Accuracy in Media

Controversies about the production and use of intelligence aren’t new in Washington. During the Clinton administration, one estimate about future ballistic missile threats to the U.S. was hotly contested on Capitol Hill. Hearings were held and experts presented testimony that demolished the estimate’s benign judgments about future threats. Over the years, similar controversies have erupted over issues like the Soviet missile buildup and the prospects for victory in Vietnam.

But it’s probably safe to say that no intelligence product has ever generated as much controversy as the 2002 estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs. Before the war, few would have challenged the measured and carefully phrased judgments contained in the declassified version published last October. These judgments were consistent through two administrations and had repeatedly been presented to the Congress.

As is commonplace in such estimates, there were differing points of view on some topics. Three agencies disputed assessments of recent developments in Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. Their dissents, however, were clearly registered in the final product. Moreover, none disputed Saddam’s intention to eventually acquire nuclear warheads.

But when coalition forces failed to turn up any WMD stockpiles after the war, the administration’s critics howled. The attacks came primarily from Congressional Democrats or presidential wannabes, and their friends in the liberal media. The critics attacked not only President Bush’s use of the estimate, but also the integrity of the intelligence community itself. Media accounts, especially those carried in the Washington Post, claim that intelligence analysts had been pressured to produce results tailored to support the administration’s objective of war on Iraq. One New York Times article had intelligence analysts admitting in testimony that they had been subject to extraordinary pressures. Shortly thereafter, however, the Times had to withdraw the allegation.

A senior CIA officer has now taken the unprecedented action of publishing a rebuttal to critics. Stuart Cohen was the acting director of the organization that produced the estimate last summer. He addresses what he says are ten myths that “have been confused with facts in the current media frenzy.” The Washington Post ran an abbreviated version of Cohen’s letter. With the exception of a wire service report by the AP’s John J. Lumpkin, however, the mainstream media ignored Cohen’s defense.

Cohen addresses the main risk of the current controversy. He worries that analysts will “become more and more disinclined to make judgments” without ironclad evidence. After all, what the Community produced was an estimate, Cohen writes, not a Factbook. Cohen is also correct when he writes that analysts almost never have all the facts desired when such estimates are produced. Using their experience and judgment, they take their best shot. Our national security is poorly served if, as a result of this controversy, analysts become too risk-averse to do that.




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