CQ HOMELAND SECURITY -- SPYTALK
Army General Tells a Little-Known Tale of Pre-War Intelligence on Iraq By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor
He goes by the nickname "Spider." And it's doubtful you've ever heard of him, even though his role in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been recounted in two recent exposes about the Bush administration's runup to the Iraq war.
Most of the publicity lavished on State of Denial, by Bob Woodward, and Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, has rightly focused on the toxic rivalries inside the Bush war cabinet.
So much so that it's a pity more attention hasn't been paid to the role of retired U.S. Army General James "Spider" Marks, chief intelligence officer for the Pentagon's land-war command in 2003. His story is one of the most astounding and disturbing tales of wartime intrigue you will ever hear.
It's arguable that the few passages devoted to Marks' below-the-radar role says more about the performance of the $44 billion-a-year U.S. intelligence community than the tens of thousands of words written about Dick Cheney, Donald H. Rumsfeld, George Tenet and Condoleezza Rice.
Why? Marks tells how U.S. troops went into Iraq with almost no idea where weapons of mass destruction were, and little idea of where units might stumble into sites holding chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological munitions.
That's pretty stunning in itself. But the most bizarre part of all is that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other national security officials, according to Marks, didn't even have any interest in WMD on the eve of the April 2003 invasion. The troops were pretty much left to fend for themselves.
Except for CNN, where Marks went to work earlier this year as a military analyst, and The Washington Post, which excerpted Woodward's telling of Marks' story to little fanfare, not a newspaper, magazine or broadcast news operation has paid much attention to the retired officer.
I caught up with him last week.
"Nobody . . . was thinking about intelligence about WMD, in warehouses or buried someplace, that would have any relevance " to the troops on the ground, said Marks, an earthy, old-school soldier with 33 years in the army, much of it in airborne and light infantry units.
His war began in September 2003, when he was tapped as the top intelligence officer for the U.S.-led forces planning to invade Iraq --- "the assignment of a lifetime," as Woodward put it.
Marks doesn't disagree. But what followed sounds like a long dark walk in a county carnival fun-house.
The first thing he did was assemble "the smart guys" from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and elsewhere---the specialists in WMD, in spy satellites and electronic intercepts aimed at Iraq, and in Middle Eastern culture, politics and geography.
"Whadyagot?" he asked when he got them all together in a room.
They said they had identified 946 Iraqi sites as holding or potentially holding chemical, biological or radiological materials --- including artillery shells.
Like many officials in the bowels of the war planning machinery, Marks says he had "no doubt" Saddam's troops had such weapons. Dick Cheney, among other top administration officials, had repeatedly said, without reservation, that it was true. Marks had no reason to believe otherwise.
"They didn't have a clue," said Marks, a 1975 West Point grad who who spent most of his career specializing in intelligence.
So the general's first step was merely to find out how good and timely the DIA's information was on the 946 sites.
The DIA analysts' information was old, Marks told me, or sketchily sourced, or not sourced at all. Some came from Iraqi spies, some from satellites and other sources. Altogether, it was thinner than a television reporter's notebook.
He asked for CIA files. Same story there, he says.
That was confounding enough. But back at the DIA, Marks was also surprised to discover that the analysts thought of themselves as deep thinkers. Tactical intelligence that a soldier could use "was intellectually anathema to them," he says.
"But," says Marks who on Sept. 11, 2001, was commander of the U.S. Army Intelligence Headquarters at Ft. Huachuka, Ariz., "clearly within their job-jar was to keep these goddamn folders [on WMD sites] updated."
Marks peppered them with questions about the information, and "got the sense that they weren't poring over these things in a routine manner."
The war was only a few months off.
How can he explain that?
"I don't explain it!" he said, still exasperated, over a cell phone from Kansas.
But that was their job at that point, wasn't it? I asked.
"It was their job!" Marks says, still bollixed over it. "I walked away going --- what Bob Woodward did not put in his book is a number of expletives I said as I walked away from that room."
With war clouds darkening, Marks envisioned U.S. units racing toward Iraqi gun barrels loaded with nerve gas, or tripping over deadly weapons dumps with no clear idea of whether to stop, dismount or keep going.
The DIA people "had no sense of the importance of this information to a ground commander, at any level --- the company commander, the battalion commander . . ." he says.
"My point is that these guys had been working this for years and years and years, and I think they had lost sight of what they were working on, to the mission which we were about to embark on, which was ground combat.
"My point to them was, 'Look, nobody in this room knows for sure if we're going to war or not, but everybody in this room has to be planning like we are.'
"These guys were not thinking about the relevance of this data to the young soldier on the ground. I think they were thinking --- I don't know what they were thinking."
Tight as a Drum
The Pentagon's share of the annual U.S. intelligence budget is $37.4 billion, we calculated over the phone.
And yet, Marks recalled, "there was no sense of urgency to get this as granular, as specific as possible, so that I could turn it over to a young private or a young sergeant that was going to come upon this WMD site and do something with that."
He pushed and shoved over the next several weeks, to little effect.
"No one in Rumsfeld's general chain of command seemed to know who I was. I mean, I was a senior general officer, but . . . I'm sure I was below their noise level," he said.
Pointedly, he added, "I was taught when I made general officer that I didn't have a noise level. Everything was mine. I had to give a shit about every issue, because if I didn't, something critical would slip through."
Let me get this straight, I said to Marks: After all the talk about Saddam Hussein over the previous two years, the officials responsible for planning the actual war no longer cared about WMD?
"Well," he said, continuing to put it like a soldier, "they ostensibly cared, but their give-a-shit level was really low."
Our chat then drifted toward other potential theaters of war: Syria, Iran and North Korea.
I asked him about intelligence on North Korea. Previous to Iraq, Marks was the senior military intelligence officer south of the 38th parallel.
I asked him if American taxpayers are getting their money's worth over there.
"Oh, no, absolutely not," he said, "North Korea is as tight as a drum . . . Our level of understanding the North Korean military's ability to fight is minimal at best.
"What we do know," he said, is being acquired much like it was on Iraq before the war --- by satellite and other remote technical means, such as collecting and analyzing their radio signals.
That hasn't been much of a problem in the clear skies over southwest Asia, he said, not that it's demonstrably helped us handle the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq --- or potentially a conflict with Iran.
But North Korea is not only buttoned down, Marks said, it's buttoned up.
"It's cloud-covered a lot."
And the United States has few, if any, spies down at the combat-unit level of the North Korean Army, Marks suggests.
"We have no clue on how these guys are going to fight."