For the president and the public to move forward with confidence when confronting decisions such as going to war with Iraq, the country's intelligence system may have to be fully evaluated.
That process has been playing out out in Washington, with the focus mainly on the CIA. But last week, Congress broadened its probe into prewar Iraq intelligence to delve into the roles of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the president's National Security Council.
The stakes are high. Besides worrying over their loss of credibility, members of the intelligence community worry about being spread too thin. Last year, as the US stepped up pressure on Saddam Hussein, sizable intelligence resources were drawn away from the pursuit of Al Qaeda and devoted to Iraq. Now, intelligence agencies are spending a great deal of time looking back.
"We have to be clearheaded, capable of looking forward at new and evolving threats," says one intelligence official.
Many agree there are problems with the system that need to be fixed - highlighted by the lack of postinvasion evidence that Mr. Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program or ties with Al Qaeda.
"The US government can certainly do things that ... will restore the credibility of the intelligence community for future contingencies," says Greg Thielmann, former head of the nonproliferation and military affairs office in the State Department's intelligence arm. "Congress and the president need to be able to believe the intelligence community, and the country needs to be able to believe the president when he tells them about classified issues."
Two other governments that had access to the same intelligence have thoroughly examined their processes. Australia's Parliament voted earlier this month to censure Prime Minister John Howard for misleading the public on the justification for going to war. And the popularity of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has fallen to the lowest point of his term in office, following an unprecedented public airing of its intelligence-related decisions and the tragic suicide of one of its top weapons scientists.
It's still unclear if the Bush administration will cooperate fully with the Senate Intelligence Committee's probe of prewar intelligence, and how long the committee is willing to wait before it begins to issue subpoenas. It had requested the agencies to comply by noon on Friday. But as of the end of the day, only part of the requests had been fulfilled.
The CIA delivered much of its materials and said more would be "forthcoming" this week. As did the State Department. But the Pentagon said it was still "working" on its outstanding questions, including those about the Office of Special Plans that was set up inside the Pentagon for intelligence on Iraq. And the White House so far is refusing - as past administrations have - to turn over the presidential daily briefs the committee requested. It similarly refused to provide such documents to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
But committee members say they are determined to finish this investigation properly. "We must take whatever steps are necessary to assure our nation that US intelligence is accurate and unbiased," state the letters, which were signed by committee chairman Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas and vice chairman Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia. "The credibility of the government with its people and the nation with the world is at stake."
At issue is not only how misinformation about purported ties between Al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime was provided to the public. The committee also wants to know how the intelligence community arrived at its conclusions about Iraqi WMD.
The CIA has long indicated it found no ties between Al Qaeda and Hussein prior to the invasion, and President Bush has said as much. But the October National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a classified document representing the findings of all 14 intelligence agencies, did indicate that Iraq "has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions."
Teams of military and intelligence operatives are continuing to search for WMD in Iraq. But according to an initial report by David Kay, head of the effort, Iraq had not reconstituted its nuclear program, nor was it close. And the teams have not yet found evidence that supports any large-scale chemical or biological weapons programs.
"The CIA probably has a lot to be blamed for," says Judith Yaphe, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington and a former Iraq analyst at the CIA. "But it's easy to throw rocks at your secret intelligence services, because they can't fight back. Their successes are secrets, and their failures are too well known."
Moreover, she and other experts say CIA analysts and officials were under a great deal of pressure to come up with what the administration wanted - and quickly. That is probably why lots of qualifiers and details were left out of the key findings, which is what most policymakers read, and were buried deeper in the text. And they worry about the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, which was set up to provide the administration with a separate and direct source of intelligence that circumvented the normal, deliberative process.
"That is completely unparalleled in my 25 years of foreign service," says Mr. Thielmann. "They created a separate universe for the use of intelligence information that made it independent of peer review. They didn't share their conclusions with the experts in the intelligence community. That's a corruption of the intelligence community process, which was designed to make sure distortions ... do not occur."
Ms. Yaphe says it is standard procedure for the CIA to do a post-mortem after every major development or operation. "They ask: what did we know, and when did we know it? What did we predict? Was it accurate? And if not, go back and look at the sources. It will tell you about who you may or may not want to talk to in the future," she says. "The problem is, it needs to spread to whoever else was providing intelligence to the White House."