April 16, 2004,
The White House meets some press.
On Thursday, in a background briefing, a senior White House official shared the administration's views of recent developments in Iraq, the unpleasant surprises encountered after Baghdad fell, and the state of our intelligence before 9/11. To the disappointment, no doubt, of the White House press corps, the word "mistake" was not uttered, but it was a candid assessment nonetheless. The highlights from my notes:
The structure for the interim government now being considered by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy, looks workable and could well be in place by the end of May.
Delivering the reconstruction money appropriated months ago for Iraq has been "slower than we would like" owing to the demands of government contracting regulations, but it is becoming available now and will be accelerated because the president is prepared to invoke the rarely used authority he has to speed up the process. The Iraqis' own funds from frozen assets and oil revenues are available and projects are being funded.
"No one here is happy about" the members of the Governing Council who have been publicly criticizing our military's response to the recent violence.
The ceasefire in Fallujah is intended to give the city a "breather" to provide an opportunity to build support with the city's leaders and citizens who are opposed to the town's foreign fighters and Saddam regime supporters. There is evidence that "pay for" mobs are involved in some demonstrations for the benefit of TV cameras.
It is unclear how many Saddam loyalists are actively present in Iraq. The kind of hit-and-run attacks they engage in don't take many people, but the level of local coordination of attacks has been "surprising."
The irony of being "neighbors" with Iran owing to our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq was noted. The allegedly constructive involvement of Iran described in Thursday's news reports is "a considerably overstated story by the Iranians." There is reason to believe that Iran is assisting Sadr. The U.S. was only represented at a low level at a meeting between the British and Iranians. "We haven't involved the Iranians in this situation in the south, the Iranians have involved themselves."
Two initial assumptions about postwar Iraq "didn't hold." It was anticipated that governing structures would stay intact, but looting took place at "strategic places" like government ministries and WMD sites, where equipment and documents were the target of looting. And, as the allies discovered in postwar Germany, the conditions in Iraq were far more deteriorated than expected. Rather than these two unexpected developments, the administration had concentrated on preventing conditions that would have directly harmed the Iraqi people, like a humanitarian crisis, Saddam's use of chemical weapons on his own people, and the destruction of the oilfields.
If Saddam didn't have stockpiles of WMD, it appears that he had "surge capacity" that would enable him to reconstitute them quickly.
This senior official remains puzzled about Saddam's behavior before the war. If he didn't have WMDs, it would have been the "wiser course" to cooperate with international inspectors to the satisfaction of the U.N. thereby getting the sanctions lifted and permitting him to acquire the weapons again when the heat was off.
A regret was expressed that the administration allowed the case for war against Saddam to be turned into an intelligence case based on specific assertions. It "somehow became about how much sarin gas he had." The case about Saddam's WMDs could have been made without reference to "every dot."
Before 9/11, we knew that al Qaeda was present in the U.S., but we didn't know how present. The FBI didn't have a sufficient analytical capacity, and the various intelligence agencies talked with each other only at a "ring-10" level, not among senior officials. Now, foreign and domestic intelligence are integrated in one product for the benefit of the president. The big structural flaw was the wall between intelligence and law enforcement, and the absence of domestic-threat reporting. As Roberta Wohlstetter has noted with respect to Pearl Harbor, the challenge remains distinguishing between "signals and noise."
Among the "hundreds" of reports received every couple of weeks, it's still difficult to determine which are credible.
This official is confident that there will be a responsible, stable Iraq. "It's a long-term difficult project, but it's the only reliable way to eventually make us really secure." With one of those hijacked planes on 9/11 headed to the White House or the Capitol, the attempt was to "decapitate us." The 9/11 attacks were an act of war and the appropriate response was to "decide that we must turn the world upside down."