- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Whichever side one takes in the debate over Iraq, there seems to be one universal certainty. American intelligence has shown itself once again to be woefully inadequate, this time in predictions about events before and after the war.

Moreover, it appears the Central Intelligence Agency misled the president about Iraq’s nuclear threat and the rest of its supposed arsenal of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. The deceit even led George W. Bush to include dubious information in his State of the Union address last January about efforts by Saddam Hussein to buy uranium from African sources, which has become a major embarrassment for the White House.

While searchers may yet discover concrete evidence of a WMD presence in Iraq, it obviously won’t be on the scale Americans were told was threatening to their own security and must be destroyed. In fact, it seems there was skepticism within the CIA that apparently never made it to the president’s desk. These doubts may have turned the justification for ousting Saddam away from the WMD argument and toward the legitimate reason that he was a murderous despot whose continued existence was a destabilizing influence on the entire Arab world and a constant distraction in the war on terrorism.

More disastrous than the overemphasis on the WMD threat was the CIA’s apparent failure to warn the administration what it would face after the war was ostensibly won. It is reasonable to expect the intelligence apparatus to have provided an accurate assessment about the competing interests that would try to fill the power vacuum left by Saddam’s overthrow, and to offer a strong rebuttal to those on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon who believed U.S. troops would be welcomed with open arms. If this was done, it has yet to be established. Certainly, the continued loss of American and British lives would indicate otherwise.

Military experts did warn that a massive infusion of troops would be necessary to provide stability while Iraq’s infrastructure was being rebuilt. But the powers that be chose to discount that advice perhaps based on faulty intelligence concepts. Now a solution might lie in expanding European involvement in the reconstruction effort.

Why have this nation’s intelligence services seemed to miss the mark so often in the last decades? One might trace the origins of a weakened CIA to the early 1970s when a sensational investigation led by Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Idaho exposed a variety of sensational Cold War antics by the agency. This investigation brought about debilitating reforms that put a major crimp in the agency’s mission. The CIA pulled in its horns and scrunched down in the withering blizzard of accusations. It gave up on-the-ground personal spying and infiltration and instead began using the electronic, satellite type.

The clandestine services branch, once the agency’s main eyes and ears and plotter, was decimated, leaving the agency without the ability even to find hostages held for years in Lebanon by Iranian militants. This resulted in the Iran Contra scandal that was so harmful to the Reagan administration and U.S. prestige.

More importantly, however, was the loss of the Middle East networks that years later might have provided accurate intelligence about al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, including where to locate Osama bin Laden and his key aides before they planned the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.

Adding to the dilemma was the ongoing feud with the FBI that hindered information sharing and coordinated efforts to put foreign-gathered intelligence with the domestic type. Congress stood benignly by while the deterioration of a once viable system continued. Each agency had its congressional constituency, which prevented oversight that might have halted the decline. In the meantime, the Defense Intelligence Agency ineptly tried to fill some of the holes, but ended up only confusing the situation.

The latest example of the disarray in the intelligence-gathering process was disclosed recently when it was reported that even the State Department’s intelligence division is disputing the contention by the DIA and the CIA that trailers found in Iraq were for making biological weapons. When the trailers were discovered, the Bush administration claimed it was solid proof the WMD claims were accurate. If it now turns out they were for something else, it would be another embarrassment for the White House.

Mr. Bush wouldn’t be the first president let down by faulty intelligence. John F. Kennedy, furious over the failure of the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion, threatened to dismantle the entire agency. If nothing else, the current experience emphasizes the need for accurate on-the-ground observance. It’s time to get it right.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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