Bush is a Liar, But "Intelligence" is an Illusion

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Benjamin R. Barber Democratic Theorist; Author, 'If Mayors Ruled the World' (Yale University Press); Founder, Global Parliament of Mayors

The intelligence bombshell that came with the revised estimate of Iran's nuclear weapons program - oops, sorry, they seem to have given it up in 2003, so maybe World War III is not around the corner after all! - is another nail in a lying President's career coffin. But it is more than that.

It should remind us that "intelligence" is never hard, generally contested, rarely definitive and almost always politically slanted - or subject to political slanting, not just by politicians but by intelligence officers too. Many critics of Bush seem to think it is just about this President not understanding intelligence (too dumb) or not reporting it (too dishonest). But there is a problem with intelligence itself. It's always incomplete and biased; not just by those who use it for devious political purposes, but by those who collect, analyze and interpret it. "Professionally." It's an old, old story.

Sometimes the analysts don't see what is actually there. And sometimes they see what isn't there. All as consummate "professionals," and way before the politicians put the intelligence to their own manipulative uses.

Did you know there were a great many clues before December 7, 1941, that, in hindsight, disclosed that Pearl Harbor was to be the target of a surprise attack? Warships sighted, messages intercepted, miniature submarines captured? Yep. But, nope, such an attack was impossible! Attack Pearl Harbor? The Japanese? Who were in Washington negotiating? Never. So the clues were misread or went unread.

Some will remember the fabled "missile gap" which, as told by national intelligence reports, suggested that the Soviet Union in the late Fifties had opened up an enormous lead in missile production which put them far ahead in the cold war (delivering A-bombs not building them was the key to superiority!). The missile gap was later revealed to be something between a lie, a hoax and a misreading of data rooted in fear, but it was used to rationalize a major uptick in military spending and intensified an already toxic hostility to the Soviet Union.

Then there was the reported attack on American warships in Tonkin Bay that allowed President Johnson to push a war resolution through Congress in that other war of lies, Vietnam. The attack was made up, to be sure, but there were North Vietnamese vessels in the vicinity and they certainly could have attacked us!

Oh yes, and how about all those clues to what would eventually transpire on September 11, 2001 that were overlooked, misread or ignored the summer before because they didn't fit anyone's picture of what was likely. Foreigners on the watch list taking flying lessons, you say? Yeah, right, they're gonna fly airplanes into the World Trade Center! Explicit threats from Osama bin Laden? What a nutcase, huh?

So there it is, if we are looking for war, we manage to see WMD when they aren't there, and if we are not looking for it, we manage to ignore WMD that are there. This isn't just a lesson in deceit; it is a lesson in human frailty and the unreliable character of all "intelligence."

Which means prudent politicians should be as cautious in believing what their intelligence services tell them as citizens should be cautious in believing what their politicians tell them. Uncertainty is the human condition, and this fact mandates prudent judgment and skepticism at every turn, both about what supposedly is happening (it often isn't) and about what supposedly can't happen (it too often does).

So, for example, if I were looking for WMD likely to fall into the hands of terrorists, I wouldn't be looking in Iran or North Korea, I'd be looking in Pakistan - which has both the weapons and the terrorists in plentiful supply. But then you don't need an intelligence service to tell you that.