In an implicit – and long-awaited – admission of error, President Bush last week announced the establishment of a commission to examine the intelligence in the case of Iraq and more broadly on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The president’s announcement followed a speech last week by Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet, who defended the Intelligence Community while acknowledging that some of the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities may have been flawed. In a conversation with American Progress, Congresswoman Jane Harman, Ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argues that there is an urgent need to fix problems with U.S. intelligence today and for the administration to take responsibility for hyping prewar intelligence.
Why do you think the president formed the commission to investigate intelligence failures?
I think he’s responding to David Kay’s testimony and to what has become obvious to almost everyone – that much of the prewar intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was likely wrong.
But I think the president is looking for a way to get the issue off the election-year agenda while, at the same time, blunting Congress’ call for an independent commission. We cannot afford to wait until March 2005 to address these issues. Doing so will freeze in place the national security crisis we face today – shattered U.S. government credibility and flawed intelligence.
By my count, there are already at least five inquiries into various aspects of pre-war intelligence: the House Intelligence Committee’s review; the Senate Intelligence Committee’s review; former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Dick Kerr’s internal CIA review; the Iraq Survey Group search efforts; the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In one way or another, they’ve all been highly critical of prewar intelligence. We don’t need another Commission to reiterate what is already clear. What we need is for the President to acknowledge that pre-war intelligence was substantially wrong and to direct immediate steps to fix our intelligence.”
So in the case of Iraq, are we talking about a failure in intelligence-gathering, interpretation, manipulation of data, or something else?
Five months ago, Republican Committee Chairman Porter Goss and I sent a bipartisan letter to the Director of Central Intelligence outlining shortcomings we had identified in prewar intelligence. We said that collection had not provided sufficient insights into an admittedly very tough intelligence target. In addition, the departure of the U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998 ended the world community’s best window into what Iraq was doing.
In my view, the analysis also overstated the intelligence and failed clearly to consider alternative hypotheses or contrary information, such as claims that Iraq had destroyed weapons, or that its WMD programs were hollowed out by deception, corruption and deceit among players in the regime. If 9/11 was a failure to connect the dots, it appears that the Intelligence Community, in the case of Iraq’s WMD, connected the dots to the wrong conclusions.
I’ve also said as far back as July of last year that the administration consistently omitted the caveats and qualifiers that the Intelligence Community generally attached to its assessments of Iraq’s WMD programs and ties to terrorism. This was a problem too.
Weapons inspector David Kay has effectively exonerated the administration of wrongdoing. Do you agree?
David Kay did not investigate the politicization of intelligence. We know that many intelligence analysts felt intense pressure from administration officials to find evidence linking Iraq to al Qaeda and 9/11. This does not mean that they buckled under that pressure, but it says something about this administration’s mindset.
A number of administration officials overstated the strength of what we now know was flawed intelligence. President Bush owes the American people and the world an explanation and a plan for ensuring it doesn’t happen in the future.
Vice President Cheney insists that the "jury is still out" on WMD in Iraq. Do they know something we don’t? What did they get right?
Recent press reports of the vice president citing mobile biological labs as conclusive evidence of Iraq’s biological weapons program were disturbing. In David Kay’s view, the consensus within the Intelligence Community is that these vans probably were for generating hydrogen or rocket fuel, not biological agents. The vice president needs to tell us why his statements do not accurately reflect the underlying intelligence.
What do you make of President Musharraf’s acknowledgment that for at least three years he suspected Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan of sharing nuclear weapons technology with other countries and his assertion that the United States would not provide convincing proof?
Aggressive efforts to combat nuclear proliferation must be a central part of U.S. national security policy. Yet, it’s not clear Pakistan’s proliferation activities were given high enough priority. At least one senior administration official has acknowledged that General Musharraf was not given specific information about Dr. Khan’s activities with some countries of concern until last fall. We might have been able to handle this differently, with better results.
We went to war in Iraq, we’re told, to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of bad guys. It’s hard to reconcile this with the failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan to countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
What are the most urgent reforms needed in the intelligence community?
I talked a lot about this in a recent speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and in an op-ed in the Washington Post last Sunday. As with any issue, leadership is key. Then there are several steps that the president could take right now. One of them is to insist that analysts not only tell us what they know, but what they don’t know. The second thing is to scrub the intelligence products we have now. Are we accurate on North Korea? Are we accurate on Iran? Are we accurate on Libya in light of what we have learned about the failures in Iraq intelligence? The third thing is to recruit a much more diverse group of spies with cultural sensitivity and language skills than we presently have. And, finally, we should reinvigorate international inspection forces through the United Nations. They, after all, had a much more accurate picture of what was going on in Iraq than we did.
In addition, there are broader institutional reforms that should be considered. We should consider creating a true Director of National Intelligence, who can focus full-time on the full breadth of U.S. intelligence activities and move aggressively to address debilitating stovepipes. Several distinguished groups, such as the Markle Foundation Task Force, have identified important steps that could be taken toward a "virtual reorganization," using today’s business models and information technology tools to significantly enhance collaboration across the 15 different intelligence entities. For another model, we should look at how the Defense Department has been transformed by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and the "jointness" that it instilled across fiefdoms.
What should be the direction of U.S. national security policy and how can the intelligence community play a more effective role?
Unanswered questions regarding U.S. intelligence have left the nation in a precarious position and endanger our ability to understand and deal with threats we face today.
David Kay has said that we can’t have a policy of pre-emption when U.S. intelligence can’t provide the needed level of certainty. We need to develop tools beyond military action for dealing with WMD and proliferation. Military action is irrevocable and is questionable if the intelligence is not credible. We need accurate, timely, and actionable intelligence to make other tools such as economic sanctions and patient diplomacy more effective.