Journalism, they say, is a rough draft of history. Sometimes very rough.
I have in mind a recent piece by Bob Woodward, among America’s most celebrated journalists, about the debate that took place within the George W. Bush White House over Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor. CIA director Michael Hayden told the president his agency had “only low confidence” that the reactor was part of a nuclear-weapons program. Nevertheless, Vice President Cheney favored a military strike, as he makes clear in his newly released memoir.
According to Woodward, this demonstrates Cheney’s failure to learn the lesson of Iraq, where flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s possession of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction was a major factor in President Bush’s decision to topple the dictator.
Woodward writes: “Cheney said he wanted the United States to commit an act of war to send a message, demonstrate seriousness and enhance credibility — a frightening prospect given the doubts. Two participants in the key National Security Council meeting in June 2007 said that after Cheney, the ‘lone voice,’ made his arguments, Bush rolled his eyes.”
Kudos to the Washington Post’s editors: A few days after the Woodward piece, they ran an op-ed by four former Bush-administration officials — Elliott Abrams, Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, and John Hannah (Hannah is currently a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, of which I am president) — who participated in the deliberations over the Syrian reactor. They were blunt. Woodward’s account, they said, is a “revisionist and misleading history.” And Woodward “misunderstands the reality of al-Kibar.”
Among the facts Woodward neglects to mention in his piece: Al-Kibar did, in fact, turn out to be a nuclear-weapons facility.
Woodward may have seen that as not relevant to his point that unleashing military power in the absence of rock-solid intelligence is risky. But in the real world, rock-solid intelligence is rare. What’s more, intelligence requires analysis. Those advising Bush, the former officials recall, knew that the reactor was built “in the middle of the desert and — according to the CIA — ‘was not configured to produce electricity.’ For what likely purpose was it built, then, if not to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons?”
Bush’s advisers knew, too, that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was building the reactor secretly even though, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, he could have openly and legitimately built a civilian nuclear power plant — so long as he did so under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Why would he choose instead to violate his international treaty obligations and obtain secret assistance from, of all places, North Korea?
The White House advisers did not argue over these questions. No one was so naïve as to believe that al-Kibar was being built to power homes, farms, and baby-formula factories. Rather, the dispute among them was over “what to do about the most brazen nuclear proliferation case in history. . . . Here was the world’s worst proliferator providing nuclear assistance to one of the world’s worst state sponsors of terrorism — which also happened to be facilitating attacks on American troops in Iraq. It is hard to imagine a more egregious challenge to the Bush Doctrine and America’s war against terrorism.”
Cheney favored swift and decisive military action. Others wanted to continue to pursue a diplomatic solution. “Whatever our individual views, Woodward is dead wrong to present the vice president’s arguments as unreasonable,” the four former officials write. “His advice was seriously considered at the time, and his claims look even more prescient in hindsight.”
In the end, after Bush decided not to act and diplomacy went nowhere, the Israelis took it upon themselves to destroy the reactor. The former advisers write: “Syria then spent months trying to sanitize the site and stonewall the IAEA — confirmation of its non-peaceful intentions. The Israeli attack in September 2007 was flawless, Syria and North Korea did not lash out, and a dire proliferation threat was eliminated for good. America and the world are safer for it.”
History will record that the CIA failed in this mission. Such failures have happened before and will happen again. That is to be expected, but this isn’t: After Bush’s decision not to take out the nuclear reactor, Woodward writes, the CIA officers responsible for providing the “low confidence” assessment “were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, ‘No core/No war.’”
In other words, they considered it a victory that they had prevented Bush from acting. That is shameful. The CIA’s job is to provide the president with the intelligence he needs to make policy. The CIA’s job is not to substitute its policy preferences for those of the commander-in-chief — and then celebrate such power-grabs.
Hayden has attempted to give this incident a benign spin, saying, “The coin was commissioned to reflect CIA’s role in fulfilling the president’s twin policy goals” — destroying the reactor (including its nuclear core) without resorting to military force. Nice try, but really not plausible: The CIA had no role in destroying the reactor. If the Israelis hadn’t done the job — and the evidence suggests they had neither encouragement nor approval from the White House — a nuclear core would be in place at al-Kibar today.
Woodward is correct that there is a lesson to be learned from all this. But it is the intelligence community and journalists such as Woodward who need to learn it. And it’s not the lesson of Iraq and the WMDs. It’s the lesson of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that wrongly assessed that Iran had ended work on its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. That tied Bush’s hands in regard to an issue of paramount strategic importance.
Was usurping the president’s authority the goal of those who wrote that NIE? If that’s the true story, it’s uncomfortable for people like Woodward, who would rather be criticizing Cheney, and uncomfortable for people like me, who would rather not be criticizing the intelligence community. But it’s the job of journalists to write first drafts of history that are as accurate as possible — and then let the historians take it from there.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.