Jeffrey LewisCuba BW "Program" Redux

I had an interesting conversation with Steve Weisman at the New York Times regarding his story on the “new” intelligence estimate that concludes “it is no longer clear that Cuba has an active, offensive bio-weapons program.”

We still disagree about whether his story is misleading or not—in part, I suppose, because we see different things in the story. He maintains that “the point of the story” is “that the intelligence community changed its view of the matter.” I think the change is, essentially window dressing to make it harder for Bolton to exaggerate.

One interesting revelation, though. Weisman claims the sources “also used these two terms interchangeably, on the ground, I think, that efforts constitute a program.”

That amazes me. One possibility is that the sources weren’t really qualified to comment on the matter. Anyone “in the know” would know the difference. Here is how Carl Ford, in Congressional testimony, reacted to Lincoln Chafee asking whether the difference mattered:

Senator CHAFEE. I think one of the reasons for having this hearing is there is a perception that the speech to the Heritage Foundation was counter to the administration’s policy, it went too far. And certainly there seems to be a lot of spin control going on. Even right after the speech, the Secretary of Defense is putting a different look on it. Major General Speer, Commander of the Southern Command, is putting another look on the words that Secretary Bolton used. And here we are even splitting hairs between whether it is an effort or a program. Is that accurate? It’s an effort; not a program? I don’t know the difference. They seem the same to me.

I guess the main point is that the State Department has the responsibility to have a unified position and to make sure that everybody is not saying things to one group that they are not saying to another. Do you agree with my assessment of the situation here this morning?

Mr. FORD. I would take some exception to the characterization of not much difference between a program and an effort. There really is a difference. We’ve never tried to suggest that we have the evidence, the smoking gun, to prove proof positive that they had a program. A program suggests to us something far more substantial than what we see in the evidence.

But we feel very confident about saying that they’re working, working on an effort that would give them a BW, a limited BW offensive capability. That’s serious enough for us to tell you about it. If we didn’t think it was important, if we didn’t think that that was a dangerous thing to occur, we would have looked at the evidence and said, well, this is all bogus and there’s nothing here worth reporting.

Weisman, however, describes the two sources as “an intelligence official and a second government official” who “both said they had been briefed on [the new estimate].”

I suspect that the real revelation here is that Chafee was right—the distinction was spin (dating back to 1999). There are two bits of evidence to support this. First, Ford describes a debate over how to characterize the Cuban BW intelligence and suggests “effort” was a compromise.

Ford told Senator Levin that

[M]y understanding is that the issue of whether it was a program or an effort goes back at least to the 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, and that at least a distinction that we make is that a program has certain classic signatures that we developed in the intelligence community from looking at the Soviet Union and the Russian CW/BW program.

Later, he noted that disagreement among the various intelligence agencies on this point was sufficient to result in a footnote to the 1999 NIE:

Our assessment from 1999 to 2002 has changed little. The only thing that we would say differently is that I don’t think that we would have to footnote to emphasize that it was an effort, not a program, which INR did in 1999. I think the rest of the community now feels as strongly as we do that the evidence will support that there is a BW, limited BW offensive development program—an effort, but not a program. So that the community’s view has been refined. We would no longer have to make a footnote to emphasize that all of us agree that it’s not a program. They would say that themselves.

Yet it is not clear to me that the term effort has any meaning at all. Looking at Ford’s testimony, he suggests that it is less than a “smoking gun” but more than “this is all bogus.”

That leaves a lot of room.

The second bit of evidence suggesting spin is that the intelligence officials told Weisman that the new assessment was essentially the same as the old assessment:

‘’The intelligence community knew and informed its customers at the time that the sourcing behind that conclusion was fragmentary, and that there were some problems with some of the reporting used in that argument,’’ said an official, referring to the earlier assessment of the danger posed by Cuba.

It seems the only difference is that they’ve given Bolton fewer words to imbue with sinister meaning.