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Sunday | June 22, 2003

WMD -- the Mosaic Speaks

RonK, Seattle

From earlier WaPo discussion of a DIA report leaked all over Hell and back, "DIA's analysis is just one piece of an intelligence mosaic that Rumsfeld ... could consider".

Good analogy. Intelligence on any subject -- military, industrial, or complex -- is a mosaic. It's usually a mosaic read from glimpses between structures, through breaks in seasonal foliage, from reflections, hearsay, opportunistic snapshots from varied angles and distances. Even if we get the essential geometry right, we are almost always standing too close or too far away to make out the pattern directly.

An intel estimate is a product of the collective mind's eye, subject to every conceivable trick of the interior light.

Recently I suggested the intel fiasco would pull key blocks out of Dubya's Jenga tower. Skeptics objected, citing public apathy, Presidential popularity, a hapless media, a Republican House and Senate (not to mention the courts), a cowed and compromised opposition, and the fact that (short of impeachment) Bush has the last word on everything.

All true, but the "missing WMD" story has legs ... and fangs. Here's a look ahead.

First, the story is not going away. End to end, the Process failed ... and it failed in the second worst possible way. Iraq's WMD programs were longstanding major foci. The findings were pivotal. The stakes were enormous. And the findings were comprehensively wrong, damaging national security in ways that will take years to appreciate.

Damned if they knew it. If senior officials strong-armed agency heads into affirming bogus assessments, intel officers at every level had a higher duty to break protocol and sound alarms.

Damned if they didn't. If "the integrity of our process was maintained throughout" (as Tenet asserts), and senior officials acted on the best intel money can buy, we're all in a world o' hurt. Ain't broke, can't fix it, expect more of the same next time. Not acceptable. Not for a nascent empire, or for the leading power in a dangerous world.

Either way, there's no broom big enough, nor carpet thick enough, to sweep this cowpie under the rug.

When NASA loses a Shuttle, they reconstruct the course of events in excruciating detail. When a terrorist bombing succeeds, forensics experts reconstruct the event, particle by particle, transaction by transaction, until they can play the tape backwards and forwards. This was the intel equivalent of an aircraft carrier disappearing without a trace, and we need answers.

Both intel and warfighting are steeped in the culture of review and refinement ... after-action walkthroughs, "lessons learned", meta-analysis, triangulation, red-team exercises. Intel failures get scrutinized, successes get scrutinized, middling muddles get scrutinized after the fact ... to qualify sources, calibrate filters, plug holes, compensate for internal bias and improve resistance to hostile manipulation.

Routine autopsies of Iraq intel were chartered and resourced long before the first boot hit the sand. We always expect to learn a lot by comparing overlays of pre-war and post-war assessments. We just never expect to learn this much.

Second, there's a galaxy of touch-points. "The Process" comprises host individuals and organizational units, decisions, communications and data points. Each can be the one little clue that blows the cover-up. Lots of good story material here ... secrets and lies ... leaks, rumors of leaks, rumors of rumors ... true life confessions, mystery action drama, "Celebrity Death Match" swearing contests, betrayals and come-uppances. Everybody loves a good come-uppance.

There's a perfect example in the dust-up over forged Niger uranium documents. Unnamed administration sources tried to hang it neatly on the CIA -- "nobody ever told us". If "White House sources" believe the White House line, they haven't done their in-house diligence ... or they were bluffing each other. If they thought they could put one over on the agencies, they were naive. If they knew they were off-base, it means they are at a loss for playable lines of defense.

The slow-motion train wreck -- with a pinch of suspense to keep everybody on the edge of their seats -- is great master narrative. We can see a slew of subplots shaping up, and others will bubble up out of the ferment. For instance

US pressures UK to send more troops. For consistency with all he's said before, Tony Blair must comply ... while Parliament, on current evidence, must refuse. Either Blair stays (and more troops go), or troops stay home (and Blair goes), or Blair stays (but expressly revokes his commitment to Plan Iraq), or Blair stays (but weakly knuckles under). Many of Blair's party wish the WMD question would fade into the back pages, but the issue doesn't admit much middle ground.
An inexorable force is on collision course with an inexcusable object.

There's no end of minor story drivers.

Electoral politics will drive the story. Sen. Bob Graham (former Intelligence Committee Chair) suggests intelligence was selectively declassified to slant the public debate. Sen. John Edwards -- currently on IC -- will have to take a stand or get off the stage. Gov. Dean can use the WMD issue to needle the hawks (Lieberman, Gephardt). Kerry can play it cagey (if he doesn't out-maneuver himself). A Wesley Clark -- or even an Al Gore -- could swoop in late, strafing Bush with hard questions about missing WMDs, cooked intel, unsustainable deployments and alienated allies.

Newshounds will drive the story. Ever since a couple of no-names brought down Nixon, would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins have been making pests of themselves, running in packs, trampling somebody's Rose Garden to break stories that weren't even there in the first place. This is different. Real stories, and careers to be made.

The chattering classes will drive the story. This ecosystem includes echelons of talking heads, authors of "war is kewl" hardcovers, think-tankers and tank-thinkers whose accustomed lifestyles depend on being taken seriously. Scholarly and punditory reputations are on the line, hung out to dry, flapping in the breeze. Each is involuntarily immersed in a whitewater rapids of revisionism. Some of the most righteous indignation will come from opinion leaders who swallowed the WMD story hook, line and sinker, and who and bellowed most intemperately at their more circumspect peers. The finger will be pointed. The arrow of blame will fly until it finds its mark.

Bureaucratic infighting will drive the story. The system broke down, but the responsible components haven't yet been red-tagged. Org units at every level will wage mortal combat over who covered their bases, who screwed up, who went along willingly, who was asleep at the switch, who was dragged kicking and screaming to "consensus".

Career professionals will drive the story. They expect a lot of guff from political levels -- it comes with the territory -- but a line has been crossed and double-crossed. Up and down every hierarchy, there will be battles of personal vindication against "fall guy" designations. Like the War on Terrorism, some of these battles will be on visible on center stage -- whistleblowing, testifying, resigning or contesting administrative reprisals. Other battles will be waged in the shadows -- leaking, sandbagging, backstabbing and engineering indirect reprisals.

Defectors will drive the story. UNMOVIC inspectors and NGO weapons experts are already speaking more freely ... reporting that Powell's "decontamination vehicle" was just a plain red fire truck. Some pro's are accelerating their retirements, improving their availability when called upon. Regular military -- from grunts to generals -- are coming back from the field empty-handed and pissed off. When enough handwriting is on the wall, political cadre will start to turn ... and then it becomes a survival contest to see who can turn fastest.

Unforeseen events will drive the story. Terrorist attacks, home field or away, with or without WMDs. Conventional hotspots anywhere, as a mired and tired Iraq corps wonders "What are we doing over here, when the trouble's over there?". Foreign intrigue of any kind, but especially WMD proliferation cases where US intel becomes an issue.

Body bags will drive the story. The War on Whatever will send home one or two a day to families who demand answers. Most KIA are singletons, but in time the opposition will make a bigger score ... ten or twenty, 50 or 100 ... front-page news. From here on out, every War Story is automatically a "Why?" Story.

Formal investigations will drive the story. Not big comprehensive investigations, necessarily, but at least hearings on the subplots. Investigations of leaks, investigations of reprisals, investigations of cover-ups. Routine hearings on readiness and budgets can't help boiling over ... witnesses will butt heads and swearing contests will erupt over secrets and lies. Investigations will follow. Their restricted charters and unanswered questions will drive more investigations.

Litigation may drive the story. Anything from wrongful termination to wrongful death, and possibly from unexpected quarters. Was the smallpox scare hyped at election time to reinforce the WMD scare? Families of vaccination fatalities might raise hell. Most of it will be the familiar whistleblower sagas and document disclosure battles.

Conversions will drive the story. Big names took forceful positions in the fevered run-up to war. Facing a relentless rain of facts on the ground, most of them will eventually recant ... name by name, drop by drop. Some reversals-of-field are newsworthy per se. ("I was brainwashed!") Others become newsworthy when former allies become adversaries. Die-hards will huddle together under increasingly threadbare umbrellas of denial. Some will push themselves over the edge into sheer fantasy ... and these increasingly desperate holdouts may themselves become newsworthy.

The story runs in multiple theaters. Breaks in each story nudge the others forward ... as do inconsistencies in testimony across spatial and organizational distances.

In the UK, Tony Blair is in real trouble. Excepting minor apologies over February's "dodgy dossier", he refuses to back down ... or even to treat inquiries with respect. He's at odds with his own intel services (whose leaks to date may only be warning shots). He'll catch opportunistic flak from Tory opposition (though most supported the war), from the Liberal Democrat left, from doves, rivals and "old left" factions in his own New Labour party. Like Bush, he's banking on a lucky break. Unlike Bush, he's neglected to hedge out his long position in WMDs with options on the language of processes, capabilities, ambiguities and alternative casus belli.
And there are extensive networks of liaisons between the combatants in all these arenas ... pols, pundits, bureaucrats, commanders, journalists and jurists cultivate confederates in other camps, and they acquire obligations of mutual defense in doing so.

Did Plan Iraq's marketing geniuses think their pre-war campaign of selective, strategic disclosures was clever? They ain't seen nothin' yet.

Each story driver is a little vortex with its own energy source and its own angular momentum. Each turns whether the media cyclops is watching or not. The little vortices will feed off each other in complex patterns of energy exchange ... orbiting, colliding, dispersing, resolving and merging until they produce one hellacious turbulent whirlwind.

The overall process envelope is predetermined. Details are chaotically unpredictable. The intermediate stages are an intricate Kabuki pageant of pretenses, disclosures, betrayals. Good entertainment, plenty of chances to put the BREAKING NEWS banners to work.

Can Bush ride it out? Perhaps. He must find a robustly connected network of fall guys, get them to pick up all the stones of guilt, and neatly cut them loose. Reagan pulled it off in Iran-Contra ... but that was small potatoes. Who cared?

This one won't be so easy. There are too many moving pieces, too many connections and cut-points, too many players with too many cover stories. To leave Dubya with a whole skin, too many of the Good have to go quietly. Too many of the Bad and the Ugly have to double-cross their own lifelines. If Bush has a compartmentalization option, I don't see it.

Uncharacteristically, the administration is dazed and confused, chattering at cross-purposes, indecisive on defense, hoping for a break that's not in the cards. "We found WMDs." No. "Too early to tell." Frankly, no. "WMDs don't matter." No. "They used to have WMDs". No credit. "They had the capacity to create WMDs". No credit. "WMDs are buried so deep we'll never find 'em". No. "Saddam was a human WMD". Omigod, no!

Every major name in GWB's national security apparatus is operating on borrowed time. They can buy time by throwing each other to the wolves ... but in the long run that only bulks up the wolf population.

The purge will play out as a parade of scapegoats, turncoats, denunciations, eviscerations, removals-by-pretext, ideological reformations, historical revisions, strategic retreats and spontaneous routs.

As suggested in the earlier post, many tempest-tossed chickens will come home to roost in Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. Dubya's biggest decision as CEO was choosing Cheney, and most of the key "names" are Cheney's people. If Cheney takes the fall, he takes half the administration with him ... and leaves the other half hurting.

From source cultivation to policy application, the Intelligence Process itself is a mosaic. By design, the few tiles made visible hardly ever tell their tales.

But this is different. The Process becomes, recursively, a major focus of The Process. Every tile, shard and pebble will be picked over until a coherent picture emerges. And of necessity, these stones will learn to speak.

Posted June 22, 2003 01:42 PM | Comments (69)


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