Blowback on the CIA

12/15/2007

BLOWBACK is an intelligence term for adverse, unintended consequences of secret operations. The CIA first used it in a report on the 1953 operation that overthrew the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran.

Some in the intelligence community have been working with liberal journalists and Democrats on Capitol Hill to embarrass President Bush and to stymie his foreign policy initiatives.

The most successful of these covert operations was the Valerie Plame affair, in which White House officials were falsely blamed for outing a CIA undercover officer who was not in fact undercover. (It was then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who inadvertently disclosed Ms. Plame s identity.)

The most recent is the new National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and hasn t resumed it. Michael Ledeen, a former consultant to the National Security Council, described the NIE as policy advocacy masquerading as serious intelligence.

The apparent purpose of the NIE is to make it politically impossible for President Bush to take military action against Iran. But the effort has been so bald that it is blowing back on its authors.

The National Council for Resistance in Iran, the opposition group that first reported the existence of Iran s nuclear weapons program, agrees the program was halted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But in a press conference in Brussels on Tuesday, the NCRI said the program was relocated and restarted in 2004. That conforms with the opinions of Israeli intelligence (who think Iran will have the bomb before the end of 2009) and British intelligence.

Even the notoriously dovish International Atomic Energy Agency thought the NIE went too far. To be frank, we are more skeptical, a senior U.N. official told the New York Times.

International skepticism has caused some journalists to recount the intelligence community s miserable forecasting record. Among the major developments they missed were: Russian development of the atomic bomb; Chinese intervention in the Korean War; the Cuban missile crisis; the Iranian revolution that put the Khomeinists in power; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Saddam s invasion of Kuwait, and Indian development of the atomic bomb. The agencies grossly underestimated Saddam s WMD programs in 1991, and, apparently, grossly overestimated them in 2003.

As international skepticism about the NIE was growing, Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, revealed that in 2005 the agency had destroyed videotapes of its interrogations of two high level al-Qaeda operatives.

Abu Zubaydah and Abd Rahim al Nashiri allegedly were subjected to waterboarding, a technique which simulates drowning that the CIA calls a harsh interrogation technique, but which many in Congress call torture.

Sen. Ted Kennedy compared the destruction of the videotapes to the 18 -minute gap on President Richard Nixon s Watergate tapes.

The pattern is unmistakable, Mr. Kennedy said. The Bush Administration has run roughshod over our ideals and the rule of law. Now, when the new Democratic Congress is demanding answers, the administration is feverishly covering up its tracks.

Unfortunately for his thesis, the tapes were destroyed before the Democrats won the 2006 midterm elections, and the man who ordered the destruction of the tapes Jose Rodriguez, Jr., then the CIA s director of clandestine operations apparently did so without informing the CIA s general counsel or the Bush Administration, and did so against the advice of those few of his political superiors who knew of the existence of the tapes.

It is also unhelpful for Senator Kennedy s thesis that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among those who knew in 2002 the CIA planned to waterboard some terror suspects, and made no objection to it. Current Democratic objections to the practice seem more like politics than principle.

Both the destruction of the videotapes and the efforts to politicize the NIE suggest an arrogance of power by an intelligence community whose abysmal track record will not withstand scrutiny.

The irony is that [intelligence agencies] could endure the old stereotyped slur that they went to excess during the Cold War to ensure the supremacy of the U.S., but they won t long live down the public s current impressions that our intelligence agencies are whiny, incompetent, subversive, and partisan, said military historian Victor Davis Hanson.