Shootout at the CIA Corral

SHOOTOUT AT THE CIA CORRAL….There’s been an argument ever since 9/11 about whether the CIA is up to the job of properly analyzing intelligence from rogue regimes and terrorist groups. Do they have an institutional bias against believing anything unless there’s ironclad proof, or are they properly cautious in the face of mountains of conflicting evidence?

Shortly after 9/11, believing the former, the Pentagon created the Office of Special Plans, a small group of intelligence analysts who were chartered with taking an independent look at evidence they felt was too often given short shrift by the CIA. In the New Yorker this week, Seymour Hersh tells the story of this group, but unfortunately, I think, fails to uncover anything really new. For example, here’s an ex-CIA analyst:

The former intelligence official went on, ?One of the reasons I left was my sense that they were using the intelligence from the C.I.A. and other agencies only when it fit their agenda. They didn?t like the intelligence they were getting, and so they brought in people to write the stuff. They were so crazed and so far out and so difficult to reason with?to the point of being bizarre. Dogmatic, as if they were on a mission from God.? He added, ?If it doesn?t fit their theory, they don?t want to accept it.?

On the other hand, here’s the Pentagon view:

A Pentagon adviser who has worked with Special Plans dismissed any criticism of the operation as little more than bureaucratic whining. ?Shulsky and Luti won the policy debate,? the adviser said. ?They beat ?em?they cleaned up against State and the C.I.A. There?s no mystery why they won?because they were more effective in making their argument. Luti is smarter than the opposition. Wolfowitz is smarter. They out-argued them. It was a fair fight. They persuaded the President of the need to make a new security policy. Those who lose are so good at trying to undercut those who won.? He added, ?I?d love to be the historian who writes the story of how this small group of eight or nine people made the case and won.?

So who’s right? Hersh provides some evidence that the Office of Special Plans deliberately slanted evidence and thereby won the ear of a president who was looking for an excuse for action, but in the end he doesn’t really make a conclusive case about the quality of their analysis. That will have to wait for the final verdict on whether they were right about Saddam’s WMD programs. Check back in a few months.

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