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Intelligence quagmire: How to gauge the new IQ

After rare move to declassify documents, intelligence wars may transform spying.

By Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2003


Washington's debate over what the US and Britain knew about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - and when they knew it - has become so heated and public that it may affect the nature and usefulness of future intelligence operations.

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For one thing, the unveiling of specific data about Iraq and its dissection in the media could make it harder to convince the spy services of other nations to cooperate fully again with US or British counterparts. In the shadowy world of intelligence-sharing, few like uncontrolled publicity. Spies or other human-intelligence "assets" within target countries may become similarly leery.

For another, the administration may now be the White House that cried wolf. Unless convincing evidence of Iraqi WMD surfaces, and soon, critics might charge that intelligence evidence regarding other crises, such as North Korea, is being manipulated for political purposes.

Thus many experts say it's important to get to the bottom of what happened, and fix it, for the sake of US credibility. If nothing else, Bush's new strategy of preemption, based on taking out regimes posing imminent threats, relies more on intelligence than on other tools.

"We need public hearings, even an independent investigation," says Jim Walsh, an international-security expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The one thing the preemption strategy requires more than any other strategy we've had since World War II is intelligence not only of high quality, but intelligence that is seen as completely credible."

Digging in and digging out

For the past week, that credibility has been the center of a vocal back-and-forth between the CIA and White House. CIA Director George Tenet has accepted responsibility for the most controversial assertion - Bush's claim in his State of the Union speech that Iraq tried to buy uranium for its nuclear program from Africa. But Mr. Tenet's statement, as well as his testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, indicates that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's staff pressured the CIA to include that assertion. It was indeed used, but attributed to British intelligence.

On Friday the White House, in an unusual move, declassified portions of an October National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a consensus document of the views of six government agencies - to support its broader case for war and minimize its uranium claim.

The material - eight pages of 90 - provides some justification for administration claims, such as that Iraq was "continuing, and in some areas expanding," WMD programs. "If left unchecked, [Iraq] probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."

But it also highlights the administration's removal of qualifiers like "probably" and "could," and disputes within government agencies. For example, the NIE includes dissenting views from the State Department's intelligence arm (INR) and the Department of Energy, whose nuclear scientists are responsible for watching foreign nuclear programs. "[T]he claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment, highly dubious."