CIA Versus White House

If anyone ever thought the war between the White House and the CIA boiled down to some kind of senseless, meaningless bureaucratic squabble with no real consequences for the future of our security, think again.

The partisanship, ideological conflicts, personality clashes, arrogance and turf wars that have marked the last five years of bureaucratic wrangling between the two sides has now poisoned the relationship between the White House and our intelligence agencies to the point that neither trusts the other. What this means is really quite simple.

As we try and figure out the best way to confront Iran, our government is hopelessly divided.

While policymakers and intelligence analysts square off over threat assessments regarding Iran and the mullah's intentions, the distrust exhibited by both sides has spilled over into the public arena and threatens to paralyze our ability to respond to the regional challenge of Iran and the global challenges inherent in their support for terrorism. The New York Times reports:

"Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are voicing anger that American spy agencies have not issued more ominous warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States.

"The complaints, expressed privately in recent weeks, surfaced in a congressional report about Iran released Wednesday. They echo the tensions that divided the administration and the Central Intelligence Agency during the prelude to the war in Iraq.

"The criticisms reflect the views of some officials inside the White House and the Pentagon who advocated going to war with Iraq and now are pressing for confronting Iran directly over its nuclear program and ties to terrorism, say officials with knowledge of the debate."

There is plenty of fault to go around for this state of affairs. Some blame must be ascribed to the institutional myopia of our intelligence agencies, a characteristic that punishes "thinking outside the box" and rocking the boat.

With so much emphasis placed on consensus-building, it is tempting to dismiss intelligence that doesn't fit the mold created by the necessity of having to satisfy so many interests -- State, Defense and the White House. This leads to maddening generalities and overly cautious assessments that to many in the administration is simply unacceptable:

"The new report, from the House Intelligence Committee, led by Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, portrayed Iran as a growing threat and criticized American spy agencies for cautious assessments about Iran's weapons programs.

"'Intelligence community managers and analysts must provide their best analytical judgments about Iranian W.M.D. programs and not shy away from provocative conclusions or bury disagreements in consensus assessments,' the report said, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction like nuclear arms.

"Some policy makers also said they were displeased that American spy agencies were playing down intelligence reports -- including some from the Israeli government -- of extensive contacts recently between Hezbollah and members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. 'The people in the community are unwilling to make judgment calls and don't know how to link anything together,' one senior United States official said."

Part of the problem is certainly the Bush administration's belief in vending machine intelligence analysis; put a request for information into the slot and out come the answers. That may be a gross oversimplification but it is clear that there are some in the White House who believe that the CIA should be doing a much better job. In a sense, one can sympathize with the quandary our policymakers are facing. The stakes are so high that making policy decisions based on what they feel is inadequate intelligence is simply unacceptable.

In the case of Iran, they may not have much of a choice:

"Several intelligence officials said that American spy agencies had made assessments in recent weeks that despite established ties between Iran and Hezbollah and a well-documented history of Iran arming the organization, there was no credible evidence to suggest either that Iran ordered the Hezbollah raid that touched off the recent fighting or that Iran was directly controlling attacks against Israel.

"'There are no provable signs of Iranian direction on the ground,' said one intelligence official in Washington. 'Nobody should think that Hezbollah is a remote-controlled entity.' American military assessments have broadly echoed this view, say people who maintain close ties to military intelligence officers.

"'Does Iran profit from all of this? Yes,' said Gen. Wayne A. Downing Jr., the retired former commander of the Special Operations Command and a White House counterterrorism adviser during President Bush's first term. 'But is Iran pulling the strings? The guys I'm talking to say, "no."'"

It is difficult to gauge how much of an independent operator Hassan Nasrallah actually is. The Hezbollah leader definitely has his own agenda, both as it relates to Lebanese domestic politics and Hezbollah's future as a political and military force in the region. It is not surprising that our intelligence agencies cannot find a smoking gun regarding Iran's involvement in Nasrallah's decision that precipitated the war, to attack the Israeli patrol on July 12.

That's because it is open to question whether Nasrallah himself knew about any such attack in advance. At the very least, he may have authorized an attack if any of the several Hezbollah outposts on the border saw an opportunity to take Israeli prisoners. But it may be a bit of a stretch to say that he ordered the specific attack.

This uncertainty about Hezbollah and its relationship to Iran is one thing. Trying to divine Iranian intentions as well as estimate the progress of their nuclear program is quite another.

Last summer's leak of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran discussed the probability that Iran was perhaps a decade away from being able to construct a nuclear device. There was also criticism of the NIE's inability to say with any certainty that Iran was in fact seeking nuclear weapons in the first place. To many in the White House, the NIE appeared to be more bureaucratic CYA rather than any attempt to honestly give policymakers the information they felt they needed to counter the perceived threat from Iran.

While the Israelis believe the mullahs are now less than three years away from having the ability to construct a nuclear weapon, many arms control experts in this country point to the daunting technical challenges that Iran has yet to prove it can overcome in order to build a bomb anytime soon.

Who's right and who's wrong? Do we follow Dick Cheney's "1 percent" scenario, where if there is a 1 percent chance of a terrible threat we take action? Or do we take a more cautious approach and work to prevent the mullahs from making a bomb by building up international pressure through sanctions and consensus? Do we go for regime change? Do we try and talk directly to the Iranians?

The answers to these questions require cooperation and trust between those who have been elected by the people and charged with the awesome responsibility of protecting us from threats like Iran and those whose job it is to analyze and report on those threats to policymakers.

But the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between the White House and our intelligence agencies has eroded that trust over the last five years until it appears that cooperation is almost an impossibility.

Certainly 9/11 had much to do with the initial problems between the two sides. It was only made worse by the errors made by both sides in the lead up to the liberation of Iraq. And the clear partisanship exhibited by some in the intelligence community whose leaks during the 2004 campaign, designed to bring down the Bush administration, led eventually to the White House pushing back in the (Valerie) Plame affair probably destroyed the relationship between policymakers and advisors beyond repair.

To say that this state of affairs is unacceptable is a given. One almost wants to knock the principals' heads together and tell them to get over their differences and cooperate, so serious are the issues raised by Iranian meddling and the threat of Iranian nukes. But the paralysis that is apparently preventing our intelligence agencies (burned on 9/11, burned on Iraq WMD) and policymakers from working together to protect us needs to be addressed somehow.

Whether anything can be salvaged from this relationship before January 20, 2009, could spell the difference between living in a safer world or a more dangerous world for many years to come.