I don't know why they call it "intelligence," because it is responsible for some of the most unintelligent episodes in US history.
In 1976 I covered congressional investigations of intelligence mishaps, such as the failure to see, in 1973, the launch of the Egyptian invasion of Israel – even when the tanks were already deployed in the desert and their communications were monitored by the CIA from Jordan.
But the nuclear age presents an intelligence challenge of a wholly different order. And when President Bush designated Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil," it was with a nuclear threat in mind.
The invasion of Iraq can be said to have been the result of a failure of intelligence. Or perhaps, as a British memorandum put it, the "fixing" of intelligence to serve the buildup for invasion. Some thousands of lives and some billions of dollars later, the weapons of mass destruction have not been found.
So next, North Korea was supposed to have a half dozen (or was it 10?) nuclear bombs. Or so our US intelligence community said. The story was that North Korea had gotten centrifuge technology from Pakistan, enabling it to enrich uranium and make bombs. So, now comes the intelligence community, which, according to The New York Times, has decided, on second thought, that maybe North Korea hasn't made as much progress as originally thought.
Now the Bush administration has invited a North Korean delegation to come to Washington and talk the whole thing over. And there are questions about the decision to confront North Korea in 2002 in the first place.
Then there is Iran, which says it is enriching uranium but only for peaceful purposes. Until now, the Bush administration has refused to believe that. United Nations sanctions – not very drastic ones – are in place. And Vice President Dick Cheney says that while there are no plans to invade Iran, "All options are still on the table."
Of course, the administration will be looking at the latest National Intelligence Estimate before making any drastic move.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.