- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

There was a new report calling for reform of U.S. intelligence last week. It contradicts the last report calling for reform of U.S. intelligence. The last one wanted to centralize intelligence, which has since been done. The new one wants to decentralize intelligence. Good luck getting any attention for intelligence-reform reform three weeks after the last go-round.

If Sandy Berger stuffed every post-September 11 report down his pants, waddled off, cut them up in his kitchen and returned them randomly pasted together, I doubt it would make any difference.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the glass in Iraq is three-quarters full, which is why stories about it are buried so deep in the paper they might as well be in Sandy’s gusset. Saddam’s old prison state is now the first Arab country with a non-Arab head of state: a Kurd, Jalal Talabani. When you’re trying to make sense of the bewildering array of Iraqi politicians who prospered in the January elections, a good rule of thumb is: Chances are they’re guys who’ve been stiffed by the CIA.

President-to-be Jalal al-Talabani fell out with them a decade ago, when they pulled the plug on a U.S.-backed insurrection at 48 hours’ notice and failed to pay the late cancellation fee. Mr. Talabani was part of the Kurdish delegation that had a “secret” meeting with CIA honchos in April 2002, in which the drollest exchange was the Kurds expression of skepticism about whether the officials really represented the U.S. government.

And who can blame them? The CIA, as I wrote a couple of years back, now functions in the same relation to President Bush as Pakistan’s ISI does to Gen. Pervez Musharraf. In both cases, before the chief executive makes a routine request of his intelligence agency, he must figure out if they will use it as an opportunity to set him up, and if so how.

Mr. Musharraf’s problem is the significant ISI faction that would like to kill him. Fortunately for Mr. Bush, if anyone at the CIA plotted to kill him, they would probably take out G.W. Bish, an Idaho feed store operator.

Consider, for example, the case of Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. In the early 1990s, the CIA set up the INC with Mr. Chalabi at the helm. Then they fell out with him and decided they preferred a rival group, the Iraqi National Accord, set up by Britain’s MI6 and headed by an ex-Saddamite general whose plan to “liberate” Iraq involved getting rid of the big guy but keeping the Ba’athist state pretty much intact. Well, fair enough. We’re all entitled to change our minds, and it’s just about conceivable the CIA “analysts” genuinely thought the Saddamite-coup approach had a better chance.

But what’s harder to excuse is the energy they devoted — for the best part of the subsequent decade — to trashing their own creation. Hardly a week went by without assiduous feeding of anti-INC stories to the press. Here’s Page 3 headline and subhead in The Washington Post on April 21, 1999:

Congress’ candidate to overthrow Saddam Hussein: Ahmed Chalabi has virtually no other backing.

That’s quite the subhead. No quote-marks; no Chalabi said to have “virtually no other backing.” And that’s six years ago: everyone else in Washington was still in impeachment mode, but the CIA would have fingered Mr. Chalabi for Monica’s dress if they could have got away with it.

Then the September 11, 2001, attacks came. In the week after, a handful of us called for resignations from the various Federal agencies that flopped out big-time that day: the Federal Aviation Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI … and the CIA.

September 11 wasn’t a “tragedy”; it was, as Lord Carrington said of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, a national “humiliation.” He said that while resigning as foreign and Commonwealth secretary. “There has been a British humiliation. I ought to take responsibility for it,” he explained. “I was wrong in the assessment of what they were doing.”

But, if it’s too much to expect America’s governing class to take responsibility for their own wrong assessments, you would think they might have been chastened enough by September 11 to moderate at least their worst instincts. Instead, the CIA simply carried on business as usual — of which their ever more deranged Chalabi-bashing is merely the most obvious example. As we now know, it is not true that “Ahmed Chalabi has virtually no backing.” He came out pretty near the top in the January elections and he’s a big player in Iraqi politics. But the CIA version — that he’s some snake-oil salesman who pulled the wool over the Bush administration’s eyes though he has no support inside his own country — is now unshakable. Only the other day, Maureen Dowd, the New York Times’ elderly schoolgirl, fell back for the umpteenth time on one of her lamest tropes: “Ahmad Chalabi conned his neocon pals, thinking he could run Iraq if he gave the Bush administration the smoking gun it needed to sell the war.”

I don’t know if the CIA ever thinks through the implications of its own spin, but which reflects more poorly on them? The claim, now demonstrably absurd, that he has no support inside Iraq? Or the notion some no-account schlub, a British subject living in exile whom the Company plucked from obscurity and created a phony resistance movement to head, somehow managed to hoodwink the government of the world’s superpower over eight years of objections from its own intelligence agency?

Even before the latest budget-bloating “reforms,” the U.S. government was spending $30 billion annually on intelligence, and in return its intelligence agencies got everything wrong. British and French intelligence also get a lot of things wrong, but they get them wrong on far smaller budgets. One of the great subplots of the post-September 11 world is the uselessness of “experts,” the guys who get unlimited budgets to run agencies 24/7 devoted to their areas of expertise. What’s startling about the glimpses we get of CIA operations — that red-hot presidential briefing from August 2001, Joseph C Wilson IV’s non-fact-finding mission to Niger — is how generalized it all is: Anybody who watches cable news or reads an occasional foreign paper would know as much.

How about allocating that $30 billion to, say, a program for subsidized bicycling helmets for grade-schoolers or some other federal boondoggle, and bulldozing Langley and give the CIA director $20,000 to put all his agency’s global “analysis” up on a blog — spook.com — and invite comments from readers around the world? It couldn’t possibly be less informed than the decades of CIA Middle East incompetence.

U.S. intelligence needs a fresh start and, short of buying ol’ Sandypants a larger pair of trousers to smuggle out every classified document, it’s not clear how it will ever get it.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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