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November 4, 2003 | home

Behind the “Mushroom Cloud”

This week in the magazine and here online (see Fact), in “The Stovepipe,” Seymour M. Hersh reports on how the Bush Administration led the intelligence community on a chase for weapons of mass destruction. Here Hersh discusses his article and the current state of the Bush Administration.

AMY DAVIDSON: Your story in the magazine this week is called “The Stovepipe.” Why?

SEYMOUR M. HERSH: Well, inside the military, “stovepiping” is slang for the practice of taking a piece of intelligence or a request that should be pushed through the chain of command—checked at levels and sent from one level to another—and bringing it straight to the highest authority. One of the things that people in the intelligence community have learned over the years is that early reports are often wrong. And so, before you respond to the first piece of information you have, you analyze it, you vet it, you study it, and then you make a decision about what you’re going to do with it. Stovepiping allows them to cheat the process. When you stovepipe stuff, you leave yourself open to the worst kinds of results.

Is that what happened when the Bush Administration was building its case against Iraq?

One basic problem is that the Bush Administration changed the process in a very dramatic way. They worked it so that the raw intelligence, the reports that they wanted to hear, got to the top right away. The pro-war hawks rigged the system so that negative information about Iraq, no matter where it came from—and in many cases, we now know, much of it came from defectors who were relayed through the Iraqi National Congress, the group run by Ahmad Chalabi—was stovepiped directly to the leadership without any assessment. And so you had a situation in the Pentagon, and in the State Department, in the office of Under-Secretary John Bolton, and in the Vice-President’s office, too, in which the professionals were cut out of the process. That’s how you get to a position where Secretary of State Colin Powell can show up at the United Nations, as he did in February, and make a series of very boisterous claims about Iraq, most of which now appear to be wrong.

Was this, then, a matter of the Administration lying to itself as much as to anyone else?

One of the great questions is “Were they lying? Did they know the truth?” And the answer, I think, to a large degree, is that, whatever they may have suspected, they didn’t know the truth, because the truth was simply impossible for them to see. The system had been set up so that they saw only what they wanted. And, you know, these people, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in particular, came to the office openly suspicious of the intelligence community and the bureaucracy. They thought they were too soft on Iraq, not tough enough with Saddam, not able to make the decisive choices. So what you have is a bunch of people who weren’t lying; they simply had fixed the system so it couldn’t give them information they didn’t want to hear. One of the intelligence guys I talked to used a wonderful analogy. He said, “It’s as if you all had gone into a planetarium and the software for the sky show had gone bad and you were seeing the wrong sky, and you walked outside, and you looked up and you said, ‘Hey, what’s going on. This isn’t right.’” And that’s what they had done: they had gone into the planetarium, they set themselves up with the wrong software, and then they were surprised to find that the rest of the world didn’t conform—the war began, and there were no W.M.D.s.

In your article, you quote an Administration official who said that the C.I.A. was beaten down by requests for a certain kind of intelligence. But isn’t it the C.I.A.’s job to resist that kind of pressure? Does the C.I.A. do enough to stand up for itself?

It turns out that it really doesn’t. One official I talked to reminded me what happened in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when Ronald Reagan was convinced that Cuba was behind everything going on in Central America—that all of the aspiration for freedom in Central America, the unrest there, was the work of Communist outside agitators. The community fought them for a long time, but they eventually gave up, and the analysts began to write it the way they wanted. The fact of the matter is that unless there’s very strong independent leadership on top the analysts will break and fold. In this case, George Tenet simply wasn’t strong enough. He’s a decent man, a kind man, and a perfectly honorable man, but after 9/11 he was in trouble, and the way he held on to his job was by going along and not telling the White House anything they didn’t want to hear.

In your story, you look into the origins of the so-called Niger documents, which purported to reveal an attempted purchase of uranium by Iraq but turned out to be forgeries. It becomes clear in your story that these papers, illegitimate as they were, didn’t even appear until months after the Administration began talking about African uranium. What evidence did they have earlier?

The initial report about Iraq buying uranium ore from Niger surfaced only after September 11, 2001, and even that was an old report. We had apparently asked other allied intelligence services to look for any information they might have related to terrorism, and out of Italy came a report of a visit to Niger by an Iraqi diplomat in February of 1999. It was seemingly a pretty benign visit, but the Italian service picked up some gossip that maybe they wanted to talk about uranium. And so this information got into the White House, and it was stovepiped, as I write, to Vice-President Dick Cheney, who asked the C.I.A. about it. They came back and said, “We don’t think it’s much,” and what seems to have happened is that Cheney kept on pushing. It was, as I say in the story, the freshest piece of meat they had to bolster what was going to be their mantra in 2002. After all, the prospect of Saddam with a nuclear weapon is scary to anyone. But, ironically, even more than was the case with chemical or biological weapons, the U.N. had been able to say, as strongly as the U.N. ever says anything, “They don’t have it.” They were bombed; they’ve had nothing since ’91 and haven’t been able to reconstitute. That’s the big word. If Iraq was attempting to get uranium in Niger in 1999, it would indicate that it was reconstituting its system.

The Italian report appeared in late 2001, and then there was a decision to send retired Ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger in early 2002. And that was still before any of those papers came to light?

Yes, the forgeries came later. Wilson went in February and checked out the Italian report, talked to people, looked into it, and discovered that there was nothing to it. He came back and reported that. And what happened was that it didn’t matter what he said. Because President Bush and the Vice-President and the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz—they still began to talk about Iraq as if they were in the process of buying and establishing a nuclear facility. Then, when the papers finally appeared, in October, 2002, they seized on them—they were just what they were waiting for. That was just the evidence they needed to make their case. And it didn’t matter what the truth was.

You looked into the question of who actually fabricated the papers. What did you find out?

Different people have different theories. When I was in Italy, there were people who thought that the documents might have been written by the Italian military intelligence service, whose acronym is sismi. There have been other suspects, too. But one of the most compelling theories was relayed to me by a former senior C.I.A. official, a very high-level guy. And it goes back to the issue of how broken the intelligence system was, so much so that you couldn’t get at the truth. What he said represented the frustration and rage felt by many in the intelligence community, the notion that a group of retired officers actually got together and drafted the Niger papers.

Why would anybody who had worked for the C.I.A., no matter how disgruntled, forge documents?

First, you have to understand that C.I.A. stations around the world, not so much now but during the Cold War, falsified documents all the time. That’s what they did for a living. That’s part of the tradecraft. Second, if you’re in the C.I.A. and it’s last fall, you’re almost frozen, you’re powerless. By March, 2002, the people on the inside knew that the President had decided to go to war in Iraq, and by the summer C.I.A. operations against terrorism around the world—in Central Asia particularly—were shut off because of lack of funds and because any personnel who had good language skills were shoved into the Gulf to get ready for the war. So there was a tremendous sense of frustration.

But wouldn’t these documents have helped the Administration?

No, the documents were written to be exposed. The papers are hopeless, and even the Italian reporter who looked at them, Elisabetta Burba, was able very quickly to determine that they were false. They’re bad forgeries. And I think the idea was simply to embarrass the government internally. Don’t forget, Niger had already been a source of great dispute between the C.I.A. and the Pentagon and the Vice-President’s office. There was this tension. And so the thought was that somebody like Cheney or Rumsfeld and their aides would flash them at a meeting, and then the other side could counterattack. It would be an embarrassment, because the papers were such obvious fakes. Or Rumsfeld or somebody would go public with the papers, not vet them, not analyze them, and the press would go after them. But that didn’t happen. Instead, lo and behold, the President used the Niger story to make the case against Iraq in his State of the Union speech in January.

Less than two months after that speech, in March, the Niger papers were revealed to have been forged. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency exposed them as fakes, and you and a few other journalists wrote in-depth articles on them that month—before the war. But the story really took off only in July. Why was there such a delay?

I don’t know. I was surprised that there weren’t more questions raised about it, because it seemed very clear that the I.A.E.A. said publicly that the documents weren’t worth the paper they were written on. And that’s what drove Joe Wilson finally, sixteen months after he made his report, to go public in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. Wilson personalized it by saying, “I went there, and it’s not good, and they’re not telling the truth.” In a way, we needed an American to tell us that. We didn’t want some international U.N. guy saying it. Also, what happened between March and July is that we didn’t find weapons. When I wrote about it, the war had just started, but by July the bloom was off, everybody knew we were in trouble. So I think those factors combined to make Wilson’s story combustible. And then, of course, the White House responded by leaking to Robert Novak the fact that Wilson’s wife is in the C.I.A. So they retaliated against him, and that triggered more of an outcry.

Let’s talk about that Novak column. You, too, have often received classified information from anonymous sources. How do you feel about the search that’s under way now for the person who leaked?

It’s obviously a very tough question, because I’m a Jeffersonian, a First Amendment man. The real problem is the people who told Novak that story. I don’t think Novak realized that she was as sensitive as she was. She was an employee undercover. I’d like to think that he didn’t know that. I just don’t know the facts. But publishing the name of somebody who’s undercover in the C.I.A., if the person hasn’t done anything wrong—none of us do that. It’s a tradition; it’s one of the things we don’t do. You constantly see newspaper stories saying, “We know the identity of this person, but we’re not going to mention it.” The only explanation I have is that Bob Novak, who is a very excellent reporter, didn’t know how sensitive her job was. Nobody communicated that to him. Whether he should have checked or not, it’s awfully hard to check, because the C.I.A. does not tell you anything about its employees.

We’ve been talking about how the case for the war was made. Why does that matter now, now that we’re in there?

Well, for one thing, it matters because we have a system set up, a stovepipe system, that’s still in place. We’re still in a situation in which intelligence that doesn’t meet political criteria doesn’t get to the President, and in which people in high positions will take any intelligence that makes their case and move it directly to the President. It’s not a straight system. There’s still this incredible impasse.

Is the problem confined to Iraq? Or does this affect, say, our Russian or our North Korean intelligence as well?

That’s the most frightening thing about this story, in a way. You’ve got a system set up so that if some defector comes out of North Korea with the right kind of information it would get directly to the President. And that’s very scary. You know, one of the things about vetting an agent report is that you don’t simply take it at face value. You really have to put it through a grinder, which is what skeptical intelligence professionals do. What’s the guy like? Is the information he’s giving you the kind of information he has access to? Because most of these people get paid, and the better the story the more they get paid. So you really have to check out what defectors tell you. And so, yes, I think we’re open to a lot of manipulation—internal manipulation, by people with a political agenda—to mislead the President and the Vice-President.

How do the people you speak to think we’re doing in Iraq right now?

Much worse than the picture given to the public suggests, almost across the board; there’s very little good that I’m hearing. The morale of the officer corps, the lieutenant colonels and the colonels and others, is still high; after all, it’s a war, and it’s what they’ve spent their life doing, or getting ready to do. They think that the military is not broken, even though it’s under tremendous strain. But after that there’s nothing good to be said. Somebody said to me that it’s like the children’s game where you hit a mole, and when you knock it down another one comes up. That’s exactly where we are now. We have a problem, we knock that one problem down, another one comes up. We’re now getting into a serious shoot-up with the Shiites. The enmity is spreading. But I’m sure the President has a different position. It’s very unnerving.

Last week, the President said that the press was being too negative about Iraq.

Well, that’s because the stovepiped reports he gets are generally much more upbeat.

A lot of media organizations have pulled back reporters in Iraq. Do you think that makes it harder for them, or for us, to get a good picture of what’s happening there?

I don’t think it’s very hard to get a good picture of what’s happening there. The number of incidents against us has gone up. I can tell you right now that I know from classified sources inside the government that as of two weeks ago the level of incidents was—this is a number that was reported in a highly classified document inside the government—twenty-three a day. I venture to say that we’re not hearing everything. One of the problems we have is that the basic source of information, whether you have a lot of reporters there or a few, is still the Army command. They’re the ones who get all of the pre-collated reports. We’re not getting the whole story.

How much of an issue do you think Iraq will be in the 2004 election?

Huge. Iraq is incredibly important to this President in terms of his political future. And the ideological goals—the goal of reshaping the Middle East, the goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East, the goal of changing Syria and Lebanon—are all still issues for this Administration. The thing that frightens me the most is that the Administration may feel compelled to seriously escalate what we do there—not so much in terms of troops but in terms of bombing. It’s like that line out of the Vietnam War that haunts me, about the major who ordered his troops to bomb a village, as he said, in order to save it.

Speaking of Vietnam, Howard Dean’s campaign has been built largely around opposition to the war. Some commentators say that he’s doomed to be another Eugene McCarthy. You worked for McCarthy—

I was his press secretary and speechwriter.

Do you think it’s an apt comparison?

I don’t know Howard Dean personally. The only thing I can say is that, out of all the candidates, he was the first to speak most clearly about the problems with Iraq. And as far as I’m concerned that gives him a huge head start. There’s also Dennis Kucinich, but Dean, like McCarthy, has clearly taken a moral stand and a political stand against something that he sees as wrong. You have to remember what McCarthy did, challenging a sitting Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. He got almost forty-two per cent of the vote against Johnson. And Johnson quit a couple of weeks after that vote, because he knew he couldn’t win. We’re not in the same situation now, obviously—Bush is much stronger, raising a lot of money, and is certainly going to be a formidable candidate. But I think this is going to be a very riotous year. It’s going to be the most interesting political year since Hoover vs. Roosevelt. Remember that the Administration, no matter how they twist the words or spin the words, told us we’d find weapons in Iraq. They believed it. That was the intelligence they got. And, to me, the fact that they weren’t lying and really believed it is as alarming as if they had been lying. It’s very, very troubling.

Can Bush turn it all around by finding Saddam?

In the long run, no. But that isn’t the issue that’s going to change the election. We didn’t go into the war on the basis that we were going to kill Saddam. We went to war on the basis that there were weapons that made him an imminent threat. And that’s not true. That’s the critical issue, and there’s no getting around that. The fact of the matter is the weapons aren’t there.

Do you think that, in November, 2004, American soldiers will be dying at the same rate they are now in Iraq?

Obviously, nobody can predict that. It depends on what we do. It seems like there is a pretty steady rate now. I keep on remembering that horrible line from Joseph Stalin. He once said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. And it seems clear that there are some very bright—evilly so—people on the other side in Iraq, making sure that every day or every other day an American dies. It’s cumulative, in a way. Sort of like nerve-gas poisoning—just a drop at a time.

So what’s the endgame there, or is there one?

Well, you know, in a perfect world we’d be doing everything we could with the U.N., with nato, with anybody, to try to get some sort of settlement between Israel and Palestine that doesn’t involve a big fence. We’d be doing everything to put tremendous pressure on both sides. And this Administration simply doesn’t have the stomach to do it. It doesn’t seem to be willing to do it.

Do you think that the world is a safer place than it was a year ago?

No. It’s much more dangerous. There’s no question now. We’ve now drawn a line in the sand, no pun intended, with 1.2 billion Muslims. We’re really disliked. Americans have always been liked, whether or not the country has been. But now there’s really an animosity toward Americans, and we’re going to have to go a long way to correct it.


       Afghanistan — Western Terror States: Canada, US, UK, France, Germany, Italy       
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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.