Using a presidential commission to cover up a scandal is an old Washington trick. Here, John Prados examines both scandals: the original manipulation of intelligence and the manipulation of the commission. Bottom line: the politicization of intelligence was the "smoking gun" for this administration, and Judge Silberman just issued a get-out-of-jail-free card.
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive, and author of the book Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (The New Press).
If you saw President George W. Bush the other day and thought he looked relieved as he publicly acceped the conclusions of the commission he had set up to examine U.S. intelligence on the Iraq war, you were exactly right. The event marked the end of a perilous journey for Bush, in which he had set out to neutralize the public's belief that he and other senior officials had deliberately manipulated U.S. intelligence on Iraq to obtain authority to wage aggressive war against another country.
Administration manipulation of the Iraq intelligence, an explosive issue in a presidential election year, had bedeviled George Bush for half a year, since U.S. forces that had conquered Iraq could find none of the weapons the president and his minions had so stridently insisted were there. Bush had already had a near-death experience when the Senate Select Intelligence Committee initiated its own investigation of the Iraq intelligence. The committee chairman, Kansas Republican Pat Roberts had managed to get the question of the political use of the intelligence postponed to a (nonexistent) second phase of his inquiry—a great relief to President Bush. But Roberts's action could not quell rising demands within Congress for investigation that covered this issue, and repeated media reporting suggesting the political manipulation had occurred.
President Bush thought he had a perfect instrument in the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. After resisting the creation of any such presidential panel to investigate the Iraq mess for more than eight months, in February 2004 Bush suddenly gave way and established such a group. Creating the commission permitted the president to insist something was being done and to demand that the drumfire of criticism cease while the panel got on with its work. Giving the group a reporting date months after the election postponed the issue until after the moment when it mattered (but did not prevent Bush from claiming the 2004 election had been a referendum on his conduct of Iraq policy). Making the panel's proceedings secret kept its discoveries out of the news during those critical months.
Bush controlled the circumstances of surfacing this commission extremely carefully. President Bush made it impossible for anyone to ask about the inquiry. The president appeared in the White House press room for just a few moments on February 6, making a brief statement announcing the panel. He took no questions. Bush misappropriated congressional testimony only a week old from weapons inspector David Kay (who had detailed U.S. inability to find any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction) to assert that Kay had identified Saddam Hussein's regime as "a gathering threat to the world"—Bush's own prewar rhetoric. Statements from commission co-chairmen Laurence B. Silberman and Charles S. Robb were limited to a few sentences. There was no press briefing by his media aide Scott McClellan. In fact, McClellan had no exchanges with the press for three days afterward. The panelists gave no press conferences, either.
Establishing the panel by executive order, Bush gave it no authority to investigate how his administration had used the Iraq intelligence, and he diluted its mission by piling on additional tasks—instructing the panel to look into other cases as well. Of nine commissioners, only Admiral William O. Studeman and Henry S. Rowen had any professional intelligence experience, while Silberman had had peripheral involvement.
The device of creating a presidential commission to sweep problems under the rug is a time-honored tradition in Washington. In fact, it was used in the last major scandal of this type, the Iran-Contra affair, in which President Ronald Reagan formed a commission headed by Senator John Tower to establish how White House officials had engaged in weapons sales to Iran and illegal funding of Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Reporting in February 1987, the Tower board—which had not batted an eyelash when Reagan told them he remembered nothing of the events that triggered the scandal—obligingly concluded that the trail of involvement went no higher than national security adviser John M. Poindexter and National Security Council staff aide Oliver L. North.
Both North and Poindexter were among those put on trial in Iran-Contra, and both were convicted. North's conviction—and subsequently Poindexter's as well—were set aside after a contentious hearing before an appeals court that included then-District of Columbia circuit court judge Laurence B. Silberman, whose arbitrary treatment of the prosecuting lawyer led Iran-Contra special counsel Lawrence E. Walsh to consider asking judiciary authorities to reprimand the judge. Coincidentally or not, it was Silberman whom George W. Bush selected to co-chair his Iraq intelligence commission.
Silberman has long hovered on the fringes of important political and security events. As a Justice Department lawyer at the time of Watergate, Silberman forced CIA Watergate pointman William E. Colby to give up the identity of John D. Ehrlichman as the White House official who had conveyed a demand that the agency turn off the FBI investigation of that affair. Justice had then done nothing about Ehrlichman, until Richard Nixon decided he could not afford to protect him any more. Later Silberman headed the Reagan transition team for the intelligence community, considered one of the most ideological ever, which recommended a wholesale purge of the top twenty percent or so of CIA's ranks. Most recently, after 9/11, Silberman sat with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) of Review, rejecting legal arguments that FISC powers be circumscribed (incidentally, the Silberman-Robb commission report happens to contain a recommendation that FISC-approved wiretaps and so-called pen registers be further freed from restrictions as an intelligence "reform" to counter proliferation).
The most remarkable aspect of the presidential commission report is the convolutions to which it resorts to insulate Bush officials from suggestions that they influenced the intelligence. In one instance, the report discusses two analysts with the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), a community-wide unit administratively located within the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which works for Donald Rumsfeld. The analysts told the commission their less-threatening data about Iraqi chemical weapons was kept out of the intelligence estimates. The commission report concludes that because DIA had an opportunity to review the NGIC data, and chose not to present it at the meeting coordinating the Iraq estimates (ie, suppressed the evidence), no politicization occurred.
Similarly, Paul Pillar, a senior intelligence officer at CIA who drafted part of the Iraq estimate, told the commission that a certain climate had become pervasive in the intelligence community with respect to permissible judgments about Iraqi weapons. To put it another way, self-censorship prevailed. The commission then concludes—and Charles Robb reiterated this at the press conference marking the release of its report—that no one had come forward to claim they had been forced to change a conclusion due to political pressure. Ergo, "The Commission has found no evidence of 'politicization' of the Intelligence Community's assessments."
Just a few pages later, the report presents the story of two weapons analysts who showed—by investigation in Iraq after the conquest—that a certain human source (the defector "Curveball") was not employed by the Iraqis at the dates when certain equipment had been manufactured, and was not even in Iraq when he claimed a certain incident occurred. "Curveball" had been the star of the Bush team's prewar push to paint Saddam as a threat. When the analysts brought back their results they were read the riot act and transferred to other jobs. Reluctance to withdraw the "Curveball" allegations was specifically attributed to "concerns about how this would look to the 'Seventh Floor' [the Director's office] and to 'downtown' [the White House]." The commission actually castigates the CIA for its continuing delay in issuing a correction about alleged Iraqi mobile biological weapons plants—a central "Curveball" allegation. It then limply concludes that managers must "create an atmosphere in which . . . debate is encouraged" and that (in the very next paragraph) "in sum, there was no 'politicization' of the intelligence product."
Despite items like this, the Silberman-Robb commission says nothing about the Bush administration's use of the intelligence, and what it does say is highly disturbing. In fact the commission invites politicization, while explicitly denying that this is what its prescription amounts to. The cover letter transmitting the report declares "no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment." Again, "The Intelligence Community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policymakers-sometimes to the point of discomfort." And then, "This is not 'politicization'; it is a necessary part of the intelligence process." It's perfectly OK for Dick Cheney to spend his afternoons at Langley making the analysts do their homework over until they come up with the answer he wants. The two co-chairmen at their March 31 press conference releasing the final report went to lengths to say that the president and his colleagues have to be free to "push back" on intelligence reports—to assure themselves that the data is the best and the conclusions the right ones.
For Bush, March 31 marked the passage of another shoal, a trap to be forgotten. Curiously, though, Bush's handlers missed one trick—in selecting March 31, 2005, as delivery date for this report they missed the obvious parallel of March 31, 1968. On that day, exactly 35 years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson went on television to say that events in Vietnam had decided him to abandon his pursuit of the presidency in that election year, so that he could focus entirely on the war then consuming America. Johnson's announcement—effectively a resignation—represented the acceptance of responsibility. George Bush's action is the avoidance of responsibility. By not confronting the core issue, public fears are left to fester. It is the way in matters like this that such flawed responses as the Silberman-Robb commission fail to stanch the gradual emergence of evidence implicating the president. One day, Bush's evasion will come home to roost, and the comparison with LBJ will show just how wanting is the present occupant of the White House.