CIA bungling on Iraq tells only half the story
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CIA bungling on Iraq tells only half the story

USA Today/July 11, 2004

Aficionados of spy-thriller novelist John le Carre have long known what a scathing Senate report underscored Friday: Intelligence-gathering is as much an art subject to human foibles and manipulation as it is a science.

Yet the limits of intelligence never gave pause to a White House bent on war with Iraq from the outset. The administration used an exaggerated CIA assessment of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to justify already-formulated plans to attack Iraq and to sell its pre-emptive war to Congress and the public.

Big mistake. The 511-page report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that most of those assessments were unfounded or overstated. Reasons included sloppy analysis, few or unreliable sources in Iraq, little sharing of information between intelligence agencies and a dysfunctional culture that encouraged only groupthink.

One obvious group thought: Paint Saddam in the worst possible light to a White House that already had made up its mind that the Iraqi dictator possessed chemical and biological arsenals and was trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Many members of Congress responded to the report by proposing bureaucratic reforms of a fractured intelligence community plagued by turf battles. The most prominent idea is to appoint a more independent intelligence czar who would oversee all 15 intelligence agencies and serve a set term rather than at the pleasure of the president, as is now the case. That change would make the new czar less susceptible to political pressure.

Such structural changes, however, won't make intelligence more reliable, less subject to misinterpretation or more prone to misuse.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, grilled and probed CIA officials relentlessly before he addressed the United Nations before the Iraq war to make the U.S. case against Saddam. He presented charts, satellite photos and phone intercepts as "solid" evidence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. In reality, they were far from the definitive proof U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when he held up satellite photos of Soviet missiles. The difference was one of human interpretation or twisting of the evidence.

In anticipation of the harsh Senate report, CIA Director George Tenet announced his resignation last month, citing personal reasons. As he put in his last day on the job Sunday, Republican and Democratic senators called on President Bush to move quickly to name a new director.

Still, who heads the CIA won't matter if that person can't stand up to political pressure to engage in domestic espionage, as occurred in the 1970s, or provide flimsy evidence to justify a war.

It doesn't take le Carre's fictional hero, George Smiley, to point out that bad intelligence is only half the problem.

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