A Dance to the Music of Time

This morning’s Washington Post features a front-page, above-the-fold story by Walter Pincus about Paul Pillar, the former high-ranking CIA official who has written an article claiming that the Bush administration “cherry-picked” intelligence information on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war. Writing about Paul Pillar on a blog started by John Hinderaker makes me feel like an Anthony Powell character. Paul and John were both college roommates of mine, though at different times. In fact, both were almost like brothers — Paul the brilliant but steady big brother; John the precocious younger one.
There was no one at Dartmouth — not John, not any professor — for whom I had more respect than Paul. In addition to being a fabulous student and a loyal friend, Paul was the straightest arrow I knew. After he joined the CIA, he told me about taking its lie detector test. He had answered “no” to every question, even the ones the CIA figured everyone would have to answer “yes” to or be caught lying. The only question that gave Paul pause, he said, was whether he had ever associated with someone who advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government. He wasn’t sure whether I had. Nonetheless, Paul asked me to write a recommendation for him in connection with a position he was seeking in the military reserve (if memory serves). I wrote a glowing one that stressed his patriotism.
I haven’t read Paul’s piece about the Iraq intelligence issue. However, the Post’s account doesn’t make it sound very persuasive. Paul apparently agrees that the CIA’s intelligence was flawed — which I take to mean that the CIA concluded that Iraq had WMD — but argues that the intelligence isn’t what led to war. This assertion suggests one of two things — either that we would have gone to war had the intelligence been ambiguous or that the intelligence was not ambiguous because the administration was desperate to go to war.
The remainder of the Post story indicates that Paul is making the latter assertion, arguing that the administration applied “subtle” pressure by constantly asking for information in a politicized environment. This claim (which is different from the charge of “cherry picking” that Pincus leads with) sounds weak on its face. It’s difficult to believe that the CIA would provide false or misleading information just because it was often asked for its assessment (Paul acknowledges that no one asked the CIA to reshape results). Moreover, Paul says there were repeated questions about a possible link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. As far as I know, the CIA never endorsed such a connection. If subtle pressure didn’t lead to such an endorsement, why would it have led to a faulty conclusion on the WMD issue?
I look forward to reading Paul’s article, but for now I credit the finding of the bipartisan Silberman-Robb commission that the administration did not pressure analysts with respect to their intelligence findings.
UPDATE: My ex-roommate is going to receive lots of criticism, and much of it may well be justified. I thought that, before it starts, readers might be interested in my personal recollections of Paul Pillar (albeit mostly from 35 years ago or more), and might appreciate the tricks time has played.
Here is Stephen Hayes’ take on Paul and the Pincus piece. Here is what Thomas Joscelyn has to say.

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