In the war on terrorism, reliable intelligence is America’s first line of defense.
The Senate intelligence committee report scheduled to be released today reveals in stark terms that in many key areas, the prewar intelligence regarding Iraq’s threat to the United States was neither reliable nor accurate. And the report tells only half of the story.
What’s missing is the ways intelligence was used, misused, misinterpreted or ignored by administration policymakers in deciding to go to war and in making the case to the American people that war with Iraq was necessary. The intelligence committee leadership chose to defer these issues to a second report — one that will not be released until after the November elections.
While failures by the CIA and other intelligence agencies are a significant part of the problem identified in this inquiry, the responsibility — and the blame — for the prewar intelligence debacle is much broader than described in today’s report.
Senior decision makers throughout the executive branch must bear responsibility as well. They should have been more diligent in challenging the validity of analytical assumptions and the adequacy of intelligence collection and reporting related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the war. Instead, those analyses that conformed with pro-war views were routinely accepted and reports that did not conform to the pro-war model were largely ignored.
Beyond Secretary of State Colin Powell’s examination of Iraqi intelligence in preparation for his February 2003 speech to the U.N. Security Council, there is little evidence that administration officials took the time to question any intelligence reports related to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
CIA Director George Tenet is famously reported to have responded to President Bush’s question on the intelligence related to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq by stating it was “a slam-dunk.” If this conversation did take place, it would have been incumbent upon the president’s senior advisers to demand to see and verify the underlying information that constituted the intelligence community’s “slam-dunk” case. Apparently that did not happen.
The dissenting views regarding Iraq’s weapons programs in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, and the cautionary notes sounded by intelligence analysts at the Energy and State departments regarding nuclear matters, and the Air Force’s concern regarding Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicle program all fell on willfully deaf ears. In contrast, the CIA’s analysis of terrorism, which found only weak connections between Iraq and al Qaeda, elicited considerable questioning from policymakers. Undoubtedly, this was because the administration’s decision to invade Iraq had already been made.
Unfortunately, the administration’s conclusions drove the evidence instead of the other way around. The historic House and Senate joint intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks issued a report in December 2002 that recommended intelligence community reform. Within weeks, the Senate intelligence committee should have initiated an in-depth review of the structure and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence operations. Based on the results of such a review, it should then have initiated appropriate reforms. But more than 18 months later, no movement in that direction has occurred.
So today we have a report that asks only some of the right questions and, at best, comes to only some of the right conclusions.
The responsibility for problems related to prewar intelligence regarding Iraq should not be confined to intelligence analysts at the CIA but should extend to policymakers as well — particularly those at the Defense and State departments, the National Security Council, and the White House.
Nor should the intelligence oversight committees of Congress, which are charged with scrutinizing intelligence analysis as part of their mandate, be excluded from criticism. It should be noted that the inquiry into prewar intelligence related to Iraq was initiated — and its scope expanded — in the face of significant resistance within the committee.
The intelligence failures noted in today’s report add to the compelling need for Congress to undertake an unbiased and nonpartisan effort to strengthen our first line of defense. Time is not on our side.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Illinois and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Originally published in the Washington Post on July 9, 2004