WASHINGTON -- A few hours after George W. Bush dismissed a pessimistic CIA report on Iraq as "just guessing," the analyst who identified himself as its author told a private dinner last week of secret, unheeded warnings years ago about going to war in Iraq. This exchange leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the president of the United States and the Central Intelligence Agency are at war with each other.
Paul R. Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, sat down Tuesday night in a large West Coast city with a select group of private citizens. He was not talking off the cuff. Relying on a multi-paged, single-spaced memorandum, Pillar said he and his colleagues concluded early in the Bush administration that military intervention in Iraq would intensify anti-American hostility throughout Islam. This was not from a CIA retiree but an active senior official. (Pillar, no covert operative, is listed openly in the Federal Staff Directory.)
For President Bush to publicly write off a CIA paper as just guessing is without precedent. For the agency to go semi-public is not only unprecedented but shocking. George Tenet's retirement as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) removed the buffer between president and agency. As the new DCI, Porter Goss inherits an extraordinarily sensitive situation.
Pillar's Tuesday night presentation was conducted under what used to be called the Lindley Rule (devised by Newsweek's Ernest K. Lindley): the identity of the speaker, to whom he spoke, and the fact that he spoke at all are secret, but the substance of what he said can be reported. This dinner, however, knocks the Lindley Rule on its head. The substance was less significant than the forbidden background details.
The Bush-CIA tension escalated Sept. 15 when The New York Times reported a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was circulated in August (not July as the newspaper reported), spelling out "a dark assessment of Iraq" with civil war as the "worst case" outcome. The NIE was prepared by Pillar, and well-placed sources believe Pillar leaked it, though he denied that at Tuesday night's dinner.
The immediate White House reaction to the NIE, from spokesman Scott McClellan, was to associate it with "pessimists" and "hand-wringers." With Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at his side at the United Nations, Bush said of the CIA: "They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."
A few hours later, Pillar discussed the Iraqi war in a context of increased aversion to the U.S. -- an attitude he said his East Asia section at the CIA was aware of three years ago and feared would be exacerbated by U.S. military intervention. When Pillar was asked why this was not made clear to the president and other higher authorities, his answer was that nobody asked -- not even DCI Tenet.
The CIA official spokesman said Pillar's West Coast appearance was approved by his "management team" at Langley as part of an ongoing "outreach" program. However, the spokesman said, Pillar told him that the fact I knew his name meant somebody had violated the off-the-record nature of his remarks. In other words, the CIA bureaucracy wants a license to criticize the president and the former DCI without being held accountable.
Through most of the Bush administration, the CIA high command has been engaged in a bitter struggle with the Pentagon. CIA officials refer to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Under Secretary Douglas Feith as "ideologues." Nevertheless, it is clear the CIA's wrath has now extended to the White House. Bush reduced the tensions a little on Thursday, this time in a joint Washington press conference with Allawi, by saying his use of the word "guess" was "unfortunate."
Modern history is filled with intelligence bureaus turning against their own governments, for good or ill. In the final days of World War II, the German Abwehr conspired against Hitler. Soviet intelligence was a state within a state. More recently, Pakistani intelligence was plotting with Muslim terrorists. The CIA is a long way from those extremes, but it is supposed to be a resource -- not a critic -- for the president.