The President's Exclusive Access to Sensitive Intelligence
    By Mel Goodman
    t r u t h o u t | Perspective

    Sunday 20 November 2005

    President Bush, in defense of his decision to use force in Iraq, contends that the Congress supported the decision and that it had access to the same intelligence available to the White House. Not true!

    The president and his key advisers, usually about five or six principals, receive the CIA's "President's Daily Brief" (PDB) five or six times a week. The PDB contains sensitive intelligence, including raw intelligence, that is not seen anywhere else in the policy community or on Capitol Hill. Most of this intelligence is of the compartmented variety that isn't even available to intelligence analysts working on a particular problem. In addition to the PDB, the briefer usually brings additional intelligence reporting that would be of special interest to the president or the secretaries of state or defense. Again, these items are highly classified and not available to the general community.

    Every agency or department in the intelligence community has special compartmented intelligence that is not widely shared. The CIA's directorate of operations, for example, has what is known as "red-border" and "blue-border" series of clandestine intelligence that can be carried to the White House or the National Security Council, but receives very limited distribution elsewhere and certainly would not be seen by members of congress. The National Security Agency has very sensitive collections that often do not get into any publication other than the PDB and are distributed by hand to only one or two members of other intelligence agencies. The State Department has sensitive cables for embassies that are marked "eyes only" or "nodis" for no distribution that are seen by only a few outside the department. These items certainly would not be seen on the Hill. The same is true for sensitive satellite imagery.

    In addition to published and raw intelligence that is not even seen by the Senate and House intelligence committees, the president and his staff can task the CIA and other intelligence agencies for sensitive analysis on key aspects of the war in Iraq. During Vietnam, for example, the CIA did numerous studies on the bombing campaign, which told President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara that it was not working. The CIA also did sensitive reports on the numbers of Viet Cong in South Vietnam, which made it clear that the Pentagon was significantly underestimating the size and strength of the enemy. It is unlikely that sensitive intelligence is being shared today that deals with the size and strength of the insurgency in Iraq or the ineffectiveness of certain military tactics there. Even before the Tet offensive in 1968, President Johnson knew that the war effort would not succeed. No senator is likely to gain access to the very intelligence that would be most useful to the criticism of a particular decision, such as use of force in Iraq. Indeed, the Senate Armed Forces Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee need to task the intelligence community for the sensitive intelligence that would inform the debate on when and how to withdraw.

    The Democrats, however, cannot say they were duped before voting for the war in October 2002. Before that vote, the Senate had been given the flawed CIA estimate on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that contained numerous errors and deceptions on the Iraqi weapons inventory. The vote on the use of force should have been delayed to allow sufficient scrutiny of the specious estimate. Unfortunately, only five or six Senators even bothered to go to the special vaulted area of the Senate intelligence committee to read the estimate, and the only senator who proclaimed that the document was a fraud, Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), was ignored. So, if the Congress was hoodwinked, then it helped to apply its own blinders.

    In any event, it is entirely disingenuous to say that the senators who voted on the use of force in Iraq in October 2002 had the same access to intelligence that was available to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. At the same time, it was foolish for Senator John Kerry to say in the summer of 2004 that, if he knew in 2002 what he knew in 2004, he still would have voted for the use of force. More likely, if Kerry knew in 2002 what we all knew in 2004, there would have been no vote at all.


    Mel Goodman, senior fellow for intelligence reform at the Center for International Policy, was an intelligence analyst at the CIA for 24 years. On the net: