U.S. must not ignore warning signs

It pains me greatly to see how easily the administration and some members of Congress would brush aside charges that John Bolton aggressively tried to cook or suppress intelligence analysis. This is very serious business: even leaving aside the issue of Iraq, there are times when people can die if intelligence analysis is suppressed or ignored. I know because I was once on the receiving end of an attempt to suppress a potentially critical piece of intelligence analysis.
It occurred on a Saturday in late 1982, when I was the Duty Officer for the Near East shop in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). A senior State Department policymaker called me into his office to demand that an INR intelligence assessment issued the previous evening, which related to the U.S. Marine deployment to Lebanon be "retracted" because it was "wrong" and he felt the analysis could "cause problems on the Hill." Why was the analysis wrong? -- simply because he disagreed with it.
The analysis I would be called upon to defend that day was written by veteran Foreign Service Officer Tom Wukitsch who had served in Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. Put broadly, Tom's assessment warned that the U.S. Marine deployment would be dangerous, that there could be casualties, and that at some point our Marines might be viewed by certain bad guys as little more than one more party to Lebanon's bloody, ongoing civil war.
Rules of Engagement
The official concerned waved all this off, arguing that he had personally written the military Rules of Engagement so that there could be no casualties. The main point he cited in the Rules of Engagement to support his case turned out to be an instruction that the Marines stay hunkered down and not go out on patrol. I told the official that such a requirement was no guarantee against losses, even remarking: "In Lebanon, trouble comes to you."
Getting no satisfaction from me, he then called the director of INR. After making sure the official could find nothing factually wrong with the assessment, my director backed me up and said the assessment would stand. The official apparently then wrote his own analysis in an attempt to neuter INR's.
In all fairness, despite all of the above, I should stop here and add that the official in question did not behave abusively (such as trying to have me removed from my job -- or Tom from his) as some highly credible witnesses have charged Bolton did regarding INR's Christian Westermann.
But, unfortunately, with respect to our Marines in Lebanon, the rest is history. At first, things went relatively well: the Marines did indeed suffer losses, but relatively few. By spring 1983, however, it became clear the situation had become more dangerous (punctuated by the devastating April 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut).
Beginning in July, the situation deteriorated further for the Marines. They were forced, by August, to engage hostile positions with small arms, mortar and artillery fire, and U.S. naval units offshore, in September, shelled one faction involved in the ongoing civil war. All this further undermined the already-diminished neutrality of the Marines in the eyes of certain parties on the ground. Finally, in October 1983, 241 Marines were killed in a devastating car bombing that stunned the nation.
Serious consequences
I decided to come forward with this account because I do not believe some people appreciate just how serious the consequences can be of attempting to suppress and then turn a deaf ear to intelligence analysis. This is especially the case when, as in this instance, the analysts better understood the complex dynamics of a problem -- in this case the situation on the ground in Lebanon -- than one of the key policymakers involved.
Indeed, on occasion, desk officers and office directors in policy bureaus have thanked me when INR produced analysis that challenged the assumptions upon which a policy was based or cast doubt on a policy's likelihood of success because those people ... had similar misgivings, but felt they could not get a fair hearing for their views.
Given how many policymakers across the U.S. government played a role in the decision-making related to the 1982-1984 Lebanon Marine deployment, this one individual alone probably could not have changed the course of events that eventually led to the Marine Barracks bombing (and other Marine losses in Lebanon). Nonetheless, his attitude toward INR's analysis is illustrative of how dangerous it can be to ignore such warnings.
X Wayne White is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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