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Pillar to press: Don't get fooled again

ASK THIS | February 27, 2006

Paul R. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year, writes that the press was insufficiently questioning both in the run-up to war and in its coverage of the 9/11 Commission. He proposes questions reporters should ask -- retrospectively and prospectively -- about the use and abuse of intelligence by policymakers.

By Paul R. Pillar

Q. Why was more not done before 9/11 to counter the terrorist threat from Al Qaeda in response to the intelligence community's highlighting of that threat -- as reflected in DCI George Tenet's public statements?

Q. How exactly is the reorganization of the intelligence community under the legislation of December 2004 supposed to correct what the 9/11 Commission stated were problems in counterterrorism?  What effect, if any, does the reorganization have on the problem of insufficient or improper use of intelligence by the policymaker?

Q. When was the decision to go to war in Iraq made, what beliefs and analysis led to that decision (as distinct from arguments used to muster support for the decision),  and where did those beliefs and analysis come from?

Q. On any future matter major national security decision:

  • What beliefs and analysis underlie the decision?
  • Where do those beliefs and analysis come from?
  • How do those beliefs and analysis compare with public arguments used to justify the decision?
  • What questions about the issue have policymakers posed to the intelligence community?

Q. When an intelligence assessment becomes a matter of public knowledge: Who asked for the assessment, why was it requested, and what determined how the questions were framed?

Q. When intelligence officials speak or testify, to what extent are their statements constrained by policy preferences?

Much effort and expense have been devoted to inquiries that one might hope would shed light on deficiencies in the intelligence-policy relationship.  But they have failed to do so, because of the agendas or political constraints that have afflicted the inquiring bodies themselves.

The 9/11 Commission established as its goal the generation of enough public support to enact a reorganization of the intelligence community.  Pursuit of that goal led it to produce a selective and misleading account of strategic intelligence on terrorism, obscuring the actual reasons US counterterrorist policy took the course it did prior to 9/11.  The press was remarkably acquiescent in this; as Judge Richard Posner noted in his critique of the commission's work, a combination of political circumstances paralyzed criticism of the commission and led its report to be accepted unquestioningly as "holy writ."  The politics of the Congressional intelligence committees have led them to delay repeatedly any public appraisal of how the administration used intelligence on Iraq (in the case of the Senate committee) or not even to attempt to address the subject (in the case of its House counterpart).  The commission investigating intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction produced an otherwise useful report, but its White House provenance constrained it from exploring all the ways in which policy preferences affected the intelligence.

Vigorous and illuminating treatment by the press of similar situations in the future will require it to dig below the public rhetoric and explore the actual bases for policy decisions, which may or may not match the rhetoric and may or may not come from intelligence.  It also will require going beyond the issue of "flagrant fouls" in the intelligence-policy relationship and considering the more numerous and more subtle ways in which intelligence can be politicized, both publicly and privately.

A Corporate, Trans-National Media
Posted by Charlie L -
03/01/2006, 03:53 PM

When the First Amendment was written, "the media" was Thomas Paine with a printing press producing short pamphlets and leaflet-style communications. Who could have foreseen a trans-national corporate media that does not necessarily have the best interests of the American people at heart.

We are living in a bizarre re-write of 1984 where the corporate media and the government are controlling and "spinning" 98% of everything we see and hear (minus the little bit that gets through on alternative, non-corporate pathways).

Their interests are in maintaining a Republican administration that will grant them the taxational and regulatory privileges they desire for increased profits and consolidation/control. They care not about "Democracy" or "Truth" or "Fairness" or even "Reporting." Their interests are in supporting the status-quo of Republican control of government without being so blatant about it that they lose their audience.

They allow the Republican administration to speak blatant lies because it serves the interests of the owners. They will fire any reporters who push too hard.

It is not necessarily that every foot soldier in the media is "in support of the scam" but they all know that their paycheck and livelihood rests on their playing along. If you are not a "team player" you are not going to get on-air time or front-page time or the best interviews or whatever it takes to move your career forward.

Journalism is dead.

Free speech belongs to those who own a printing press -- in this case, a mass media broadcasting system. As free assembly is curtailed (think "Free Speech Zones" and government events where only invited supporters are allowed to attend) and the right to redress is eliminated, there is less and less of the First Amendment left every day.

Charlie L
Portland, OR

Intelligence, Policy,and the War in Iraq
Pillar's influential article in 'Foreign Affairs', in which he writes: 'During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, writes the intelligence community's former senior analyst for the Middle East, the Bush administration disregarded the community's expertise, politicized the intelligence process, and selected unrepresentative raw intelligence to make its public case.'

Bin Laden By the Book
Pillar writes in The Washington Post: 'The most important questions about the international terrorist threat today involve not bin Laden's group but the larger radical Sunni Islamist movement.'

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