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Wrongly blame the CIA

IT IS VERY much in the national interest to review and correct intelligence errors made before the Sept. 11 attacks and before the war in Iraq. But evaluations of what has gone wrong in the gathering, analysis, and use of intelligence must be kept uncontaminated by partisan politics.

This is a hard thing to do in the heat of a presidential campaign. Nevertheless, the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States did make an admirable effort to avoid the partisan blame game. Unfortunately, early accounts of a forthcoming Senate Select Committee report on prewar intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction suggest an inclination to absolve President Bush and Vice President Cheney of any responsibility for mistaken assumptions about those weapons, shifting a preponderance of the blame onto the CIA and its outgoing director, George Tenet.

This is the effect of a disclosure in the committee's report that some relatives of Iraqi scientists told agency officers they thought Saddam Hussein's WMD programs had been discontinued. As reported by The New York Times, the CIA's failure to tell Bush and Cheney what those relatives of Iraqi scientists had said makes it appear that the agency deceived the president and vice president into taking the nation to war on a false premise.

There are many grounds for criticizing things that were done or left undone during Tenet's seven-year tenure at the CIA. But a voluminous public record of the back and forth between Tenet and the Bush administration's policy makers indicates that CIA analysts were often skeptical of assumptions about Saddam's WMDs that Bush, Cheney, and other consumers of intelligence wanted to propound as the primary justification for the war that removed Saddam from power. Tenet persuaded Bush to delete from a speech he gave in Cincinnati a false claim about an Iraqi purchase of uranium yellowcake from the African nation of Niger.

If the Senate Select Committee chaired by Kansas Republican Pat Roberts makes it appear that Tenet's CIA misled Bush and Cheney by withholding uncorroborated statements that analysts had reason to be dubious about, the committee will be turning on its head the relationship between the White House and the CIA. Intelligence professionals justifiably resent the constant pressure put on CIA analysts, especially from Cheney and top civilians in the Defense Department, to come up with the intelligence product those policy makers desired.

Tenet's major mistake was to trade pliancy for access to Bush and budget largesse. But it was Bush, Cheney, and the Defense Department civilians who politicized intelligence analysis to suit their policy needs. It would only compound that original error if the Roberts committee politicized its analysis of what went wrong. 

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