Cherry-Picking Intel, Nunes and the Iraq War Disaster

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Here is a caution against the Nunes memo that the Republican Party intends to release: it is the sort of thing that got us into the disastrous Iraq War. Cherry-picking raw intelligence is one of the ways the hawks around Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld bamboozled Washington and the American people into overthrowing a major Middle Eastern country.

The Trumpists within the Republican Party are now seeking to defame the FBI as a way of defending Trump, who is likely under more extensive investigation than we in the public know about.

Intelligence analysis and writing history have a lot in common. In both fields, the analyst is presented with a welter of conflicting reports from multiple sources. Many of these sources are sketchy, and the documents contain key contradictions. This is true whether you are trying to find out who the Russian intelligence (FSB) station chief in Slovenia is, or whether you are trying to figure out why the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Devin Nunes is from a family of Portuguese immigrants who prospered as farmers in northern California’s San Jaoquin Valley, part of which he now represents in Congress. He heads the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee and so has had access to classified Federal Bureau of Investigation material on the 2016 election. He has gone through thousands of pages of that material, or had his young staffers do so, and picked out passages here and there that support some sort of conspiracy theory about the FBI versus Trump, alleging that the FBI improperly relied on the Steele dossier in looking into Trump’s connections with Russia. The Steele dossier was instigated by a prominent Republican but later the project was taken over by the Clinton campaign. Steele is a former British intelligence operative with extensive Russia experience, who put together reports about Vladimir Putin’s compromising material (‘Kompromat’) on Trump.

The difference between analyzing a mass of contradictory reports and cherry-picking is that the analyst approaches the material with an open mind. You have to weigh one document against another, one source against another, and make a judgment about whose story is more plausible given the contradictions. People who cherry-pick just take things serially out of context and piece together a one-sided narrative.

Nunes has cherry-picked, provoking an alarmed response from the FBI about the one-sided nature of his memo, and about the ways in which it compromises US intelligence sources and methods. The FBI insists that Nunes has left out a big part of the story.

All this reminds me forcefully of the Neoconservative plot to get up the Iraq War. They, too, had access to a mass of raw material on Iraq, much of it spurious. Douglas Feith, the number three man at the Pentagon, set up an ad hoc “Office of Special Plans” within the Department of Defense, charged with the cherry-picking. The least reliable intelligence reports, from known drunks and liars and schemers, were picked out and assembled. Iraq was two years from having an atomic bomb. Iraq was behind the September 11, 2001, attacks. Feith and his shop even briefed members of Congress on this supposed “intelligence,” which was improper and maybe illegal. (Right wingers are always up in arms about people like Ed Snowden leaking classified material for public policy purposes, but they give a pass to Feith and Nunes and their like.)

One of the beauties of cherry-picking intelligence and releasing the biased conclusions is that the intelligence community cannot reply. The material that would refute the one-sided story is also classified and they can’t release it. The Intelligence and Research unit at the State Department knew that the case for the Iraq War was phony. They were hampered in telling the public why because their own analysis was classified. All this is another argument against over-classification of government materials, which has expanded enormously over the past 20 years. Democracy depends on open information, and classified info can be used to manipulate the public.

Cherry-picking intelligence always leads to bad public policy. The last time, we got the Iraq War, which we still suffer from.

This time, the aim is to give us a second Trump term, which is a more alarming prospect than even an Iraq War.

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Bonus video:

PBS NewsHour: “Why the FBI went public with its objection to the Nunes memo release”

13 Responses

  1. “The Intelligence and Research unit at the State Department knew that the case for the Iraq War was phony. ” So why didn’t they tell their boss, the SECSTATE before he relied the phony case before the world at the UN?

    • The State Department received a memo from the Department of Energy stating that the aluminum tubes were not applicable for centrifuges. They also received a warning about Curveball from Italian security agents, if I remember correctly.

      • To clarify, they were warned about Curveball by the Germans. Curveball was actually in Germany, talking to German intelligence, but refused to talk to US intelligence. German intelligence thought he was fishy. It later turned out that he was working for Chalabi who wanted to become the next Iraqi leader after the US threw out Hussain. State was skeptical most all of the time. Powell had his doubts, but was given the job of presenting the case to the UN by Cheney’s chief of staff. When he looked at the supposed evidence, Powell asked Cheney’s staff, Is this all? Remember that Powell had been a top general and head of NSC so he was very familiar with intelligence and probably smelled a rat, but being a retired soldier, did his duty as he saw it.

  2. Good insight. You could probably publish a full-blown magazine piece on “cherry picking and its discontents” as it pertains to foreign policy & national security. In fact, why don’t you? :)

  3. This is all happening because Trump and his supporters are in full panic mode. They know they are in serious trouble, but I doubt they know how extensive that trouble is. What we know about Mueller’s investigation is probably equivalent to the tip of an iceberg. Mueller has had experts and time enough to trace all the money aspects and has more than enough to nail Trump on obstruction. Trump is gone and may take a lot of Congressional Republicans with him. Something like 32 Republican representatives have decided to retire, including several committee chairmen. They have seen the writing on the wall.There will be fits and starts, last gasps of resistance by Trump, but eventually all the truth will come out, even if he, Trump, fires Mueller. The only question is when. Will it be before the midterms, or after? I am hoping that the big bombshell lands about mid September and Democrats take back both houses of Congress so impeachment can succeed. With this timeline, Ryan will no longer be in line of secession since a Democrat will probably be Speaker of the House. I think there will be enough evidence to show that Pence is also complicit and he may have to go, too. This whole Administration is rotten to the core (especially at the core) like nothing we have seen before in US history.

  4. Correct. But it was not primarily Bush,Cheney and Rumsfeld, but their staffers/underlings. For guidance, follow the path to Dep.SecDef, foreign policy staff of VP Cheney, and the only “guest” in the NSC who used to be an academic expert on the Middle East but decided that the “time had come to do something for his people”. But you already know that,Juan. Si?

    • You’re edging every so delicately around an issue that cannot even be spoken of directly. Not that it explains everything, and there were any number of factors contributing to the Iraq cluster—k. Many of these we now see being repeated, which was the posts point. Still, the fact that you and I can not directly address this particular one is telling.

      I read an article recently about Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes,” where Douglas Feith spoke about how they were handled. It was easy to see how it is these well-placed staffers who develop policy options, legitimizing or delegitimizing them, thereby moulding policy.

    • There is a good book called Rise of the Vulcans, as I remember. It goes into the background and interrelationships between people like Wolfowitz, Condi Rice, and others. Remember that a lot of these people were the founders and most important members of the Project for the New American Century which began pushing for the Iraq War in the mid-90’s. They just needed a justification/opportunity. They wrote a position paper for Netanyahu that was so right wing that even he refused to use it.

  5. “bamboozled Washington”!?
    Whitewashing the holy cow of American politics, A CIA agent was outed and an ambassador and a joint chief were tar and feathered and ran out of town.

  6. No one from the Bush admin or Republicans were held accountable for the deliberate misinformation and hostility that would lead to breaking international law and the war crimes in Iraq (Nixon was pardoned, so really no major US office holder in recent memory – or even before, I don’t know old US history – has ever been held accountable from the US government. Same thing with Iran-Contra affair with Reagan and Bush Sr, or Clinton for perjury, regardless of Republican witch-hunt).

    I doubt any of the Republicans who are openly obstructing this special investigation, which ironically includes looking into ‘obstruction of justice’ by the Trump admin, will be held accountable and may actually succeed more likely in undermining the FBI, a major law enforcement entity, along with degrading other democratic institutions towards more partisan lines and authoritarianism.

    Even if a fraction of the corruption by Trump and the Republicans were done under Obama, the right-wing and mainstream media would have never lived down the outrage.

    Also, on cherry picking and history repeating like the Iraq war.
    link to vox.com
    >”Trump’s South Korea ambassador pick opposed attacking the North. So Trump dumped him.
    “This suggests that the administration is seriously considering … a strike.””

  7. All good points. I think it might be time to say that any collusion wrt the election is secondary. Trump ran a more energetic and strategic campaign. If you concede that collusion was not decisive then quickly and forcefully move to the obstruction and financial encumbrance that the president has it might be more fruitful. Further, I would hope that Mueller has a barrage of charges to launch at a strategic time. Finally, funny that nothing wrt Trump’s finances, taxes, etc. has been leaked by anyone. That would seem to suggest that all the misdeeds are on one side of this ledger.

    • I don’t know what campaigns you were watching, but I don’t think I have seen any experienced veteran of campaigns say that Trump ran a more energetic and strategic campaign. Like his administration, his campaign was very chaotic with people coming and going and little coordination, poor ground game, etc. He changed campaign managers in the middle of the campaign and then brought in Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon the last couple of months. There is no way to tell what effect collusion had, but one particular fake news story, that the Pope endorsed Trump, had over 800,000 shares, half of all the shares in the last couple of weeks of the campaign were fake news, and social media posts by Russian trolls and bots were supposedly viewed by approximately 40 million people. As for finances, taxes, etc., one of the first people hired by Mueller was an expert from the Treasury Dept. who specializes in money laundering and other financial crimes. In the Book Fire and Fury, the author quotes Bannon saying that the key to investigating Trump lies through Manafort and Trump’s financial dealings.

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