Intelligence quagmire: How to gauge the new IQ

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

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.

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."

The newly declassified material - with caveats like "We lack specific information on many key aspects of Iraq's WMD programs" - casts doubt on other administration claims and shows how thin the intelligence was.

Tumult, testimony, and tragedy

For the past year, the administration has battled over a lack of specific intelligence. Vice President Cheney visited the CIA at least four times to question analysts. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld then created his own intelligence unit at the Pentagon. That Office of Special Plans, with its own intelligence collectors and analysts scrutinizing information on Iraq, may have prodded staff to "hype" intelligence for evidence the administration wanted, say officials and experts.

"Separate from the formal intelligence community, it appears as if the Pentagon had contractors and former CIA officials doing private collecting for them," says Sam Gardiner, a retired US Colonel who now does research on intelligence. "The materials seem to have gone directly to the NSC and the White House. The State Department INR certainly did not have an opportunity to footnote their disagreement." [Editor's note: The original version of this article mischaracterized Sam Gardiner's affiliation.]

Now, Sen. Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has decided to "invite" members of Ms. Rice's staff before the committee to address Tenet's claims. It's not clear whether they will testify, or whether the White House will claim executive privilege. But Mr. Roberts said he'll direct hearings as the evidence warrants, and to open them to the public in September.

"It is going to be important to have public sessions as part of this review," agrees Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D), also on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "There's nothing like the sunshine you get with open sessions."

A similar investigation into Prime Minister Tony Blair's use of intelligence took a tragic turn this weekend. One of England's most respected experts on Iraq's weapons program, David Kelly, was found dead, apparently a suicide. He testified in a controversial parliamentary hearing last week after having been accused of being the source of a BBC report that criticized the government for "sexing up" Iraq intelligence.

But with each day that passes without evidence to back up either British or US claims - and with the picking off of US soldiers in Iraq - there is growing skepticism about the war's rationale and whether Saddam Hussein posed an "imminent" threat.

"It's both important and worthwhile that we sort this thing out," says former CIA Director Stansfield Turner. "We should be concerned that ... our intelligence is being questioned. That's going to make it more difficult to keep up the program inside Iraq. But it's also going to make it more difficult to persuade other countries to go along with us on other operations around the world."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Intelligence quagmire: How to gauge the new IQ
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today