Interview: Eli Lake Discusses His Article In The New Republic About The Fact That The Bush Administration Is Getting Competing Intelligence Reports On Iraq That May Be Confusing The Situation

All Things Considered: September 18, 2002

Iraq Intelligence


As President Bush weighs the possibility of military action against Iraq, he's getting competing intelligence reports that may be confusing the situation. That's the conclusion of an article in the September 23rd issue of The New Republic, written by UPI State Department correspondent Eli Lake. Mr. Lake joins us in our studios. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ELI LAKE (UPI State Department Correspondent): Thank you for having me.

YDSTIE: You write that the CIA has actually been edged out of its primary role of synthesizing intelligence on Iraq for the president by another group controlled by the Pentagon and hawks within the administration. Explain what's happened here.

Mr. LAKE: Well, I would say that a circle of neoconservatives who are not just in the Pentagon but also in the vice president's office--some are in the State Department--have essentially done their own analysis of intelligence information and come to very different conclusions than the Central Intelligence Agency.

YDSTIE: And how would you characterize this competing intelligence assessment by the Pentagon and by the hawks?

Mr. LAKE: Well, I mean, I think that on a couple of areas, the neoconservative wing of the Bush Cabinet believes that there will be massive defections that will be very likely in the event of a US military action or even an insurrection. They believe that the opposition is far stronger than the CIA takes it to be. And finally, I think that they would definitely say that there are extensive links with senior members of the al-Qaeda organization in Iraq and a part of Iraq that Saddam Hussein controls, and I'd say at this point that the CIA is unconvinced of that.

YDSTIE: And how is this group getting its intelligence? I mean, where does it get it from?

Mr. LAKE: It gets its intelligence, in some cases, just from raw intercepts that the CIA would use to analyze, but in other cases, it bases a lot of its estimates on the testimony of defectors who have come through with the principal opposition group the US has been supporting since 1999 called the Iraqi National Congress, which has had a long history of being out of favor with the Central Intelligence Agency.

YDSTIE: And it puts much more stock in these defectors and their stories than the CIA does.

Mr. LAKE: Absolutely the case. I think the CIA believes that many of the defectors have been coached, and that in often cases, that the INC or the Iraqi National Congress is politicizing the information, which is to say that the Iraqi National Congress, among other things, has also been one of the chief lobbyists in Washington to advocate a regime change policy against Saddam Hussein. And, you know, in addition to that, they're also providing these defectors. So I think the CIA would say that they add that up and they don't put much stock in these defectors.

YDSTIE: And yet, the stories of some of these defectors have been corroborated.

Mr. LAKE: I would say that the stories have, in many cases, been corroborated and the...

YDSTIE: Let's talk about the corroboration.

Mr. LAKE: Sure.

YDSTIE: In fact, there's one defector that came out who suggested that Saddam was trying to create nuclear weapons in a sort of diffuse manner and that he would require aluminum tubes...

Mr. LAKE: Yes. Khidir Hamza.

YDSTIE: create this--right. And as it turns out, in fact, recently we found that there are shipments of these tubes that have been occurring, right?

Mr. LAKE: This is an example of a defector who definitely got it right, and the CIA ended up having to revise its estimates.

YDSTIE: Not surprisingly, the CIA is critical of this alternative group that's providing intelligence to the president.

Mr. LAKE: They believe that as the intelligence professionals that they have the training and analytical skills to present an unbiased, non-political version of the intelligence to the president from which he can make these sorts of decisions.

YDSTIE: And how would you say the CIA assesses the possibility of success with military action against Iraq?

Mr. LAKE: Well, I want to make it very clear that I don't have their top-secret documents and I haven't seen--so from what I've gathered, I'd say that the CIA believes that there are no guarantees; that it's not as absolutely sure that you would see a lot of defections. They don't believe that there are links to al-Qaeda cells in Iraq or anything that's really significant. Another thing I would say about it is that the Central Intelligence Agency is not entirely sure that the opposition is going to be as effective as the hawks believe.

YDSTIE: So the CIA view would be that military action may not be a good idea at this point.

Mr. LAKE: Well, the CIA doesn't make policy recommendations. I think that they would present information on which to make those policy decisions. But what they're saying is that they don't believe that some of the things that the hawks in their analysis say would make the war with Iraq easy are necessarily there. So in that respect, I guess you could say that the CIA thinks it'll be a lot harder than some other people.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much, Mr. Lake.

Mr. LAKE: Thank you.

YDSTIE: Eli Lake is the State Department correspondent for UPI. His article on this subject titled "Need to Know" appears in the September 23rd issue of The New Republic.

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