The Peril Of Selective Reality
Wayne White is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. Before his retirement in 2005, he served as Deputy Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Near Eastern Division and coordinated Iraqi intelligence for INR.
According to an article in the February 13 issue of U.S. News & World Report, President George W. Bush reportedly reacted to a “darkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq” written by the CIA’s Baghdad station chief in mid-2004 by remarking: “What is he, some kind of defeatist?”
The president’s sharply negative reaction to what was one of the most refreshingly frank assessments on the situation in Iraq is notable. It begs the question: What, then, was the president’s reaction to the July 2004 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) addressing the troubled future of governance in Iraq, released roughly at the same time? It was a report labored over by many intelligence analysts, including this writer and Paul Pillar—then National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia—and others from across official Washington and the military.
President Bush’s comment dramatizes one of the most daunting challenges facing analysts and supervisors throughout the U.S. intelligence community. Although policymakers frequently say they want the most objective analysis they can get—the truth, as best we can see it— in reality, their reaction to assessments that run counter to expectations is all too often to shoot the messenger.
One example comes to mind. During the agonizing 1979-1981 Iran-U.S. hostage crisis, a senior official in the State Department's Near East Bureau (NEA) reacted angrily when the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) told him secret talks with Iranian diplomats in Europe would likely fail. INR was correct. Ayatollah Khomeini held the cards, not the Iranian Foreign Ministry, and he was utterly uninterested in such talks. This would become painfully clear later when solutions had to be sought elsewhere. The frustrated—but honorable—NEA official made a point of apologizing to his INR colleagues. Such apologies, however, are relatively rare.
More commonly, such negative reactions produce a snowball effect in which the more the boss gets upset when receiving “bad news,” the less such painfully realistic judgments are passed up the line or read and taken seriously if they are. The result is often a policymaker who becomes even more isolated from the basics he or she needs in order to make an informed judgment. And that is the first step down the slippery slope toward mistake and miscalculation.
Indeed, this negativity has become so common among senior officials that it has given rise to yet another problem: the temptation among subordinates within the intelligence community to engage in self-censorship.
When it become clear, for example, during the coordination of an NIE in late 2003 on violence and instability in Iraq that prospects for tamping down the insurgency were unexpectedly grim, the senior official chairing the meeting looked around at his fellow intelligence analysts and exclaimed rhetorically, “How can I take this upstairs?” to then-CIA Director George Tenet.
Some policymakers provide refreshing surprises to otherwise wary intelligence professionals. In the spring of 2004, INR submitted to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell an especially pessimistic memorandum warning of the grave situation in Iraq's Sunni heartland. Powell not only took it seriously, he faxed copies of it to presidential Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and CIA Director Tenet as recommended reading. Rumsfeld was still mulling it over a week later.
In January 2005, in Washington, the heads of intelligence agencies (including our British allies) received another gloomy read-out of the overall Iraq situation. Virtually all these senior intelligence professionals agreed with the thrust of the presentation. Secretary Powell heard about the briefing and asked for a copy of the text. Later, the Secretary of State told the head of INR that he had used some of the contents of the briefing in his last meeting with the president. Only Powell knows what the president’s reaction was.
Clearly, given the continued gravity of the situation in Iraq, with respect to the insurgency, terrorism, governance and the economy, the administration must take frank—and often pessimistic—assessments more seriously. Repeated promises that go unfulfilled, statements of “progress” in the face of sustained violence, repeated delays in reconstruction and continued Iraqi governmental dysfunction, brutality and corruption are partly the result of leaders replacing hardheaded analysis with wishful thinking.
The attack last week on the mosque in Samarra and the violence that followed only underline how much more vulnerable and volatile the situation in Iraq has become. The continuing turmoil contradicts recent statements by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before Congress, when she offered yet another seemingly indignant reassurance that things were on track, in the face of tough questioning by Senator Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Despite the smoke screen, recent polling indicates that the American public has a better grasp of reality when it comes to the troubling situation in Iraq than some of their leaders.