(Washington, D.C.): Last Friday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a unanimous report thoroughly trashing the U.S. intelligence community (IC). According to the Committee, the IC had served up judgments that underpinned the Bush Administrations and congressional decisions to wage war against Iraq which were “either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting.” Reduced to politically charged Washington shorthand by NBC Sunday anchorman Tim Russert: “We went to war on the basis of bogus information.”
The Senators attributed these failings to “a combination of systemic weaknesses, primarily in analytic trade craft, compounded by a lack of information-sharing, poor management and inadequate intelligence collection.” The good news is that first three of these “systemic weaknesses” can, at least theoretically, be corrected by thoughtful, disciplined and concerted leadership. Whether the run-up to a presidential election, the institutional resistance of intelligence bureaucracies and the machinations of those in Congress (who bear no small responsibility for poor oversight that tolerated such failures) will allow the necessary changes to be made quickly, however, remains to be seen.
Not So Fast
The bad news is that the fourth weakness – “inadequate intelligence collection” – is by far the most important. It surely contributed to serious shortfalls in our knowledge of Saddam Husseins Iraq. The same deficiency, arising primarily from a decades-long undervaluing of and under-investment in “human intelligence” (known as “humint” to the professionals and “spies” to laymen), means that we confront similar uncertainties about other closed, despotically ruled societies and the activities they are determined to conceal from us.
Worse yet, unlike changes in intelligence analytic techniques, management or information-sharing, this systemic weakness cannot be corrected quickly. In fact, creating, and then assuring the quality of, the infrastructure required to recruit and run useful spies in dangerous, secretive countries is a painstaking and time-consuming business. George Tenet, the man on whose watch as Director of Central Intelligence much of the mismanagement and other problems occurred, told the 9/11 Commission a few weeks back that it would take “another five years” before our human intelligence capabilities are at the level needed in todays world.
Frankly, that sounds optimistic. If, as the Senate Intelligence Committee found, we did not have a single spy in Iraq after 1998, have we really been more successful in inserting or acquiring agents in places like North Korea, Iran and al Qaeda and similar organizations inner circles? More to the point, in the interim – whether it be five years or longer – are we going to have to rely, as was evidently the case in Iraq, on covert sources of uncertain credibility and/or foreign intelligence services who may or may not be much more reliable?
Uncertainty is an Occupational Hazard
Notwithstanding the Senate Intelligence Committees critique and the best-efforts at corrective action that it will (hopefully) inspire, we confront a hard reality: We must expect that our secret assessments of these sorts of intelligence targets will continue to be based upon imperfect knowledge. As a result, whether our information comes from new human agents or mechanical espionage techniques more favored in recent years, such information will lead some analysts to arrive at certain judgments, and others to conclude differently.
As was true in Iraq, it will be the job of policy-makers, be they in the White House or Congress, to weigh such judgments and make hard decisions based upon them.
The danger is not that policy-makers will be denied the full array of opinion to be found in the IC. Indeed, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, has acknowledged that that diversity was reflected (as is typically the case) in the now-contested October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on “Iraqs Continuing Programs for WMDs” – albeit not as fully in the accompanying executive summary.
Rather, the risk is that the criticism unleashed by the Senate panel will make analysts even more leery of arriving at judgments of sufficient clarity as to inform policy decisions about how to deal with emerging threats. This is a formula for passivity, if not paralysis, that the Nation can ill-afford in time of war.
Sen. Rockefellers Outrages
Such a danger is, if anything, heightened by the conduct of several Intelligence Committee Democrats, including notably Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. They all voted for a report that declared: “The Committee found no evidence that the ICs mischaracterization or exaggeration of the intelligence on Iraqs WMD capabilities was the result of political pressure.”
Yet, in the press conference unveiling the document and subsequent media appearances, Sen. Rockefeller and others have nonetheless castigated the Bush Administration for bringing such pressure to bear and contributing to the failings documented by the Committee. These charges can only impede future interactions and communications between the intelligence and policy communities – contacts made all the more critical when information about emerging dangers, like that of the now-impending terrorist attack on the United States, is incomplete yet worryingly credible.
Sen. Rockefeller also engaged in the policy equivalent of a drive-by shooting: In the 9 July press conference, he announced that the Committee had done “a little bit of work” on activities of the office of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. He asserted that the Committee would, in the second phase of its investigation, examine whether Mr. Feith was “running a private intelligence failure [sic], which is not lawful.”
These statements are not only mendacious. They are a gross disservice to the national security interests of the United States and a calumny against one of their most effective defenders. They prompted Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Powell Moore to write an uncharacteristically forceful objection to the Senator last Friday:
- In the course of the last year of investigations into the activities of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, no one on the Committee or its staff, to my knowledge, has charged that anything unlawful had been done. Instead, there were allegations that the line between policy and intelligence may have been improperly crossed. In response to the Committees requests, Under Secretary Feith and his staff have spent more than 1800 hours reviewing thousands of pages of documents for relevance and responding to Committee inquiries. They have provided thousands of pages of materials and scores of hours of testimony, including testimony by Secretary Feith before the full Committee and Committee staff interviews with numerous members of his staff. My understanding is that the information thus far collected by the Committee does not support any of the charges of impropriety, much less any unlawful behavior.
- On behalf of the Department, I request that, if you have any evidence supporting the serious charge you floated during your press conference, you provide it to the Department. If there is not evidence, then a retraction and apology would be appropriate.
The Bottom Line
Improvements are clearly in order for U.S. intelligence. A place to start is with a replacement for George Tenet who comes from outside the government and is willing to take on the systemic changes needed in the IC. At the end of the day, however, we should be under no illusion: Our knowledge of many threats will continue to be imperfect. We can only hope that, in the future, policy-makers will act as courageously – and as correctly – on the basis of available intelligence as George Bush and the Congress did in deciding to remove Saddam Hussein from power.