After 25 years in the Foreign Service, Thielmann served in the Bush administration as the Director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs that was responsible for determining the Iraqi Weapons Threat. Following his resignation, he voiced that the administration had misinterpreted intelligence given to the public. Currently, he is teaching a short course at Grinnell, “Intelligence Assessments: Iraq and Iran.”
You were in the Foreign Service for 25 years. Specifically, what part of your experience included intelligence work?
The first few tours I had were involved with political/military issues and it was only after I served in Moscow and returned to the U.S in 1990 that I took a position in the intelligence bureau of the State Department, known as the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). It was the logical thing to do, coming out of the Soviet Union, because I had been working on nuclear arms control issues there and political-military fears in general, and the job I took in INR was a division chief responsible for monitoring Soviet strategic forces at the time and the strategic forces of other countries.
I worked in that position for three years and found that I actually liked working as an intelligence analyst because much of my previous career I had been reporting on what was happening in other countries but also serving some U.S policies that I was not particularly excited about. I was a Foreign Service Officer having to justify the Reagan administration. Then, in the area of arms control, I wasn’t in agreement with the very policies that I was trying to represent to other countries. I liked the Intelligence Bureau because it was an opportunity to feel satisfied at the end of the day, if I had at least captured the reality as objectively as I could.
After this three-year tour, I worked on the German desk, and then ended up going back to Brazil, but then came back to the Intelligence Bureau and served then a four-year tour. Toward the end of my career, I had a total of seven years in the Intelligence Bureau.
In a July 2003 issue of The Guardian, you said, “I believe the Bush administration did not provide an accurate picture to the American people of the military threat posed by Iraq.”
That’s a good summary of the bottom line of a lot the things I tried to talk about in the summer of 2003, and I would have to say I tried to talk about it a little bit before then, but my efforts to draft Op-Ed pieces for the Washington Post … were turned down before the war.
It was only after the war when I was able to say, “You know, I wrote this piece then,” and I was quoted in the New York Times and got all kinds of press attention.
In your speech, you discussed the necessity for Congress to receive the proper amount of intelligence from the executive branch.
I was making the point that it is the law that the executive branch has to share with the Congress all intelligence in a timely manner on key intelligence activities in the U.S. It is Congress, after all, that authorizes and appropriates the money for those activities, and our Constitution creates certain responsibilities to the legislative branch. I think that the Congress has not been as assertive as it should be in demanding that the executive branch give it what it has a right to see.
And the Congress, for its part, has done a lot to severely limit the number of members who see the intelligence on a daily basis. [Congress] has a limited staff that is fully cleared to get all the intelligence, and it has very strict rules on what those members and the staff can do to make sure that the secrets remain secrets. So, Congress is doing its part of the bargain, but the administration is not doing its part of the bargain.
I’m talking about the last administration, but I warned in my speech that we have to be vigilant about the new administration because the Intelligence Committee is not going to want to share the information that it should be sharing with the Congress.
What can we learn from Vietnam and Iraq, in which decisions were made before proper evidence was shown?
I look at both of the episodes that I mentioned, Tonkin Gulf in the Vietnam War and the Iraqi War decision, and I think in both cases, a few days or a couple of weeks would have allowed the correct information to percolate up.
Certainly, in the case of Tonkin Gulf, there were already indications coming in that we thought there had been two attacks on our ship in international waters. And, it turned out that there was only one attack. We had been misinterpreting some of the communications that they were referring to the first attack and we thought they were referring to another attack. That stuff would have sorted itself out fairly quickly if we kept our sword in the sheath for a while.
Similarly, in Iraq, the U.N. inspectors were making good progress at satisfying themselves about the non-existence of certain programs. They were figuring out that some of those ambiguities had been identified earlier. We were actually destroying Saddam’s short-range missiles. So, another few weeks may have satisfied us that Saddam was still in the box.
But, we were so impatient to go to war that we didn’t give it a few weeks. The French asked for a few weeks. The U.N. asked for a few weeks. But we would not give them a few weeks. And, it’s a great pity in light of all the strings that were coming unwound in the administration’s justification.