Assessment of Intelligence

It seems that in the last two years and indeed over the last few decades, we have suffered from intelligence shortcomings. Though we suspected Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were involved in bombings of American Embassies in Africa, the suicide attack on the USS Cole, and perhaps in the 1993 bombings of the World Center, the attacks of September 11, 2001 still surprised us. Key indicators were missed and 19 terrorists hijacked four planes and managed to crash three of them into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon. There had not been such a deadly intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.

There have been other miscalculations partially based on incorrect or incomplete intelligence. The US was caught unawares by the Soviet Attack on Afghanistan in 1979. Before the first Gulf War, US intelligence radically underestimated the extent of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons development in Iraq. In 1998, US intelligence failed to foresee India’s test of nuclear weapons. The list is much longer, but the point is made.

It is unfortunate and not entirely fair that it is difficult to weigh successful intelligence efforts against intelligence snafus since successful operations rarely come to light. For example, it was not until decades later that we learned that British intelligence broke the codes produced by the Nazi Enigma Machine or the fact that US submarines had secretly placed listening devices on Soviet underwater communications cables.

After the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq by Coalition Forces, the expected large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were not found. There were facilities designed to ramp up production and illegal development of long range missile, but so far no stockpiles have been found. And the former leader of the effort to find such weapons, David Kay, does not believe that is likely that we will. We need an accounting of where the problems in intelligence were.

Kay has concluded that was Iraq indeed very dangerous to the US but in a different way than anticipated. Kay found a society ruled with ruthlessness, but nonetheless collapsing. Kay now believes that in such chaos the matching of WMD production capability and the terrorist need for such weapons was becoming more likely. Not appreciating this danger also represents an intelligence failure.

Although we should still pursue a thorough look at intelligence gathering, it is hard to believe that intelligence can be fairly faulted. If British, German, and French intelligence services also came to the wrong conclusion, it is seems unlikely that US intelligence agencies exhibited any gross negligence. It is difficult to penetrate any totalitarian regime, especially one that may have even been fooling itself with regard to WMD. If people were deceiving Saddam, if different commanders have said they did not have WMD but they believed other commanders did, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that we, as a foreign intelligence service, could tally military capabilities with better accuracy than Iraqi commanders.

In a different context, “malpractice” is defined as “a dereliction of professional duty or a failure to exercise an accepted degree of professional skill or learning …” If many doctors make a similar diagnosis, it is harder to argue malpractice. In the case before us, the diagnosis of the Iraq, by all major intelligence services was similar, the arguments were over the prescriptions for remedy.

Even in retrospect, David Kay concludes, “if you read the total body of intelligence in the last 12 to 15 years that flowed on Iraq, I quite frankly think it would be hard to come to a conclusion other than Iraq was a gathering, serious threat to the world with regard to WMD.”

Nonetheless, we often learn far more from difficult failures than we do from easy successes. An independent commission should be established to determine what about our Iraq intelligence worked and what did not. One possible positive outcome would be to place error bars on just how good optimum intelligence can be.

Unfortunately, the country is politically polarized and in an election year many Democrats would view such a commission less as an opportunity to improve intelligence gathering and more as a chance to play “gotcha” with the Bush Administration. The natural response of the Bush Administration would be to become defensive rather than open. Indeed, there is a dangerous possibility that the outcome of such a commission would be to place restrictions on the intelligence services that could reduce their effectiveness even more. A careful review may find that the intelligence services were hobbled by restrictions on using unsavory characters as informants and operatives.

Three years ago, the Bush Administration, enunciated a pre-emption doctrine holding that the United States could take military action against threats that were growing but had not yet become imminent. For countries that care little for their people and terrorist organizations willing to engage in suicide, deterrence was no longer adequate. However, anyone will concede that such a policy relies on high-quality and reliable intelligence. It is incumbent on the President and Congress to do what is necessary improve intelligence.

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