did the actual technical analysis of the tubes for the CIA? Apparently they hired an outside consultant/contractor -- given the US government's expertise in the production of nuclear weapons, a rather dubious instance of outsourcing. And that contractor came back with the thumbs up on the nuclear verdict.
But the thumb, it seems, didn't start out up. It needed help.
Apparently, the first time they came back with their judgment it was either ambiguous or negative on whether these tubes seemed likely to be destined for an Iraqi nuclear program.
Only that wasn't the answer the tube-master at the CIA wanted. And they were told so in no uncertain terms.
Getting the thumbs-up apparently required a bit of couching, a clear message that the initial thumbs-down (or perhaps thumbs-sideways) wasn't the right answer.
Verdict number two, I'm told, came back on the mark, with an answer finely tuned to meet the required specifications.