June 08, 2007

Were Democrats Just as Bad As Bush in Ignoring Intelligence?

Yesterday, I wrote about Paul Pillar's remarkable piece in this month's The National Interest. I've been looking at some of the other reactions to this piece and think that there is an eagerness to pile on Democrats and blame them just as much as the Bush administration for this horrid war.


These two assessments were totally Bush's problem, and not a failure of the Democrats. I think that it is important to correct the record because it is my firm belief that we will never be able to fix the problems we are facing unless we really understand the bad judgement, errors and mistakes that were made and by whom. Saying the Democrats "knew" how bad the pre-war assessment for post-war Iraq was (just like Bush) and therefore are as culpable is wrong, and doesn't give us any insight in how we would prevent the problem in the future.

As I wrote in my piece, the new NIEs that Pillar wrote came out after the Congress had any further say in the matter.

Long after the October vote, the Intelligence community published two more critical National Intelligence Estimates in January 2003 that spoke to the bleak chance there was for creating a viable government and society in Iraq if the United States invaded.

You can read the declassified Senate Intelligence report which includes both these NIEs and see that they were both published in January 2003.

Yet, the overwhelming response from the blogosphere has been that the Democrats read these reports and didn't do anything to stop the war.

Like what? When these reports came out, the authorization had already been given to Bush. There were no more votes for Democrats to register. The Democratic Senate had been pushed aside in the toxic 2002 election and the rubber-stamp Republican Senate was in place.

Ron of the MiddleEarth blog (one of my favs) wrote about the two assessments:

But nobody was listening - yes that includes the Democrats.

I responded to his piece with this comment:

I'm not too happy with the Democrats, but I really think that this isn't exactly fair. Pillar's piece makes it clear that he initiated and produced these two NIEs in January 2003 when it was pretty clear no-one except the president was in the driving seat. By then the Democrats didn't have any more say about whether Bush would go to war. Personally, I think the only thing that might have stopped him then would have been the press, the Democratic leadership (think Bill Clinton), and a massive protest that shutdown the country by all of us that might have stopped Bush's war in January. I remember thinking that if the media had been better (and less rah-rah), if Blair had pulled back, if Powell had quit, if...., but damn, even the Pope came out against Bush and he still declared that he was going to go to war because God had given him this charge. I guess I don't see how the Democrats were any more culpable than the rest of us in those terrible days leading to a war that was most definitely a betrayal of our constitution, of our country and our world. And that doesn't begin to address the wrong we've done to the Iraqis.

Andrew Sullivan piled on as well.

We never got to see them, and they were only released in redacted form late last month. But before the Iraq war, two classified intelligence reports were issued at the formal request of the State Department - in addition to the much-maligned one about WMDs. Those other reports are damningly prescient. It's no surprise all parties in Washington have successfully kept them under wraps. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want the world to know that they were informed in almost excruciating detail of the chaos we now find ourselves mired in.

Gee, it's nice to blame the Democrats for suppressing these reports. But Andrew could have saved himself the embarrassment of being wrong just be being a more careful reader of Mr. Pillar's text. Here's what Paul Pillar said about the classified reports (emphasis mine).

After being kept under wraps (except for a few leaks) for over four years, the Senate committee quietly released redacted versions of those assessments on its website May 25, as Americans were beginning their Memorial Day holiday weekend.

...A second observation—bearing in mind how long it took for these assessments to be made public—is that evaluation of the intelligence community’s performance tends to be heavily politicized, with much criticism having more to do with agendas and interests of the critics than with anything the intelligence community does. The two assessments, which contained very little sensitive reporting, should have been far easier to declassify than the Top Secret estimate on weapons. Yet it has taken almost three more years, and a change in party control in Congress, to release them or any report based on them. (But give the Senate committee credit for even belatedly doing something that neither its House counterpart nor the executive branch did.)

As Paul Pillar noted, the infamous WMD NIE had been asked for by Senator Bob Graham because during the summer of 2002, he hadn't been hearing anything that indicated the Bush hysteria about Iraq was correct. You can listen to his take about this topic here. The prologue synopsis is (emphasis mine):

Host Ira Glass tells the story of a report by the U.S. intelligence community back in October that declared that the likelihood of Saddam Hussein using weapons of massive destruction was very low for the "foreseeable future" ... unless the U.S. were to launch a military attack on Iraq. In other words, the war to stop him from using weapons of mass destruction would probably cause the thing it was designed to prevent. Ira talks with Senator Bob Graham, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who asked the intelligence community to do this risk assessment, and who was surprised it didn't have more effect on the public debate over the war. Before he and Ira get off the phone, the Senator asks Ira to please pose a few questions about the intelligence report to the Administration for him.

[Aside: it is well worth listening to this part of that show.]

Well after the October vote, Bob Graham was still trying to get the Bush administration to come straight about the evidence they had. Obviously, that didn't work well, because the Bush administration was more than happy to let the lies justify the war.

There was information before the October vote that should have given more people pause, and I do fault the Democrats who voted for that authorization for letting their fears and the hysteria of the moment betray their ability to make rational decisions. They definitely failed us then.

Yet, in the case of these assessments, Democrats were not as bad as the Bush administration. And knowing how well the Bush administration was at keeping Congress in the dark, before faulting the Democrats, it would be good to at least make sure someone in Congress was even informed that these NIEs existed before the investigation into the Intelligence failures in 2004. Because, we don't know that anyone besides the administration ever saw them before the war.

Posted by Mary at June 8, 2007 07:39 AM | Iraq | Technorati links |

My complaint with the Democrats is that in most cases they did not do their homework on what was one of the most important votes they ever made. Or worse yet they did but were afraid to swim upstream. Not unlike their present inability to do anything about the war.

Posted by: Ron Beasley at June 8, 2007 02:33 PM

this is another case of equivication, one of the classic stratagies that the republicans are brilliant at. It's responding to a "you're bad" charge with "the other guy is bad, too", as though that somehow makes things better, and also as though the other guy's "badness" was somehow equivelent.

Look, for example, at the swiftboating that Kerry got. Bush's military record is essentially treasonous, but to neuter it they fabricated fishiness around kerry's rather impecible war record. Sure, everyone know it was a lie, but any comment about Bush going AWOL was countered with a insinuations about Kerry. And so it took Bush's war record entirely off the record.

The Repoblicans trot this method out whenever they're under fire. They look for examples of Democrat equivelence (and if they can't find any, they make them up), and use that to water down their own culpibility.

Yes, some Democrats were swept up in the fervor. but ALL of the Republicans were, and ALL of the voices that would now be considered reason were on the side of the Democrats.

Posted by: mike at June 8, 2007 02:49 PM

Ron, I agree with your assessment about the Democrats - they did fail us and it appears they don't have much of an answer about what to do now either.

What I wanted to do with this post is to be much more precise about the actual situation (and I must admit, I was more offended by Andrew Sullivan's blanket statement about the Democrats).

One of the things I spend more than a little time worrying about is what actually caused the Democrats to fail so badly (and the media and the American public as well), because we are going to be facing more extremely volatile crises that will need all our rational thought processes if we are not to make even more catastrophic mis-steps. I think this same worry was what compelled Al Gore to write his "The Assault on Reason" which I think hits the nail on the head about what the problem is.

The next question is how do we out of this trap? Being as clear about what the facts are is essential to getting to answers to our problems. Thus, my attempt to clarify what really happened.

Posted by: Mary at June 8, 2007 05:54 PM

mike, yes, the Republicans are seriously out of control. They are like little children who are scaring themselves with tales of boogieman terrorists when the real problem is the rising sea levels and the increasing inability of our planet to adjust to humanity. Currently they are blowing holes in the ark we need to stay afloat. How do we get them to focus on the real problem? Or how can we make them go into the corner and let adults start to deal with the problem?

Posted by: Mary at June 8, 2007 06:00 PM

The few Democrats who knew what was really in the NIEs were sworn to secrecy at the time of the AUMF vote. The rest didn't know.

What I blame them for is that they didn't tell Bush to inform them fully before the vote. That's something that certainly would have taken courage, but after the experience of Vietnam they should have known better.

Posted by: Cujo359 at June 8, 2007 09:43 PM

Bush:China is our biggest political problem

Posted by: ccoaler at June 9, 2007 03:35 AM