Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy

Title:                  Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy

Author:                Paul R. Pillar

Pillar, Paul R. (2012). Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform. New York: Columbia U. Press

LCCN:    2010048141

JK468.I6 P55 2011


Date Updated:  June 30, 2015

This book is a must for anyone interested in how intelligence is used and misused by policymakers, in particular prior to the invasion of Iraq, as well as historic examples by past administrations. As the National Intelligence Officer [NIO] for the Near East/South Asia from 2000 to 2004, and previously as deputy in CIA’s CounterTerrorism Center, few people have the background and experience that the author has in viewing these turbulent years. Bonus: the book is not only an insider’s view, but also thoughtful and well written. It is not without flaws; but they are few in contrast to the wealth of informed judgment that Pillar brings to the subject.

Question: Did the Bush Administration go to war in Iraq through a deliberative process that identified reasons pro and con? Pillar states there was “the absence of any apparent procedure for the determination of whether the war was a good idea…” thus agreeing with other insiders, such as former Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill and Deputy Sec. of State Richard Armitage. But the administration needed a reason to “sell” the idea of war to the American public. In August 2002, it was decided that the threat posed by Iraq’s potential for using so-called weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological, and nuclear, the latter the only truly “mass destruction” weapon – would be used justification. The CIA was asked to produce a hurried National Intelligence Estimate on this topic. Pillar agrees that the NIE was badly flawed, that the key judgments “leaned forward” in government parlance, agreeing that a threat was there. However, as Pillar notes, the body of the NIE spelled out in detail the flimsy nature of the evidence, the disagreements by the Department of Energy and State as to the key findings. But almost no one bothered to read the entire text, and hence understand the fragile factual basis of the estimate.

Pillar agrees with critics as to flawed analysis and acknowledges that insufficient attention was given to alternatives of the conventional wisdom that though little evidence was available, somehow Saddam had managed to hide something that gave credence to the threat. Pillar is scornful of the administration’s taking the NIE and elaborating, suggesting far more – the mushroom cloud – than even the flawed estimated stated. Pillar is also scathing that the Bush Administration cited the WMD NIE as gospel, but ignored later and prior to the war estimates that an invasion of Iraq would be costly and likely result in long-term internal conflict among the various groups in Iraq.

Other examples of how policymakers, in Pillar’s view, fail to pay attention to intelligence assessments unless the assessment agrees with the policymaker’s own judgment and perceptions are included, notably the failure of Vietnam policymakers to heed the pessimistic, and largely accurate, intelligence judgments of that war and probable outcome. Pillar feels that intelligence has been largely useless and ignored in helping policymakers, primarily because those who reach key positions – the presidency, other high officials, advisors – are so steeped in their own mindsets of how the world works, or should be, that they are immune to contrary advice. This may be overdrawn and that while the main point is well taken, there are examples where the advice of intelligence officials have helped clarify to policymakers the foreign policy problems they face.

Finally, the author is extremely critical of the influence of the 9/11 Commission, and its recommendation to create an office of Director of National Intelligence. Pillar is not alone in that many former CIA officers and others share his view. He blames Philip Zeiikow, the commission’s staff director and his close ties with Condi Rice, in exonerating the Bush Administration’s laxness – byRice, President Bush and other officials – as to the danger of an al Qaeda attack prior to 9/11.

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One Response to Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy

  1. Pingback: Company Confessions | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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