It’s no secret: The CIA plays politics

DANIELLE PLETKA is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

GALLONS OF ink have been spilled since 2003 about how the Bush administration ignored internal predictions of post-war instability, terrorism and rising Islamism in Iraq. Intelligence, critics argue, was “cherry-picked” to bolster the argument for war. What much of the public doesn’t realize is that the CIA’s Monday-morning quarterbacks, who originated many of the complaints, are themselves handpicking intelligence to boost their antiwar cause.

This is a well-trodden road, littered with bitter treatises and interviews from ex-spooks and hangers-on such as Michael Scheuer, the “anonymous” author of “Imperial Hubris,” and former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV and his ex-CIA wife, Valerie Plame. The latest offering comes from Paul Pillar, a former CIA deputy counterterrorism chief, in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.

But Pillar, while rehashing every myth about the run-up to the Iraq war (and adding a few new ones), inadvertently lays bare a rarely discussed Washington truth: that the CIA itself is a political organization. Far from being manipulated by policymakers within the Bush administration (as Pillar alleges), it is the agency that has regularly and aggressively used its intelligence gathering and analysis to bolster preformed political opinions about hot-button issues from the Cold War to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.


Prevailing CIA views shine through in briefings to the U.S. government, in backgrounders to reporters and in the selective leaking of classified information. The agency recruits (and rejects) outside assets based on its own political priorities. And why not? In a town where even first-graders hold passionate political views, it seems hardly surprising that a player so integral to sensitive policymaking would too. The only shock about the politicization of the agency is that officials bother to deny it.

Since the creation of the CIA in 1947, there have been complaints from the outside about analysts playing politics and complaints from within about political pressure to skew intelligence. Aged Washington insiders recall pitched battles over alleged Soviet support for terror groups in the 1980s and the size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in the 1960s. But in the case of Iraq, at least two bipartisan commissions have concluded that there was no such pressure to change conclusions on Saddam Hussein’s ties to terrorists or his WMD program. In this case at least, much of the politics was inside the CIA.

The warning signs came in the early 1990s as the U.S. was ramping up relations with Hussein’s internal opposition. CIA officials did not want to overthrow the dictator, based not on hard-nosed analytical assessment but on the geopolitical theories of the agency’s Arabists. A surprising amount of the intelligence community’s prewar energy, whether in private briefings or in leaks by “intelligence officials” critical of the administration, went toward trying to prevent Hussein’s overthrow.

Although Pillar and other self-proclaimed apolitical ex-spooks and bureaucrats now insist that the leakers were merely educating the public, it should be clear from the sheer volume of senior intelligence officials quoted regularly in the nation’s newspapers that there was -- and is -- a specific agenda. (For those curious about the details, consult with the new group of ex-CIA types, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity). As a result, agency officials regularly rejected Iraqi informants out of hand and refused to recruit operatives inside the country at all. That same antiwar agenda led to dire and incorrect postwar scenarios.

There were, for example, inaccurate warnings that Hussein would share WMD with terrorists, that the country would erupt into civil war or dissolve altogether or both. In a now infamous National Intelligence Council report probably written by Pillar in 2003 (and leaked in time for the 2004 presidential debates), there were predictions that oil fields would be taken over by Kurdish and Shiite factions. Even in his ballyhooed Foreign Affairs piece, Pillar reiterates the ridiculous and premature assertion that Iraq will have no value as a “democratic exemplar.”

It’s telling that none of the hindsight-heavy pieces that have gripped Washington in recent years have suggested that Iraq would be a better, safer place if the U.S. had done things differently. Rather, these CIA-sourced handwringers suggest that things would be better had we not invaded at all.


As the public contemplates a world in which Hussein still reigns, perhaps it should also consider the unchecked politicization of the Central Intelligence Agency. There are challenges ahead in Iran, North Korea, China and in the war on terror. No matter how those issues play out, the American people should be certain that their democratically elected leaders are making decisions based on unbiased intelligence. They won’t get that from today’s CIA.