The Rumsfeld Commission: Filling in the "unknown unknowns"
by Maria Ryan
[ politics - july 04 ]
Anyone who heard the shocking mea culpa of David Kay, the erstwhile head of the Iraq Survey Group, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January 2004 that, "We were almost all wrong" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (or lack of them) could be forgiven for thinking that the intelligence debacle over Iraq was, firstly, a mistake and secondly, an aberration. However it was neither.
The now discredited intelligence presented by the Bush Administration on Saddam's WMD was not a 'mistake', but the product of a deliberate and particular style of intelligence analysis that did not rely exclusively on facts, but instead on surveying the possibilities available to adversaries and presenting these as evidence of their malevolent intent. Rather than constructing a "fact-based hypothesis", the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, followed slavishly by the CIA, designed an 'hypothesis-based' analysis - in effect, a worst-case scenario, presented as a probability.
Neither was this approach new. It has been used on two occasions before with many of the same actors involved each time. In 1976, Paul Wolfowitz was part of the original 'Team B' mandated to provide an external competitive threat assessment to the CIA. It used a methodology which did not rely exclusively on the facts at hand and sought to 'fill in' gaps in intelligence by surveying the range of possibilities available. The now infamous report criticised the CIA for relying on "hard" data rather than "contemplat[ing] Soviet strategic objectives in terms of the Soviet conception of 'strategy' as well as in the light of Soviet history, the structure of Soviet society and the pronouncements of Soviet leaders". The team based its conclusions on "the possibility that the Russians may be pursuing not a defensive but an offensive strategy" (emphasis added). Consequently the report was replete with unfulfilled prophecies about the strength of the Soviet Union.
Similarly the Office of Special Plans, led by Abram Shulsky and William Luti, reporting to Paul Wolfowitz and under-secretary of defense Douglas Feith, scoured through existing intelligence to find new ways of fitting it together to support the hypothesis of an Iraq-WMD-Al Qaeda link. Such reports were fed back into the CIA with the result that the Agency's crucial pre-war reporting on Iraq became sufficiently threatening due to its highly speculative nature.
However, there is another example of a major 'hypothesis-based' threat assessment. The 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States - commonly known as the Rumsfeld Commission after its leader, Donald Rumsfeld - provides a third example of an hypothesis based analysis in which conservatives and neo-conservatives, often from private groups outside the government, attempted to find the facts to support their pre-existing policy preference for missile defence.
During the Nineties, missile defence was one of the pivotal issues within the emerging neo-Reaganite/neo-conservative movement. Many of these groups and individuals worked hard to keep the issue on the political agenda but none of them were as involved on this particular issue as the Center for Security Policy (CSP), which worked tirelessly and in tandem with its allies and advisory board members in Congress to push for the development of missile defences.
The list of CSP associates has been described by William Hartung, with some justification, as "a Star Wars Hall of Fame." CSP board member, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) co-founded the Congressional Ballistic Missile Defence Caucus with Pete Geren (D-TX) in March 1995 to "ensure the fielding of anti-missile defense systems presently in development." Former Reagan science advisor, George Keyworth, serves on the advisory council as well as Edward Teller, Reagan's Senior Strategic Defence advisor. Representatives of defence contractors to the Pentagon include Charles M Kupperman, the Vice President of the Space and Strategic Missiles Sector at Lockheed Martin, one of six CSP directors and Lockheed's Vice President for Strategy and Planning, Bruce Jackson, on the Center's advisory council.
The advisory council was also home to a number of prominent conservative and neo-conservative political strategists. Douglas Feith and Richard Perle were founding members of CSP. The president, Frank Gaffney, was the Center's most prominent spokesman. Elliott Abrams, Paula Dobriansky, Keith Payne and William Schneider Jr, who would all serve in or as consultants to the George W Bush administration, were on the CSP advisory council. James Woolsey was the honorary co-chairman. In total, 21 members of CSP would go on to serve in the Bush administration.
In addition nine members of Congress sat on the CSP advisory board. As well as Curt Weldon, the board included Representatives Christopher Cox (R-CA); Henry Hyde (R-ILL) and John Shadegg (R-AZ); and senators Tim Hutchinson (R-AR); Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX); Jon Kyl (R-AZ); Bob Smith (R-NH) and James Inhofe (R-OK).
The Clinton administration had in fact opened the door for the conservatives by continuing to develop theatre missile defences, unilaterally 'reinterpreting' the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in early 1995 to justify this and by identifying convenient new enemies in the form of 'rogue states'.
The scrap over intelligence that appeared not to justify the development of national missile defence began in December 1995 with the issuing of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat to the United States.
The key conclusion of the NIE was that "no country other than the declared nuclear powers will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the 48 contiguous states or Canada." In addition, it reported that "ballistic missile programmes of other countries are focused on regional security concerns and are not expected to evolve into threats to North America during the period of this estimate". Iraq's ability to build an ICBM was severely constrained by international sanctions and the intelligence community was likely to detect any indigenous long-range ballistic missile programme "years before deployment." Significantly, though, the Estimate did not consider Hawaii or Alaska, the two states potentially easiest to target.
As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on research and development, CSP board member, Curt Weldon, received a briefing on the NIE from CIA analyst, David Osias. Weldon later described how he "went ballistic" on hearing Osias' report and walked out of the briefing in disgust. He blasted the NIE as "the most outrageous politicisation of an intelligence document that I've seen in the 10 years I've been in Washington."
In February 1996 these issues were discussed at the House National Security Committee's hearings on 'The Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States and Its Allies.' A number of outside experts were invited in by the Committee to testify. Notably, Curt Weldon was Chairman of the Subcommittee on Research and Development that witnessed the hearings.
However, the hearings were stacked in favour of the Republicans every time with never more than one opponent of missile defence out of three or four (on one occasion there were no opponents). The witness list included Frank Gaffney, the head of CSP; William R Graham, a member of the CSP board, a Reagan science advisor and eventually a member of the Rumsfeld Commission; Keith Payne, eventually a Rumsfeld Commission member (and currently serving in the Rumsfeld Pentagon); James Woolsey, chair of the CSP board and Richard Perle. They would return to testify in May and September 1995. On each occasion they spoke tirelessly in favour of NMD and against the ABM Treaty.
In the House Committee's final report of May 1996 the ranking Democrat, Ronald Dellums complained about the Committee's "partisan appearance" and its preference for "outside experts." He noted the Committee's "determination to plumb the conclusions reached by the Intelligence Community" in the 1995 NIE and added that, regardless of the validity of that NIE, "it is unconscionable that we have failed to have the Intelligence Community before the Committee to testify on the NIE's contents and its methodology. I have requested such a Committee hearing on several occasions and am disappointed that this has not occurred."
In spite of Dellums' objections, the Committee's report recommended setting up a panel of non-governmental experts to review the methodology and conclusions of the NIE, as well as a separate blue-ribbon commission of external experts to assess the nature and magnitude of the ballistic missile threat to the US.
The first review was headed by former CIA director, Robert Gates. The Gates Panel reported in December 1996 but it concluded that there was "no evidence of politicisation and [the panel] is completely satisfied that the analysts views were based on the evidence before them and their substantive analysis" rather than on Clinton's preference for regional rather than national missile defences. In fact, the Panel reported, the NIE had actually understated its conclusions.
The hawks, led by Weldon, were up in arms. The panel had not produced the results they had hoped for and so they began to attack the findings of Gates as vigorously as they had attacked the NIE itself in newspapers and in Congress.
However, the Republicans in Congress had ensured that there were two opportunities to put right the flawed NIE. The blue-ribbon Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat was due to form and would provide a competitive threat assessment to the CIA. The Commission was made up of nine members plus a group of seven core staff members and a DCI liaison. It took over a year for lawmakers and administration officials to agree on a membership list for the commission, but in the end, six members were Republican appointees and three were Democratic nominees. Like Team B, the Commission was made up of external experts opposing the policies of the executive.
The Commission took its name from its leader Donald Rumsfeld. Already known as a proponent of missile defence, Rumsfeld had been a signatory to the PNAC Statement of Principles in June 1997. He was joined by five other high profile Republican appointees: William R Graham, who had testified in favour of NMD at the House hearings on missile defences in March 1996; William Schneider Jr, who had signed the PNAC Statement of Principles the previous year, was a CSP board member and would go on to serve on George W Bush's Defense Science Board; General Larry D Welch, USAF (Ret.), president and CEO of the Institute for Defense Analyses, which carried out research and analysis on defence systems, including NMD, for the Pentagon; Paul Wolfowitz, at the time serving a successful term as the Dean of the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Wolfowitz had also been a member of the first Team B in 1976. The final Republican appointment was Woolsey. Having served as Clinton's DCI from 1993-95, Woolsey was now a partner in the law firm Shea & Gardner - as well as being a regular advocate for missile defences through his Congressional testimonies and his association with PNAC and advisory roles at CSP and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
The Democratic appointees to the Commission were Dr. Barry M. Blechman, Dr. Richard L Garwin and General Lee Butler, USAF (Ret.), all of whom were known to be sceptical of missile defence on scientific grounds.
The Commission had not been charged with making a recommendation on missile defence, only on the nature and magnitude of ballistic missile threats to the US. Yet proponents and opponents of the system both considered it politically necessary that their stance be supported by the latest intelligence on ballistic missile threats.
Whilst heading the 1998 Commission, Rumsfeld had been guided by his favourite aphorism: 'There are knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.' As Richard Garwin, commission member, put it: "We did not gather all the facts and then ask what they meant. Rather we asked what would be required in the 1990s to have a program to acquire long-range missiles of ICBMs and what facts supported or negated such a hypothesis."
Despite their differing views on missile defence, the commissioners were united in their view of the threat in their report of July 1998:
"The threat to the US... is broader, more mature and evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the Intelligence Community..."
And that in addition to the existing threats from China and Russia,
"These newer, developing threats in North Korea, Iran and Iraq... would be able to inflict major destruction on the US within about 5 years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq)."
(Emphasis added). The report expressed concern that the acquisition of ballistic missiles could check US freedom of action:
"A number of countries with regional ambitions do not welcome the US role as a stabilizing power in their regions and have not accepted it passively. Because of their ambitions, they want to place restraints on the US capability to project power or influence into their regions."
Missiles could provide "a strategic counter" to US conventional military superiority "for those seeking to thwart the projection of US power."
Moreover, the report was open about the methodology it had used which had produced such alarming conclusions. To guide its work the Commission posed three questions: firstly what is known about the scale and pace of programmes in each country, including domestic infrastructure and efforts to acquire assistance from abroad; secondly, "what is not known about the threat" (emphasis added); and thirdly, could a power intent on posing a ballistic missile threat to the US acquire the means to do so through the black market and thus minimise the warning time the US might get of deployment? Therefore, whatever was "not known" through hard facts or data, could be 'guessed' by analysing the possibilities available. As a result, "we were able to partially bridge a significant number of intelligence gaps," the commissioners claimed.
Obviously such an approach was wide open to political manipulation, whereby analysts filled in the 'unknowns' with their own predispositions and preconceived policy notions. One example of this was the Commission's own use of external experts on the missile threat. Frustrated by CIA analysts who based their conclusions on the facts at hand, the commissioners found some outside experts of their own to consult: firstly it was briefed by Lockheed Martin, which at the time was the Pentagon's Prime Contractor for theater missile defense development and spent over $10 million in 1997-98 lobbying the Clinton administration to expand this to national missile defence; and secondly it was briefed by Boeing, which in April 1998 won a hard-fought battle for the contract to become the Pentagon's Lead System Integrator to oversee construction of Clinton's missile defence plans. Boeing also spent over $18 million lobbying in 1997-98.
On its release the report was explosive. It energised the proponents of NMD and its influence on the missile defence debate and the Intelligence Community would last for years. It provided the much sought after justification for advocates of NMD and was vehemently criticised by George Tenet, head of the CIA.
On 15 July, the same day the Commission issued its findings, Tenet issued a robust defence of the CIA record: "Where the evidence is limited and the stakes are high, we need to keep challenging our assumptions." (Emphasis added). CIA estimates were "supported by the available evidence and were well tested in Community debate; they were also reviewed by outside experts." Whilst the latest CIA estimates considered an ICBM threat "unlikely", the Agency still paid attention to the threat. Under the Bush White House, however, Tenet would actually adopt this methodology that he had so vehemently criticised.
Conservative hawks and neo-conservatives rallied around the report. CSP issued a Decision Brief praising the report and warning that this was incontrovertible proof that "there may be no lead time concerning the emergence of undeterrable missile threats" and so the earliest deployment of NMD must be a priority. PNAC, JINSA and Heritage all released supporting memoranda and the JINSA board passed a resolution reaffirming its support for NMD in the light of the report. William Safire used the Commission's findings to appeal in print and on television for the immediate development of NMD.
Donald Rumsfeld, for his efforts, was awarded the 'Keeper of the Flame' award by CSP and Frank Gaffney eulogised about Rumsfeld's "heroic legacy." Rumsfeld went public again to appeal for a missile defence system.
The momentum generated by the Rumsfeld Commission led to the passage in March 1999 of the National Missile Defense Act, which mandated deployment "as soon as technologically possible." It was signed by the president in July 1999, but in September 2000 Clinton deferred deployment again. It was only with the election of George W Bush that the prevaricating stopped and the US finally gave notice of its withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
Thus what appeared to be an intelligence failure over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction actually represented the temporary institutionalisation of a method of intelligence analysis long favoured by some conservative and neo-conservative hawks. Team B, the Rumsfeld Commission and the Office of Special Plans were all successful on their own terms, encouraging increases in defence expenditure, missile defence and war in Iraq as their authors had conceived.
However, in hindsight, not one of these reports proved correct in the long term. Team B reported just as the Soviet Union's military expenditure was slowing and its economy was contracting (and 15 years later it would no longer exist); the United States does not a face a hostile ballistic missile threat and will not in the near future; and Iraq's WMD are nowhere to be found. In sum, although intelligence gathering may always be an inexact science, policy makers would do better to concentrate on what we do know rather than fantasise about what we do not.
The author is happy to provide references for all quotations, facts and figures cited above. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org