Accuracy in Media

Paul Pillar is the latest former official to seize the media spotlight by attacking the Bush Administration’s reasons for going to war in Iraq. He claims the Bush administration deliberately cherry-picked the evidence from the Intelligence buffet of facts, potential scenarios and best-evidence findings.

On the surface, it seems like Pillar should know. He was, after all, in the CIA for 28 years until his recent retirement, and from 2000 to 2005 was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

In a carefully orchestrated unveiling, the Washington Post on February 10 broke the story of his then-soon-to-be-released article in Foreign Affairs, the publication of the Council on Foreign Relations. His charges gained immediate traction. Pillar went on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, and later on C-SPAN. According to the Post, “Pillar’s critique is one of the most severe indictments of White House actions by a former Bush official since Richard C. Clarke, a former National Security Council staff member.”

But when pressed, Pillar corroborates the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Robb Silverman WMD Report, and the Iraq Survey Group report. The bottom line is that there was no pressuring of any analysts to give the Bush administration the “evidence” it wanted. He claimed the politicization was subtle, and in his article wrote that “It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision.”

To his credit, Wolf Blitzer pointed out that Pillar was the person responsible for putting together the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and asked him if he believed that Saddam possessed WMD. “There was a strong consensus,” said Pillar, “not only here in the United States but overseas, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

In fact, Bush was more skeptical than the CIA. As we know from Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, after hearing the CIA’s best case in December 2002 from director George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, Bush asked, “This is the best we’ve got?” That’s when Tenet assured him it was a “slam-dunk.”

It’s just a short jump from Pillar’s rather vague accusations to popular conspiracy theories about why Bush went to war. You pick it—oil, World Dominance; Skull & Bones; neoconservatives looking out for Israel or bent on a mission of democratization of the Middle East; or Bush standing up for his Dad?

The fact remains that, unlike then-president Clinton, who led a military action against Serbia without seeking or acquiring congressional approval, President Bush sought the approval of Congress and got it. And this was after Congress passed—and Clinton had signed—a policy seeking regime change in Iraq.

After getting congressional approval, the U.S. took the matter to the United Nations, where it got a unanimous Security Council resolution, 1441, to give Iraq one last chance to come clean on its weapons of mass destruction programs. The clear implication was that if Iraq didn’t cooperate, the next step would be military action. Some conservatives have argued that the Bush administration wasted precious time going to the UN for approval of the war in the first place.

Hans Blix, who led the UN inspectors back into Iraq in November of 2002, returned after 60 days to tell the world body and the world that “Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament which was demanded of it and which it needs to carry out to win the confidence of the world and to live in peace.” It was clear by that point that the war had become inevitable. And yet Bush presented Saddam Hussein with a final ultimatum, another chance to prevent the war. When he refused to come clean, the Bush administration did try to get another UN resolution, though it didn’t believe it was necessary. Still, 50 nations signed on to the use of force against Iraq, including the overwhelming majority of European countries. Those that didn’t support it, France, and Germany, along with Russia, had massive financial ties to the Iraqi regime. Thirty nations sent personnel to Iraq.

In the face of all of this comes Paul Pillar, another disgruntled former CIA official. According to Guillermo Christensen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, “it is hard to think of anyone in the government who was more directly involved in reaching the wrong conclusions about what was going on in Iraq than Mr. Pillar himself.”

Christensen was a CIA intelligence officer for 15 years, and is currently with the Council on Foreign Relations. He says Pillar was in the best position of anyone to draft a National Intelligence Estimate, “recording for all what was going on in Iraq.” He says Pillar has a political agenda, against this administration, and “made no bones about it in discussions with think-tank audiences long before he left the agency.” He accuses Pillar of “violating his confidences” and causing damage to the CIA. “For a CIA officer to discard this neutral role and to inject himself in the political realm is plain wrong,” wrote Christensen. “It will end up making the CIA even less relevant than it is today, if that is possible.”

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