Shadow Struggle

Who to believe?

On the one hand are the prophets of doom: the senior administration officials who have come forward, one after the other, to describe, in no uncertain terms, the threat posed by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld swears that the Bush administration has "bulletproof" evidence that Saddam is working with Al Qaeda, while national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney declare that the Iraqis, with a little luck, could obtain nuclear weapons in a matter of months. On the other hand are the purveyors of doubt: the various unnamed intelligence officials who consistently undermine these dire predictions, telling reporters that the evidence of ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam is shaky at best, or that it will be many years before Saddam can build or buy his own bomb. Could Saddam attack America with smallpox? Absolutely, say administration spokesmen like Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge. Not likely, scoff the anonymous intelligence sources, who say they can find no evidence that Saddam can create a bioweapon out of smallpox. On Monday night, President George W. Bush will make a nationwide TV address to detail the nuclear and biological threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Count on anonymous intelligence officials to pooh-pooh the evidence in the next morning's newspapers.

The credibility gap between Bush administration higher-ups and their own intelligence advisers is deeply unsettling. If ever there was a time for solid, reliable intelligence, this is it. The war on terror is by definition a shadow war, waged largely by spies. The war against Iraq, if it comes, will put a premium on accurate information about the enemy. It will not be a war against a nation but rather aimed at a few individuals and their well-hidden weapons. The United States cannot very well kill Saddam if it can't find him, and smart bombs are useless without precise targets. Bush's decision on whether to fight or to keep on talking to the Iraqis will be strongly influenced by what the CIA tells him about Saddam's capabilities and intentions. What if Bush doesn't believe his own intelligence service?

Administration officials say that the president has not given up on CIA Director George Tenet, whom he regards as a straight shooter and a pal. ("No one understands why Bush loves Tenet," one hard-line official grumbled to NEWSWEEK.) It is also true that the press tends to play up or exaggerate Washington turf fights and backbiting. Some of the infighting is natural and even healthy. Policymakers tend to make sweeping declarations, while intelligence officials are supposed to act as a check by sticking to the facts.

Nonetheless, there are real and serious divisions between Bush's war cabinet and the spy agencies that serve it, as well as troubling splits within the intelligence community itself. After the massive intelligence failure of 9-11, the CIA and FBI have done better, partly thanks to the infusion of billions of dollars and the intense focus of their political bosses. The spooks and the G-men have worked together to catch high and low Qaeda operatives abroad and bust up cells at home (most recently with the arrest of four terrorism suspects last week). The fact that these two historic rivals cooperate at all is an improvement over earlier eras. But close observers worry about the resistance of the intelligence community to real reform. "We still are carrying around the same chains of insularity, cultural differences, institutional pride and ego that we were toting before September 11, 2001," said Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham in an interview with NEWSWEEK last week. Change comes slowly to the intelligence world, where veteran spymasters are wary of politicians and the impulses of the moment. Trying to knock off a head of state is dangerous and can easily backfire. Trying to predict the next terrorist attack is a heavy burden. It is made heavier by the weight of history.

Career intelligence officers have long memories. After 9-11, the word went forth from the seventh floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., where the director of Central Intelligence and the deputy directors of operations and intelligence--the chiefs of the operators and the analysts--keep their offices: Lean forward. Take risks. The White House is behind you. You won't be left hanging out to dry. But in the warrens of offices on the lower floors of the agency, and in the CIA's dusty outposts around the world, many of the veteran spooks thought they had heard it all before. In the '70s, the agency had been demoralized by revelations of "dirty tricks"--illegal drug experiments and failed assassination attempts during the cowboy days of the '50s and '60s. Then, in 1981, Bill Casey, an old swashbuckler from World War II days, had been brought back by Ronald Reagan as CIA director to "unleash the dogs" and revive covert action as a tool of statecraft. The Casey era ended in disaster. The CIA became entangled in the Iran-contra scandal. Careers were ruined. Congress began looking at "human-rights abuses" condoned by the agency's clients, like unsavory South American dictators. In the '90s, chastened CIA directors were compelled to impose tight new rules on the recruiting of assets.

Now CIA old boys are afraid the pendulum will swing all over again. They fear that high-risk covert operations will go bad--that hit men will hit the wrong target, or miss altogether (after all, they note, the CIA hired the Mafia to kill Castro in 1961, and Castro is still president of Cuba). They worry that if CIA analysts bend to political pressure from Bush's right-wing ideologues and play up the Iraqi threat, they will later be accused of cooking the books. The analysts fear that they will miss the one clue to the coming terror attack that is buried in the mountain of tips, leads and clues that inundate the CIA and FBI every day. And they worry that they will get blamed. Come the inevitable press and Capitol Hill witch hunts, they say, the hard-liners in the administration will be safely back in their cushy jobs on Wall Street or working as lawyer-lobbyists, while the career intelligence officers will be left holding the bag. According to one senior intelligence official, some CIA personnel have already started buying professional-liability insurance to cover their legal fees when they get hauled before investigating committees and grand juries.

The spooks are very wary that they will be double-crossed by Congress. Lawmakers charged with overseeing the intelligence community say they are worried that the CIA has become timid or, in the buzzword of the day, "risk-averse." A senior intelligence official interviewed by NEWSWEEK imitated a congressman on a "fact finding" trip to a CIA station abroad. The congressman throws his arm around the CIA's station chief, tells him what a great job he's doing, then asks, "By the way, are you risk-averse?" This intelligence official just chuckled at how fickle politicians can be, but others worry that the same senators who were prodding the agency to be less risk-averse in 2002 will, a few years from now, be demanding to know why the agency took such foolish chances if covert operations go bad, as they often do.

The spooks can already see Congress turning on them. Two weeks ago Cofer Black, the former chief of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center, testified on Capitol Hill. A staff memo, circulated among the 37 members of the special committee set up to investigate intelligence failures before 9-11, warned that "Mr. Black will probably dissemble on certain points." Black, a legendary figure who was once targeted by Al Qaeda for assassination while serving as a case officer in Sudan, was indignant. "What's going on here?" he rumbled in a deep voice. (The committee's staff director later blamed "an editing error" for the "poor choice of words.")

Bush administration officials with long experience as intelligence "consumers," meanwhile, have learned not to believe everything they hear from the bureaucracy. They recall, for instance, that in the mid-'70s a dispute broke out in Washington policymaking and intelligence circles over the strength of Soviet nuclear forces. A group of neoconservative intellectuals charged that the professional analysts at the CIA were playing politics. According to the hawks, the CIA was underestimating Soviet expenditures in order to please their political masters in the Ford administration, who were pursuing a policy of detente with the Kremlin. The then CIA director--President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush--magnanimously opened up the CIA's records to the second-guessers. A group of hawks, known as Team B, reviewed the evidence and concluded that the Kremlin was willing to spend the Soviet Union into penury to win the nuclear-arms race. It turned out Team B was right and the CIA was wrong. Among Team B's members: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby--respectively, secretary of Defense, deputy secretary of Defense, and chief of staff to the vice president in the current Bush administration.

The hawks today are no more trusting of the CIA than they were in the 1970s. Though careful to praise the agency for working well with U.S. Special Forces to chase the Taliban out of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, these Bush hard-liners say the agency is both timid and wrong on Iraq. The Pentagon hawks complain that the CIA simply refuses to take seriously--or, in some cases, even speak to--Iraqi defectors with particular knowledge of Saddam's WMD arsenal and his ties to Al Qaeda. Defense officials say they cannot understand why the CIA has no interest in speaking to a woman who claims to have been Saddam Hussein's mistress--and to have heard from Saddam's own sons about a meeting at which Saddam gave money to Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. A CIA official told NEWSWEEK that the agency would gladly interview the woman if she'd take a lie-detector test. "Defectors say 150 percent of what they know," said the official.

The Pentagon is working around the CIA's caution by relying on its own spy shop--the Defense Intelligence Agency--and it may use U.S. Special Forces to handle covert operations that would ordinarily be carried out by CIA operatives. Under the law, if the CIA intends to run a covert operation, it must get a presidential "finding" that requires notifying Congress. But if the military is using Special Forces to "prepare the battlefield" by, say, recruiting native Kurds to run sabotage operations, it does not need congressional permission. Senator Graham told NEWSWEEK that he will be on the lookout if the military tries this end run. "The fundamental reason the intelligence committees were created in the first place was because of covert actions that had run amok," he said.

Graham and his Democratic colleagues are irritated because they say that the CIA is balky and unresponsive. Hill oversight committees had to bang on the table to get the agency to produce even the most basic analysis of Iraqi strength or to assess the impact of a war in the region. (Not true, say agency officials, who maintain they are working overtime to meet congressional demands.)

The spy world is sometimes called "the wilderness of mirrors," for good reason. It is very hard to know who or what to believe. For instance, it has become conventional wisdom among critics of the Bush administration that going to war with Iraq will undermine the war on Al Qaeda. According to this theory, Arab governments, angry with the United States, will withhold the help necessary to track down Osama bin Laden and his men. Not so, says a senior intelligence official. Whatever the public rhetoric of Arab leaders, the internal-security services that prop up Middle Eastern regimes will continue to play ball with their friends in the CIA (who, in not a few cases, are also their paymasters). Indeed, knocking off Saddam may even improve cooperation, says this high-level spy boss. On the other hand, the critics who accuse the administration of hyping the Iraqi threat seem to have a credible ally in Britain. It is revealing that the British government shares the doubts of the CIA and FBI that 9-11 hijacker Mohamed Atta ever met with an Iraqi intelligence operative in Prague in 2001. Interestingly, the administration, vexed at the squabbling within the U.S. intelligence community, has taken to using Britain as a kind of referee, though the Bushies are not always satisfied with the calls made by the Brits.

It may take a war to determine who is right about Saddam, his ties to Al Qaeda, and the shape and size of his WMD stockpile. Within the Bush administration and the $35 billion-a-year intelligence community, there is across-the-board agreement on only one prediction: that terrorists will strike the United States again, and that the CIA and FBI will not be able to stop it.