In recent weeks, Accuracy in Media has reported on the efforts of a senior CIA officer to set the record straight on an October 2002 intelligence estimate about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Stuart Cohen, a 30-year CIA veteran, ran the community’s production of that estimate. He has written an op-ed that was published by the Washington Post defending the community’s performance on that estimate. On January 6, he appeared on ABC’s Nightline.
The media have repeatedly alleged that, under intense pressure from the administration, analysts shaded their estimate to support the case for war against Saddam Hussein. Cohen told Nightline’s Ted Koppel that he decided to appear to defend the “integrity and competence” of the analysts who had produced the Iraqi estimate. Their reputation took a further beating in a background piece that Nightline ran before Cohen came on camera.
Nightline correspondent Michelle Martin narrated a series of film clips showing the President and others assuring the world that intelligence proved that Saddam Hussein had WMD. She said that the coalition’s inability to turn up weapons stockpiles, however, has led many to ask how the Intelligence Community got it “so wrong.” She questioned whether analysts had been pressured to tailor their judgments last fall to support the administration’s case for war.
One “expert” told her that, yes, analysts had been pressured by the White House to “conform their views to those held by the administration.” He charged that analysts simply gave the administration what it wanted to hear. That expert’s bio shows no prior experience serving in the U.S. Intelligence Community. But Martin was able to produce a former intelligence officer who implied that analysts had caved into pressure from the administration. She told Martin that analysts were supposed to be immune, but then said they were working for a customer “whose views were well-known.”
When Koppel finally got around to Cohen, his response to these allegations was “nonsense.” He reiterated that the estimate’s judgments were “well-grounded” and based on 15-years worth of evidence collected from multiple intelligence sources. In response to Koppel’s questions about congressional criticisms of the community’s performance, Cohen replied that this intelligence had been repeatedly briefed to “no less than six congressional committees” over the years. There were “no surprises” in the estimate, “no sudden changes” in the community’s judgments, he said.
He also said that the community wasn’t surprised that finding Saddam’s WMD had proven difficult. Saddam had 15 years to develop expertise in concealing his programs and that the weapons themselves have “very small footprints.” Moreover, he said that there were 2,000 people in Baghdad alone “dedicated to stripping facilities bare so that inspectors couldn’t find anything.” He said that some scientists, “more than one or two,” had been killed after talking to inspectors. Cohen gave an effective rebuttal to critics, but that hasn’t stopped the media from repeating those allegations.