The Hayes memo is important—but bogus.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 9 2003 2:14 PM

The Case of the Misunderstood Memo

The Feith "annex" highlights the Bush administration's misuse of intelligence material.

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What does all this say about how Feith and his underlings use intelligence? Hayes says, correctly, that the Feith memo "just skims the surface of the reporting on Iraq-al Qaeda connections." The large sampling provided in his article, he believes, destroys critics' arguments "that links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have been routinely 'exaggerated' for political purposes; that hawks 'cherry-picked' bits of intelligence and tendentiously presented these to the American public."

What Hayes does not seem to recognize is that many of the treasures he imagines hidden in the existing CIA files may be dross or worse and, if presented, they would undermine the " 'Cliff's notes' version of the relationship" that he says is provided by the Feith memo. Of course there are more reports. When your intelligence service relays, as it should, everything short of sightings of Bin Laden on the moon, 50 reports of varying quality do not amount to much. The remaining material, many who are familiar with it believe, does not confirm the Hayes-Feith version but points in the other direction.

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Not surprisingly, none of the reports in the Feith memo mention the aversion that the Baathist and jihadists felt for one another. Similarly, there is no evidence of the contradictory nature of the intelligence. I would bet, for example, that there are plenty of reports putting Bin Laden in Afghanistan and perhaps a half a dozen other places in January 1998, at exactly the time he was supposed to be in Baghdad—and that would be only the most blatant kind of inconsistency. Attributing a report to a "contact with good access" does not mean the contact's account is true. Proving a report correct, or sufficiently corroborated to be considered plausible, requires a lot more work. Putting all the disparate pieces together and trying to construct a coherent picture—yes, connecting the dots—is harder still, requiring a mastery of all the material. Of course, raw intelligence has its value, especially if you are worried about an imminent attack, but there is a reason why the intelligence community spends so much time and energy putting out "finished product," the reports that evaluate a significant body of information to get the whole picture right. Those are the reports that policy-makers are supposed to rely on in crafting a strategy.

One thing intelligence analysts do as they evaluate a body of information is keep in mind the context. This is worth attempting in the case of the Feith memo, too, because while much of the material may be new to the public, most of it has been bouncing around the government since well before the invasion of Iraq. That means it has been scrubbed numerous times by analysts and senior officials eager to use it as they made the case for invading Iraq.

After these reviews, it is clear, very little has been found that was solid enough to present in public. Compare the Feith memo with Colin Powell's U.N. speech, which was preceded by the most thorough evaluation of the intelligence ever conducted by the Bush administration. Remarkably little on the ties between al-Qaida and Iraq made it into that speech. Or compare the memo with the recent remarks of Vice President Dick Cheney, who has all but stopped listing possible al-Qaida-Iraq connections and has given up suggesting that Mohammed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official since saying it on Meet the Press in September. (After that appearance, the Washington Post noted that he was arguing a point the FBI and CIA didn't believe was true.) If top officials had any confidence in these wares, they would still be out hawking them. Why the Feith memo is being sent to the Senate Intelligence Committee is also therefore baffling.

It should be clear now why the Feith document needs a lot more attention: The memo is,Hayes' declarations to the contrary,cherry-picking—the selective use of intelligence. It lends credence to Seymour Hersh's reporting in The New Yorker about political appointees ignoring career analysts and dredging out whatever suits them. This is perilous business. Making a judgment about Iraq-al-Qaida ties on the basis of the sections presented by Hayes would be like accepting a high-school biology student's reading of a CAT scan.

The administration's use of intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction became a hot issue primarily because of the failure to find any such weapons in Iraq and Joe Wilson's revelations about the non-export of uranium from Niger to Iraq. Strangely, however, there has been little inquiry into the Iraq-al-Qaida relationship. The press has had a difficult time taking this issue any further since so few reporters have good sources in the intelligence community. In Congress, an effort to push further into the issue in the Senate Intelligence Committee has been stymied by the Republican majority's refusal to discuss how the political leadership used the intelligence it was provided with. That is a recipe for putting the blame for any Iraq-related blunders on the intelligence community, not those in the Pentagon or White House who may have misread or ignored the intelligence they were given.

Americans were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was significantly more dangerous than any of the other two dozen or so countries that currently possess them because Saddam might on any given day give such weapons to terrorists. The danger was urgent, we were told, because the Baghdad regime had a relationship with al-Qaida. Given the costs the nation has incurred in Iraq, a conscientious review of the issue would seem to be a good investment in democratic accountability. Since neoconservatives are certain they are right about the Saddam-Bin Laden relationship, maybe they'll join Senate Democrats in demanding a fuller airing.

Daniel Benjamin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff in 1998-99 and is the co-author ofThe Age of Sacred Terrorand The Next Attack.

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