In congressional testimony on Thursday, the Nation's number two intelligence chief, General Michael V. Hayden, provided so many fanciful explanations for the failures of the US intelligence community before and during the period he was director of the National Security Agency that one has to wonder about the quality of the new office of the Director of National Intelligence. Although Ambassador John Negroponte's efforts to gain control over the Pentagon intelligence budget and to force needed changes on the FBI are sensible, the history lesson Hayden offered a compliant Congress suggests either incompetence or duplicity, neither of which is helpful in our struggle against Jihadism.
As the nation's chief codebreaker, Hayden had signed off on the notorious National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 that predicted an Iraqi nuclear weapon within a year if Baghdad acquired enough fissile material and suggested that the purchase of anodized aluminium tubes was evidence of the advanced state of Saddam's nuclear program. As has been made abundantly clear by the British Butler report and the WMD commission here the evidentiary base for estimating Saddam's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction had changed little between the late 1990s, when there were suspicions of WMD but no real evidence, and 2002, save for a few defector reports. What had changed was the political climate. At all levels the Bush administration was applying pressure to intelligence bureaucrats to disprove that Saddam had WMD. Proving a negative is usually impossible.
Hayden glossed over that. Instead he couched the WMD fantasy in terms of an intelligence failure and dodged any real responsibility. He said that as NSA chief he was only required to assess the use of intercepted information in the estimate and that satisfied with that he had voted for it. He then, by implication, blamed the other intelligence services for bringing evidence to the estimate drafting table that was not properly sourced. Hayden then went on to assure the House intelligence subcommittee that in future each member of the board that approves NIEs must sign off on the quality of their information and that as a result the estimates are now more tentative.
The US government has been producing National Intelligence Estimates since the late 1940s. Although they varied in quality, it would come as a shock to the generations that wrote them to learn that they were traditionally characterized by shoddy sources and incautious predictions. They would also be shocked to learn that the intelligence chiefs who signed off on them were only supposed to be sure that the stuff that their people supplied was properly used. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the CIA -- the chief drafter of these estimates -- has declassified a ton of them. Just look at a handful and it is hard not to conclude that Hayden was misrepresenting the entire process to conceal the political nature of the NIE of October 2002. Despite what Hayden recalled, intelligence chiefs traditionally disagreed on the substance of the predictions -- the estimates are littered with footnotes where an intelligence chief could not bring himself to accept a particular judgment -- not on picky points of how one piece of information was used. In the 1950s, the Air Force representatives time and again refused to believe the Agency's estimates of Soviet military power. In the 1960's, satellite photos that were shared with the entire group solved the problem and confirmed that the Agency had been right to doubt the doomsayers. The satellite information -- from the Corona program -- was an unusually precise piece of information for an estimate. The NIEs were generally quite tentative and always highly speculative. As a result they reflected a kaleidoscope of information and rarely rested on a couple of sources. Indeed these estimates were so vague that many key policymakers often ignored them. In its shaky foundation and political intent, the NIE of October 2002 was much more the exception than the rule.
Granting Hayden the benefit of the doubt about his lack of understanding of the history of US estimates, there is still the question of his own judgment in shaping those estimates that came his way when he was at the NSA. As viewers of Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations will recall, the US introduced intelligence gathered by the NSA as evidence that Saddam was hiding special weapons. Hayden signed off on that information and presumably that interpretation. In dodging any discussion of his own interpretive errors today, Hayden leaves open the question of his ability to help his new boss supervise the intelligence analysis process. His testimony is also a troubling sign that the country's new intelligence chiefs lack the independence to be candid about the huge role that politics and policymakers played in the WMD mess. This is not a good start for the office of DNI or the new US intelligence system.