A quick note on Stephen Hayes new article Iraq-al Qaida link story, âCase Closedâ, in the Weekly Standard.
(I was watching Fox News Sunday this morning and saw Fred Barnes — Executive Editor of the Standard — go almost apoplectic about how devastating and case-closing a piece it is.)
In any case, the quick note.
First, congratulations to Steve for a great scoop. He and I disagree about most things these days. But I’m certainly an admirer of his work.
But is it “case closed”? Not quite. More like, case restated.
What do we already know about the intelligence wars over the Iraq-al Qaida link?
We know that most of the Intelligence Community didn’t think there was much there. Some contacts, but nothing substantial. We also know that Doug Feith — along with other administration appointees — didn’t agree. And Feith set up his own intelligence shop at the Pentagon to review all the raw data and find what the CIA and others had missed, misinterpreted or buried.
They came up with a raft of purported connections between Saddam and al Qaida. But when they presented their findings to professional analysts in the rest of the Intelligence Community, most notably at the CIA, the consensus was that those findings didn’t pass the laugh-test.
And who put together this new memo, the one the Standard article is based on? “The U.S. Government,” as the headline of the article says?
Not exactly. As Steve’s article makes clear, the authorship is a bit more specific. “The memo,” writes Steve …
dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was written in response to a request from the committee as part of its investigation into prewar intelligence claims made by the administration. Intelligence reporting included in the 16-page memo comes from a variety of domestic and foreign agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources.
In other words, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee is doing their investigation into the pre-war intelligence. This memo is what Doug Feith sent them representing their side of the story. With the exception of some tidbits from interviews with Iraqis now in custody, this is, to all appearances, the same bill of particulars that Feith’s shop put together in 2002 and which was panned by the analysts in the rest of the Intel community.
So, the first point to make is that there seems to be little if anything here that the folks in the rest of the Intel Community — outside of Special Plans — did not see before concluding that there were no significant links between Iraq and al Qaida.
Point two is that Feith’s shop, the Office of Special Plans, the original source of this memo, gained an apparently richly-deserved reputation for what intel analysts call cherry-picking. That is, culling raw intel data to find all the information that supports the conclusion you want to find and then ignoring all the rest.
Now, of course, Feith’s advocates say that everyone else was just doing their own sort of cherry-picking, picking the evidence that supported their preconceived notions, etc. But this is simply another example of a pattern which we see widely in this administration: the inability to recognize that there is such a thing as expertise which is anything more than a cover for ideological predilection (for more on this, see this article.)
More to the point, there’s now a record. These are the folks, remember, who had the most outlandish reads on the extent of Iraq’s WMD capacities and the most roseate predictions about the ease of the post-war reconstruction. So their record of interpreting raw intelligence is, shall we say, objectively poor.
Having said all this, I am, needless to say, not a trained analyst. I’ll be commenting on various points in the piece that I know something about. But there’s really little point in my speculating on the meaning of the various data points raised in this memo. Much of the value of this evidence rests on the reliability of the sources and methods used to find it. And we on the outside have little way of knowing who the sources were or how reliable they are. Also, you’d want people who could put the data points into their proper context.
So, let’s read Hayes’ article, but also be clear on the character and source of the memo he’s discussing and wait till other knowledgeable folks weigh in with their opinion of what it means.