Like many journalists specializing in foreign affairs, I've met my fair share of CIA officers.
Sometimes they were known to me as such; sometimes I only suspected they were CIA. Sometimes in foreign countries they were set up as businessmen or embedded in American embassies, maybe as "cultural" or "commercial" attachés, but soon easily identified as working for the CIA because they never had much to do with cultural or commercial affairs.
The Russians and British and Israelis and others all use such diplomatic status as cover for their intelligence officers. During the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, the Soviet Embassy in Washington sought to assign an English-speaking "cultural" officer there. The State Department declined because it knew he was a major in the Soviet intelligence service specializing in the recruitment of high-level American scientists working on classified military projects, such as those in California.
The CIA includes both the cloak-and-dagger operational types and the studious backroom analysts who spend a lot of time trying to figure out what America's enemies will do next. Those on the analytic side have a lot in common with journalists. They develop sources; pick the brains of experts; grill travelers returning from interesting places; pore over documents and scholarly journals; examine reports; assemble diverse scraps of information; and try to figure out what's going on in defense ministries, and cabinet rooms, and closed presidential chambers.
From CIA Director George Tenet's speech at Georgetown University last week, it's quite clear that it was this kind of analysis, along with reports from other intelligence agencies and friendly countries, plus electronic eavesdropping and pictures from overhead satellites, that provided the grist for what the CIA told President Bush about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no valet of Saddam Hussein slipping stuff out of the dictator's briefcase, photographing it in a closet, and leaving the tell-all film in some drop in a tree for the friendly CIA handler.
As Mr. Tenet himself said: "We did not ourselves penetrate the inner sanctum." American agents remained "on the periphery" of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, relying on intelligence taking of others, analyzing it carefully, but at "some risk."
Some of this secondhand information must have been dubious. Apparently even Hussein himself may not have been too sure what weapons he had. As David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector for the US in Iraq tells it, top Iraqi scientists may have elicited millions from Hussein for weapons-development programs that existed only on paper. That sounds like a dangerous game with a dictator who had suspect lieutenants shot at whim.
But on the other hand, there were times when Hussein was unfocused. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz apparently told interrogators of Hussein's preoccupation with the latest novel he was writing even as the invading American Army massed on Iraq's borders.
There does seem evidence that even as the Americans attacked, the Iraqi commanders of some units believed that neighboring units alongside them were equipped with the weapons of mass destruction that, so far, have eluded discovery.
If there was indeed this degree of confusion, misinformation, and disinformation at the level of Hussein and his own scientists and generals, one can imagine the uncertainties with which the CIA's analysts had to wrestle.
The commission that President Bush has appointed to study US intelligence capabilities will be trying to determine whether the CIA was wrong - and if so why - in the analysis it gave the president of the danger from Iraq.
The commission will undoubtedly assess the role of electronic intelligence versus "humint" (human intelligence). A satellite can provide a remarkable close-up of an interesting crate on a rail car, but it may need an agent to punch a hole in it in a warehouse to find out what's inside.
And of course, the commission will want to know whether the CIA's estimate was twisted or exaggerated by the White House. Tenet says "no." Mr. Kay says "no." Kay says it was just that everybody, including the French, the Germans, and the United Nations, was deceived about what Hussein was up to.
The commission probably will not tell us all we might like to know about the shadowy world of spying today. But it should tell us whether it could have been - and can be - done better.
• John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.