And off the plank

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And off the plank he goes. CNN is running breaking news that CIA Director George Tenet is taking “responsibility for incorrect information in State of the Union address about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa.”

This may not be good public policy or accountability. But I will say this: it’ll make for a great absurdist novel. (And since I’m casting around for a book idea I’m taking serious note. Where’s Joseph Heller when you need him?)

Here’s the deal, one which will be fairly familiar to anyone who has been reporting on this story for the last eighteen months. Broadly speaking, the internal battles which have gone on in the executive branch over Iraq have pitted the career intelligence bureaucracy against more ideological types — often political appointees. There’s been a lot of overlap between that division and one between the CIA and State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President on the other, with the CIA and State having a much more skeptical take on the WMD/terrorism case against Iraq and the OVP and Pentagon having a much more maximal one.

The maximalists pushed like crazy to get this Niger-uranium charge and other dubious charges into the president’s speech and into the argument for war generally. Now, we hear that it’s the CIA’s fault for not having insisted strenuously enough that the White House not retail bogus information to the American people.

Like I said, the absurdist novel.

Ken Pollack captured some of this in his interview with TPM last week …

But in deference to my old friends at CIA … they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don’t think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it’s false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this? … I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren’t sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn’t want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much — what’s the word I’m looking for? — attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.

Now Tenet has come forward and said, essentially, that his agency did not stand firm enough in the face of the White House’s insistence on using intelligence reports that almost everyone in the intelligence community believed were bogus. (Bear in mind that everything that is being said about Tenet applies equally to Powell.) Frankly, I think he’s right. They didn’t. No one resigned. No one went to the mat over this.

But what does that mean exactly?

Let’s look at what Tenet said in his statement

Officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.

Again, I think Tenet is right. Going with the British say-so for an intelligence judgment that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies believed was bogus “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches.” That’s a huge understatement, I’d say. He probably should be canned.

But who suggested hanging the allegation on the Brits? According to Rice and Tenet, the CIA was uncomfortable with including the allegation in the first place. Did they suggest the British angle? Not likely.

Here, frankly, is what I think happened. The White House wanted to include this charge in the State of the Union address. The CIA, as Pollack makes clear, had been getting beaten over the head for more than a year for intelligence assessments that, in Pollack’s words, “weren’t sufficiently alarmist.” But including an allegation in the State of the Union which they more or less knew to be false was just further than they could go. They balked.

The White House and folks from the Agency then started a negotiation over what was okay to put in the speech. At this point, someone suggested hanging the charge on the Brits. Again, I think it’s very hard to believe that this suggestion came from the CIA folks. And in fact we have both NPR’s and CBS’s reporting saying that the suggestion came from the White House side. Saying that the British said this was technically true. Thus the speech was technically true.

The problem was that it was willfully misleading since the CIA believed the Brits were wrong. The people on the Agency side seem to have decided that the White House had made their objections to such unhelpful information very clear. They felt they’d acquitted themselves of their minimum responsibility but getting the statement into the technically true category. And they relented.

That was a terrible decision. No one had the guts to resign over this or really make a stink. Maybe heads should roll at the Agency. Maybe it should be Tenet’s.

But all of this begs the obvious and singularly important question: the charge is that CIA didn’t push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president’s speech. Who was pushing on the other side? Who was pushing to keep the bogus information in? And why?

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