One pillar of unwisdom

Paul Pillar is Paul Mirengoff’s former Dartmouth roommate. I don’t think Paul has ever spoken more highly of anyone on this site than he has of Pillar. The current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine carries Matthew Mosk’s extremely interesting profile of Pillar and his current opposition to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. At several points the article includes Paul’s comments on Pillar.
Mosk is an investigative reporter for ABC News. In the article he covers a lot of territory in limited space, including Paul Mirengoff’s relationship with Pillar. Mosk frames the article around Pillar’s opposition to the war against the Taliban. According to Pillar, the costs exceed the benefits. Pillar’s opposition as a private citizen to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan mirrors his opposition as a senior officer of the CIA to the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. One would need a long memory to have much understanding of some important points that Mosk touches on and, in my view, he misses one notable facet of Pillar’s career in the CIA.
Following his service as an Army officer including a tour in Vietnam, Pillar earned a Princeton Ph.D. in government. He spent a long career in the CIA, rising to the level of deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and National Intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the CIA from 2000 until his retirement from the agency in 2005.
Shortly before 9/11 Pillar took a leave from the CIA to write Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. Gabriel Schoenfeld took a detailed look at the book in the Commentary essay “Could September 11 have been averted?” (The editors of Commentary have kindly made Schoenfeld’s essay available online in connection with this post.) Schoenfeld’s subsequent exchange with Pillar and others in Commentary’s letters to the editor is accessible online here.
In the book Pillar argued most famously that counterterrorism efforts were properly to be likened, not to a “war,” but rather to “the effort by public-health authorities to control communicable diseases” or the effort to improve “highway safety,” where regulators “can reduce deaths and injuries somewhat” by taking action on a variety of fronts but without any false idea of “defeating” the problem. Although Schoenfeld found the book “both authoritative and exceedingly well-informed,” he observed in the light of September 11 that the book’s conclusions “seemed not just wide of the mark but almost risible.” Mosk simply alludes to observers who thought the book prescient.
Returning to the CIA after writing the book, Pillar became a protagonist in the bureaucratic war against the Bush administration. Focusing on Joe Wilson, I wrote about the CIA war on the Bush administration for the Weekly Standard in “Three years of the Condor.” Robert Novak exposed Pillar’s opposition to the Bush administration in his September 2004 column “CIA vs. Bush,” reporting that Pillar had carried his campaign against the Bush administration to an off-the-record gathering in California:

Paul R. Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, sat down Tuesday night in a large West Coast city with a select group of private citizens. He was not talking off the cuff. Relying on a multi-paged, single-spaced memorandum, Pillar said he and his colleagues concluded early in the Bush administration that military intervention in Iraq would intensify anti-American hostility throughout Islam. This was not from a CIA retiree but an active senior official. (Pillar, no covert operative, is listed openly in the Federal Staff Directory.)

Pillar was back later rehearsing some old themes in a column previewing a longer National Interest article. Pillar’s column reminded me of the dialogue Woody Allen wrote for his voiceover spy parody What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? when one character shows spy hero Phil Moscowitz a printed floor plan and explains: “This is Shepherd Wong’s home.” Moscowitz asks: “He lives in that piece of paper?”
In his column Pillar discussed the famous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s continuing programs for weapons of mass destruction. Among the NIE’s “key judgments” were the following:

We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade. (See INR alternative view at the end of these Key Judgments.)
We judge that we are seeing only a portion of Iraq’s WMD efforts, owing to Baghdad’s vigorous denial and deception efforts. Revelations after the Gulf war starkly demonstrate the extensive efforts undertaken by Iraq to deny information. We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq’s WMD programs.
Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical weapons effort, energized its missile program, and invested more heavily in biological weapons; in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

In his column, Pillar argued that the NIE document (“He lives in that piece of paper?”) did not influence the Bush administration’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein:

The tremendous notoriety the estimate on weapons programs achieved has been all out of proportion to any role it played, or should have played, in the decision to launch the war. The administration never requested it (Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee did), its public line about Iraqi weapons programs was well-established before it was written, and as the White House later admitted, the president (and the then national security adviser) did not even read it–nor did most members of Congress. Opposition to the war among many at home and abroad who shared the misperceptions about Iraqi weapons programs demonstrated that those perceptions did not, contrary to the administration’s enormous selling effort, imply that a war was necessary.

Pillar implies without stating that the administration did not rely on the intelligence provided to it by the CIA and other government intelligence agencies regarding Iraq’s WMD program. Yet the implication does not follow from anything he said in the column about the October 2002 NIE itself. On the contrary, the October 2002 NIE is evidence of what Pillar and/or his colleagues were telling the administration regarding the potential threat that Iraq posed to the United States, regardless of what Pillar and others thought was the right course of action to remedy it.
In his critical history of the CIA, Tim Weiner writes regarding the Bush administration’s rationale to depose Saddam Hussein: “This was not a selective use of intelligence. It was not ‘cherry-picking.’ It was not fixing the facts to fit the war plans. It was what the intelligence said, the best intelligence the agency had to offer.”
Weiner also reports the assessment of Judge Laurence Silbermann (another distinguished Dartmouth alum) and the presidential commission Silbermann chaired to review the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “They found that the CIA’s reports for the president’s eyes were no different from the rest of its work, including the infamous estimate–except in one regard.” How so? “They were even more misleading, the commission found. They were, ‘if anything, more alarmist and less nuanced.'” What does Pillar have to say about that?
Pillar’s public commentary criticizing the Bush administration has also been ably dissected by Stephen Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn, to whom Mosk alludes.
Mosk opens his article with a reference to two top-secret papers in which Pillar had a hand that were circulated just before the Bush administration launched the war to depose Saddam Hussein. “[T]he two blunt reports represented a last-ditch attempt by senior intelligence officers to warn of dire consequences should the nation plunge into war. One of the papers was titled ‘Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq.’ The other was ‘Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq.’ Both provided a startlingly accurate, bleak portrait of what was about to unfold.”
Redacted versions of the CIA papers were published as appendices to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on prewar intelligence assessments about postwar Iraq. Pillar was presumably speaking from one of those papers when he addressed the California gathering on which Robert Novak reported.
Yet the assessment of costs and benefits of action is hardly the preserve of the CIA. Its intelligence is to provide information on which policymakers can act. In the case of Iraq, the CIA informed policymakers with a high degree of certainty that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In light of this assessment, the Bush administration’s decision to go to war was reasonable despite Pillar’s adverse assessment of the costs versus the benefits.
Even in light of the CIA’s error regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, it is still too soon to determine if the costs of deposing Saddam Hussein have outweighed the benefits. It is probably not too soon, however, to assess the CIA’s performance of its assigned role. Perhaps Pillar will get around to it in The Mythology of Intelligence: Iraq, 9/11, and America’s Misguided Quest to Understand the World, due out next year from Columbia University Press.
UPDATE: The editors of Commentary have kindly placed Schoenfeld’s December 2001 essay online at our request, and I have inserted the link above.