WMD Intelligence Tested

It's Time for Spies to Lift their Game

CIA Director George Tenet testifies before the 9/11 commission, March 9, 2004
CIA Director George Tenet testifies before the Senate Armed Forces Committee on future threats to U.S. national security, March 9, 2004 (Photo: Joyce Naltchayan/AFP-Getty Images).

In a world of ever-present terrorist threat, nothing is more important than accurate and efficient intelligence gathering. Yet, ironically, the West’s spies have probably never been so ill-prepared or ill-equipped to fulfill that role. Shorn of their traditional strengths, they have floundered through the tragedy of Sept. 11, the pursuit of Al-Qaeda, and the invasion of Iraq.

If the successes of the intelligence community usually go unheralded, their failures are on show to the world. Each failing damns them and demands answers. Belatedly, these may be supplied by the independent investigators appointed by President George W. Bush to report on the United States’ intelligence shortcomings.

Specifically, the inquiry will examine intelligence that said Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and was developing a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration used this as a pretext for war; the British government went further, deeming it the core reason for ousting Saddam Hussein. Yet from the start it was clear that American and British intelligence was at odds with the findings of United Nations weapons inspectors on the ground in Iraq. Logic suggests that those inspectors could not have been misled by the Iraqis year after year—and that the Iraq Survey Group, which scoured the country after the war, also would come up empty. The administration’s intelligence on Iraq was “almost all wrong,” David Kay, the former leader of that group, admitted last week.

What the American investigation will probably discover is that the West’s intelligence agencies have been seriously weakened by an increased reliance on the likes of satellites and electronic eavesdropping. Such technology, it was reckoned, would make agents working undercover in foreign countries largely redundant. The collapse of the Soviet Union made traditional spying seem even more irrelevant.

Thus, the number of agents in the field was drastically reduced. Yet while technology produces vast quantities of information—perhaps too much—it acts as neither interpreter nor analyst. Assessing information and motivation will still usually be best achieved by agents on the ground.

But more important than this error in practice are the wider implications of the intelligence community’s failings. Until relatively recently, intelligence information was received virtually without question. It boasted an AAA credit rating. That is no longer the case. How can it be when, for example, one of the British intelligence dossiers purporting to show that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction drew on an outdated university thesis? The failings of American and British agencies have raised questions about the credibility of all intelligence reports.

There are also serious repercussions for the Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive attacks against potential enemies. In the eyes of the White House, the assault on Iraq might, in fact, have had little to do with weapons of mass destruction and much to do with furthering the war on terror against an ideologically repugnant despot. But for reasons of credibility it was still deemed essential to emphasize Baghdad’s arsenal. Now, as much as President Bush may be loath to concede, it is difficult to see how future pre-emptive strikes could be justified. Such attacks must be based upon accurate and credible intelligence—and that, quite simply, is not being supplied.

Until it is, the White House’s war on terror will be hamstrung, in terms of both its practical pursuit and its international credibility. President Bush has told the investigators into the American intelligence failings that he wants “to know all the facts.”  That sounds, also, like a prescription for intelligence-gathering agencies to regain their reputation for accuracy and efficiency.