Can The C.I.A. Really Be That Bad?

The Senate Intelligence Committee has had its say on the debacles leading up to the Iraq war, and America’s intelligence agencies have come in for the lion’s share of the blame. Some of the committee’s findings were useful and constructive. But over all, the report’s scathing indictment of American intelligence is seriously unfair. Leave aside the broader political issue, that of whether the report was designed in part to find a convenient scapegoat for the failings of political leaders. Simply on the technical merits of the case, the intelligence community’s performance, while far from superb, was hardly as bad as the senators assert.

There are three main issues to consider. Did Iraq possess chemical and biological weapons in the period just before the American-led invasion? Had it reconstituted its nuclear weapons program? And did it have meaningful, operational links to Al Qaeda?

As we have been learning over the past 15 months, and as the Senate report has just reconfirmed, the intelligence community indeed did get its answers to the first two questions wrong. But it clearly got the third right. Moreover, on the vital matter of chemical and biological agents, the agencies’ overall assessments were entirely reasonable. Yes, with the advantage of hindsight and complete access to Iraqi territory we now know they were largely wrong. But we did not have such hindsight or access in 2002 and early 2003.

Let’s face it, it would have taken an overwhelming body of evidence for any reasonable person in 2002 to think that Saddam Hussein did not possess stockpiles of chemical and biological agents. Admittedly, the intelligence community was too quick to believe the Iraqi exiles who told stories about mobile biological weapons laboratories and the like.

But the basic facts still suggested strongly that Iraq had plenty of weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations and most European and Middle Eastern intelligence outfits had the same incorrect beliefs as our agencies, for the same understandable reasons. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons in war and against his own people in the 1980’s. For more than a decade after the Persian Gulf war, he obstructed international inspectors’ efforts to find and destroy such weapons, ensuring that United Nations sanctions that cost his country more than $100 billion would remain in place. He had his underlings confront the inspectors on several occasions in ways that led to military strikes against his security organizations. It certainly looked as if he valued chemical and biological agents a great deal, and was prepared to do a lot to hold onto them.

As for the supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the available evidence points strongly to one conclusion, the same conclusion that the intelligence community consistently reached: the Bush administration’s frequent insinuations that Saddam Hussein may have had an active collaboration with Al Qaeda, perhaps even assisting the 9/11 hijackers in some way, are without foundation. The intelligence community clearly stated this throughout the debate over Iraq. Even when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was talking about “bulletproof” evidence of strong linkages in the summer and fall of 2002, the intelligence community demurred – within the halls of the executive branch and in public.

It is only on the nuclear question – admittedly a very important one – that the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies truly dropped the ball. They bought into the idea that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons programs largely on the basis of flimsy reports of possible Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium and centrifuge components from abroad. Even if those reports had all been true, the imports would have been nothing more than raw materials for a nuclear program that would have required several more years to produce even a crude bomb.

Again, less-than-credible reports from less-than-credible people were used to confirm assumptions that intelligence analysts should not have allowed themselves to believe so strongly in the first place. It seems likely that the intelligence community, which had been surprised in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war at how far Saddam Hussein had gotten in his nuclear programs before 1991, did not want to make the same mistake again. So it overcompensated. And the mistake by George Tenet, the director of central intelligence – letting the famous 16 words about Iraq’s purported pursuit of African uranium into President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech – made things even worse.

But even on the nuclear issue, enough information was available for others to reach their own assessments. That the Bush administration had a clear agenda and interpreted all intelligence on Iraq in the most inflammatory way possible was its failing. But members of Congress, including those on the Senate Intelligence Committee, had enough information to reach their own conclusions, and yet the unnecessarily hasty march to war went ahead.

The point is not to excuse the intelligence agencies for their failings – a score of 33 percent is not a passing grade. They deserve a stern rebuke for their sloppiness and gullibility, and reforms are on the way. In particular, the agencies’ willingness to trust human sources whose credibility should have been much more suspect was a serious institutional error. And, on the status of Iraq’s nuclear program, the agencies clearly stopped looking at the evidence and bought into Washington groupthink. Even if they were not directly pressured by the Bush administration, many analysts do seem to have wanted to please the White House a bit too much.

But before we excoriate the work of our intelligence analysts – demoralizing their ranks and discouraging recruits from joining organizations that are being slammed by the right as well as the left – we need to take a deep breath. Intelligence is a difficult craft, and getting things wrong is an occupational hazard, not necessarily a sign of negligence or incompetence.

Blaming the intelligence community for the government’s (and most Americans’) mistaken views about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein would seem to reflect a desire on the part of Congress and the administration to pass the buck. When the morale and effectiveness of our intelligence organizations are at risk, scapegoating is unacceptable and unworthy.