News flash: Intelligence isn't magic.
In Washington's swirl of accusation and rebuttal over prewar assessments of Iraqi weapons, one point that gets clearer by the day is that intelligence estimates are just that: estimates. They aren't wonder books providing certainty about the rest of the world.
Even junior members of any administration know this. And as CIA Director George Tenet pointed out Thursday, the CIA's prewar judgments about Saddam Hussein's unconventional weapons programs were heavily laced with caveats.
The CIA also said that Mr. Hussein was a brutal dictator intent on defying US interests. Experts say that an inquiry into the matter thus might best focus on how policymakers at each level interpreted this information - and not so much on what the CIA knew, and when it knew it.
"Intelligence is not a science. It's an art.... It's rare that you get the clear and direct kind of evidence you want for going to war," says Judith Yaphe, an expert on Iraq at the National Defense University and former head of the CIA's Iraq desk.
CIA director Tenet echoed this assessment throughout his defense of the agency. But he did not discuss how the CIA's intelligence might have been used by higher officials. "Tenet is trying to defend his agency and he did a good job of it, but that throws the onus on the White House and the rest of the administration," says former CIA director Stansfield Turner.
Thursday Tenet noted that the CIA was basically considered irrelevant at the end of the cold war. He described efforts to enhance the capabilities of human spies, as well as technical collection and analysis.
"The men and women of American intelligence are performing courageously - often brilliantly - to support our military, to stop terrorism, and to break up networks of proliferation," he told an audience at Georgetown University.
He says he welcomes all the investigations into prewar intelligence - the three that are going on within the community, as well as those of the congressional oversight committees and the president's new commission. But he went on to clarify the National Intelligence Estimate that was given to the president and other policymakers this past October.
"Let me be clear," he said. "Analysts differed on several important aspects of these programs.... They never said there was an 'imminent' threat."
But he also said - clearly in response to the many reports that say government officials pressured analysts to come up with the "right" evidence - that "no one told us what to say or how to say it."
Tenet outlined both what the agency knew and surmised about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs before the war, and what they know now. He gave bottom-line assessments in the areas of nuclear, chemical, and biological programs, as well as delivery systems.
• On nuclear weapons: "We made two judgments that get overlooked these days. We said Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon, and probably would have been unable to make one until 2007 to 2009. Tenet's provisional bottom line is that "Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon."
• On biological weapons: "Iraq intended to develop biological weapons. Clearly research-and-development work was under way that would have permitted a rapid shift to agent production.... But we do not yet know if production took place."
• On chemical weapons: "Saddam had the intent and the capability to quickly convert civilian industry to chemical weapons production. However, we have not yet found the weapons we expected."
• On missiles: "We were generally on target." On unmanned aerial vehicles: "We detected the development of prohibited and undeclared UAVs.... But the jury is still out on whether Iraq intended to use its newer, smaller UAVs to deliver biological weapons."
Tenet also vigorously defended the agency's human intelligence program. He said that when he came to the CIA in the mid-1990s, "our graduating class of case officers was unbelievably low." He said the years since have been spent rebuilding the clandestine service, but it will take five more to bring it up to speed.
Still, he said that pundits who make blanket statements about the CIA's lack of human intelligence are "simply wrong." He noted that a coalition of intelligence agencies - not just Britain and Middle Eastern nations, but most European countries as well - made the same determinations.
• Because of rigorous collection of information on Libya's nuclear weapons program, pressure was applied to force Libya to end its program.
• Tenet said it was because of covert officers that the head of the Pakistani nuclear program, A.Q. Khan, as well as his underground supply network had been dealt a "crushing blow."
• A CIA spy led to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Another spy helped them capture Al Qaeda's operational chief in the Gulf and the architect of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
• Spies led to the capture of Hambali, the chief Al Qaeda terrorist in Southeast Asia who is allegedly responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing.