Jul 14th, 2004, 06:18 PM
The New Groupthink
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
The salient news in the Senate Intelligence Committee report is this: all you have been hearing about "he lied to us" and "they cooked the books" is a lot of partisan nonsense.
The 511-page Senate report concluded this: Nobody in the White House or the Pentagon pressured the C.I.A. to change an intelligence analysis to conform to the judgment that the world would be a safer place with the monstrous Saddam overthrown.
Ah, second-guessers say, but what about "groupthink"? Before Gulf War I, the consensus held that Saddam was five to 10 years away from producing a nuclear bomb, but when we went in, we discovered that his W.M.D. were less than six months away.
The group then switched. When Saddam later obstructed U.N. inspectors — forgoing $100 billion in oil sales to keep out prying eyes — groupthinkers logically concluded that the "Butcher of Baghdad" had been hiding weapons. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who is privy to secret intelligence, spoke for the group in late 2002: "Saddam's existing biological and chemical weapons capabilities pose a very real threat to America now."
Today, as Election Day approaches, groupthink has swung back again, to this: Saddam not only had no terror weapons, but he had little or nothing to do with Al Qaeda — therefore, our liberation of Iraq was a waste of lives and money.
Consider the official pressure to get with the latest groupthink: the 9/11 commission staff assured us recently that repeated contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda (including the presence in Baghdad and Kurdistan of the reigning terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), "did not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee chimed in, saying these contacts "did not add up to an established formal relationship." (Italics mine.)
Think about that. Do today's groupthinkers believe that Osama bin Laden would sit down with Saddam in front of the world's cameras to sign a mutual assistance pact, establishing a formal relationship? Terrorists and rogue states don't work that way. Mass killers collaborate informally, without a photo op, even secretly.
But groupthinkers march lock step in election-season judgments. In contrast, we new iconoclasts hope that when the 9/11 commissioners release their findings on the eve of the Democratic convention, they will lay out in detail specific evidence of the Baghdad-terrorist links over the years before brushing it aside as informal. Let readers, not politicians and sound-biters, judge.
And while our Monday morning quarterbacks are dumping all over our intelligence agencies as a pack of inept sheep, we in the non-group might ask, with Juvenal, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is to watch the watchers?
The Senate Intelligence Committee, with a staff of 30 and an annual budget of $3.5 million, exists to oversee our intelligence services, to note their shortcomings and to demand that they be fixed, on pain of withholding funds.
Where has this Senate committee (and its House counterpart, Porter Goss's "Hipsie") been for the past decade? Did any of its recent members — John Edwards, for one — or any staff members have the wit to ask the C.I.A., with its $40 billion a year to spend, how many American spies we had in Iraq? (Answer: not one.) If the intelligence agencies were as badly run for years as the Senate now says, then Congressional oversight has long been bleary-eyed.
Strange, considering how the nation's interest is riveted on this week's report on our Iraqi intelligence mistakes, how little interest was shown in the Senate Intelligence Committee's extensive report on the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, which cost the lives of 17 American sailors.
The committee's staff director tells me that the 35-page document was disseminated to the intelligence community, but was never made public by Bob Graham, a Democrat who was chairman then. No reporter agitated for a copy until I just did.
If the committee was sharply critical of the C.I.A. in 2002, why wasn't the public alerted to the failures that led to the Cole bombing — and why wasn't action taken to shake up the place then?
Contrariwise, if the senators found nothing worthy of public correction at the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. at the end of the Clinton years, then political posterior-covering motivates their belated need to excoriate the agency they failed to oversee.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company