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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, March 18, 2004
 

The Dana Priest 'Pentagon intel pooh-pooh' revisited


On March 14, I took an initial look at a DP piece whose apparent message was that the often-lurid stories from anti-war folks about the Pentagon's private intelligence operation were overdone: Circulez, y'a rien à voir!

A message not likely to be welcome to those for whom Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and Co are the spawn of Beelzebub.

And - if true - no more welcome here, where Priest is highly regarded. If not mildly crushed on. My hypothesis/druther is that she is in thrall neither to neocons nor Bush-bashers, but only to the evidence, such as it is.

Let's have a look-see:

(The double-decker heds I take it are not Priest's.)

Her opening graf is notable, as I pointed out in my earlier piece, for not being in the inverted pyramid style. Some kind of a word to the wise from Priest, perhaps, that her article is not to be read straight?

And consider the substance:
In February 2002, Christina Shelton, a career Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was combing through old intelligence on Iraq when she stumbled upon a small paragraph in a CIA report from the mid-1990s that stopped her.

Isn't Shelton doing a job comparable to that of Valerie Plame, whose outing is still under investigation? She's not namechecked online, so far as I can see, prior to the Priest piece. And love that stumble: an early indication that Priest is guying the whole thing.

And then, Shelton spends two months researching Iraq-Al Qaeda links. And, we learn, Douglas Feith
was so impressed that he set up a briefing for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was so impressed he asked her to brief CIA Director George J. Tenet in August 2002.

Two impresseds in the same sentence? That is piss-taking, rather than a dozy copy-editor, I suspect. Because, if you reckon that February plus two months brings one to the start of May, at the latest; and, with all these top guys being - impressed, the pow-wow with Tenet takes until August?

Not being au fait with the substance, I can't tell what Priest is signalling there; but it seems to me she's clearly signalling something.

Then we get to the words Congressional Democrats contend - after the magazine-style intro, we're back in the familiar domain of he said, she said political coverage. Their contention:
the Office of Special Plans and the Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group were established by Rumsfeld, Feith and other defense hawks expressly to bypass the CIA and other intelligence agencies. They argue that the offices supplied the administration with information, most of it discredited by the regular intelligence community, that President Bush, Cheney and others used to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.

And, in the next graf, we get her list of sources:
But interviews with senior defense officials, White House and CIA officials, congressional sources and others yield a different portrait of the work done by the two Pentagon offices.

(The copy-editor who wrote the heds picked up that this a piece ostensibly designed to right a balance unfairly tilted towards the Dem theory, as described.)

Her first revelations:
Neither the House nor Senate intelligence committees, for example, which have been investigating prewar intelligence for eight months, have found support for allegations that Pentagon analysts went out and collected their own intelligence, congressional officials from both parties say. Nor have investigators found that the Pentagon analysis about Iraq significantly shaped the case the administration made for going to war.

What does
collected their own intelligence
mean? If it's talking about the OSP running its own agents - USG employees - in the field, I'm not sure that has ever been alleged. My understanding was that the OSP's main 'crimes' in the eyes of the USIC were
  1. to use alleged intel spoon-fed to it by Ahmed Chalabi and others among the Iraqi exile community; and

  2. to cherry-pick isolated pieces of intel favourable to their viewpoints, without regard to provenance, context, other intel, as any respectable, sane intelligence operation would do.

The OSP's James Bond would clearly be a straw man. Or red herring.

And
significantly shaped the case
are words so vague (Yes, Minister's Sir Humphrey Appleby would be mightily impressed by the technique!) as to suggest they were chosen for that very reason.

Because Priest goes on to say that Donald Rumsfeld
has a history of skepticism about the intelligence community's analysis
and Douglas Feith had a
belief that the CIA and other intelligence agencies dangerously undervalued threats to U.S. interests.

The OSP and PCEG were there for something more than chi-iking at the USIC from the bleachers:
"The strategic thinking was the Middle East is going down the tubes. It's getting worse, not better," said one former senior Pentagon official who worked closely with Feith's offices. "I don't think we thought there was objective evidence that could be got from CIA, DIA, INR," he added, referring to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's main intelligence office, and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

One gets the impression that Rummy and boys thought that their shops, though small, were worth their weight in gold: Priest seems to be suggesting otherwise.

She says that the PCEG
never grew larger than two people [1];
and notes that the PCEG's
largest project was what one participant called a "sociometric diagram" of links between terrorist organizations and their supporters around the world

This paper
was meant to challenge the "conventional wisdom," said one senior defense official, that terrorist groups did not work together.

It looked "like a college term paper," said one senior Pentagon official who saw the analysis. It was hundreds of connecting lines and dots footnoted with binders filled with signals intelligence, human source reporting and even thirdhand intelligence accounts of personal meetings between terrorists.


A document, she seems to be saying, impressive only as a work of such evident industry by so small a staff! Damning with faint praise, in fact.

The Priest sense of humour comes out in:
If anything, the analysis reinforced the view of top Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul N. Wolfowitz and Feith, that Hussein's Iraq had worrisome contacts with al Qaeda over the last decade that could only be expected to grow.

Love that If anything! And reinforced the view - she's saying it's a piece of hack-work cooked up to stroke the prejudices of the writers' bosses [2].

And how?
The evaluation group's other job was to read through the huge, daily stream of intelligence reporting on terrorism and "highlight things of interest to Feith," said one official involved in the process.

The cherries were duly picked.

Then we get some more quote marks, which mean fun.

(Of course, all the sources here are anonymous: the new WaPo memo, all that jazz...hey, it's intel! Don't worry, be happy...)

Quite how Priest has verified that these are the ipsissima verba - so as to justify the quote marks - the Lord only knows. Feith, she said, said
It was interesting enough that I brought it to Secretary Rumsfeld because Secretary Rumsfeld is well known for being a particularly intelligent reader of intelligence.

Now, is it Feith who's deadpanning there, or Priest, I wonder?

The Tenet briefing took place on August 15 2002 at Langley (Pentagon travels to CIA - that, I suspect is not without significance, bureaucratically speaking).

And some more inverted commas:
"The feedback that I got from George right after the briefing was, 'That was very helpful, thank you,' " Feith said.

That little thank you is a real killer.

The CIA reaction?
CIA officials who sat in the briefing were nonplussed. The briefing was all "inductive analysis," according to one participant's notes from the meeting. The data pointed to "complicity and support," nothing more. "Much of it, we had discounted already," said another participant.

And, Priest said, the Tenet briefing never reached Rice, Cheney or Bush - Yay! On-the-record quote! Take a bow, Sean McCormack.

(The infamous Weekly Standard piece came from the Powerpoint slides from the briefing, it seems. I mention for the benefit of those collecting examples to prove PPT is a global mindsuck.)

Finally, she mentions the letter of October 7 2002 from CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin to the Senate Intelligence Committee:
We have solid evidence of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa'ida going back a decade.

At the time, I tried to make the point about the difference between contacts and cooperation (October 10 2002).

On the OSP, Priest is brief. She says
It was given a nondescript name to purposefully hide the fact that, although the administration was publicly emphasizing diplomacy at the United Nations, the Pentagon was actively engaged in war planning and postwar planning.

(In fact, the name comes across as fictional: it has a Tintin feel to it. Was anyone fooled?)

There's an odd reference to various items
according to a chart hanging in the special plans office, Room 1A939, several months ago.

No source, even anonymous, is given for this chart: does one infer that Priest herself eyeballed it?

She ends with a Rummy quote on the OSP:
We brief the president. We brief the vice president. We brief the [CIA director]. We brief the secretary of state. . . . That is not only not a bad thing, it's a good thing.

I'd bet a low-value dead president he was grinning as he said it.

So what is Priest telling us? I think, to believe neither the Grassy Knollers who suggest there are the makings of a parallel state over at the Pentagon, nor the bromides of Rummy and Co that there were just a small bunch of guys keeping tabs on the intelligence paperwork.

(The reason the OSP/PCEG did not affect USG strategy is that that strategy was already set: to invade Iraq when the time was ripe. They did provide (doctor?) material which served in USG's propaganda war, foreign and domestic - not a negligible contribution.

But they also gave the Rummy and Co an acronym they could call their own: one wonders how far Bush understood that the derision the rest of USIC heaped on the OSP was soundly based, rather than the usual intel civil wars.)

Whether or not my interpretation of Priest's view is correct, one wonders why Big Media conventions prevent her speaking in plain language, rather than in the Babylonian cuneiform that her March 13 piece appears to be cast.

  1. The PCEG, then, started as just Christina Shelton [the irony that she is from the DIA, much despised by Feith and the gang, we'll leave aside]; later,
    In the summer of 2002, Shelton, who had been working virtually on her own, was joined by Christopher Carney, a naval reservist and associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Together they completed their study on the links between al Qaeda and Iraq.
    This doesn't fit the two months mentioned above. It makes the August 2002 timing of the briefing of George Tenet more reasonable. Except, if there was such gold being mined by Shelton and Carney, why not put more bodies on the job?

    Unless, of course, the war timetable was already fixed, and accordingly there was no need for haste....

  2. Is the supplying of middle initials in names mentioned for the first time a WaPo house-style thing? Or is this more Priest humour?


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