- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The blame game over President Bush’s statements about Iraq’s nuclear program distracts us from American intelligence’s grave problems. Alleged politicization is an ersatz scandal. The real scandal is that U.S. intelligence is so degraded that our best sources of information on Iraq came not from American case officers and their spies, but from self-promoting exile groups and foreign intelligence services with interests not always confluent with ours. The urgent question is: Why didn’t our president receive more definitive intelligence?

The CIA was created to provide reliable information to the president. It is evident from the past year that the quality of American intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction fell short. There are reasons for this failure. They all happened before Mr. Bush took office. The ‘90s were a lost decade for American intelligence.

After 1991, a vicious combination of trends gutted the CIA’s capacity to work against hard targets like Iraq. The Soviet Union’s demise caused policy-makers to question the need for the CIA. Anxious to justify its existence in the “New World Order,” the CIA compounded its long-term problems by grasping at new missions, like fighting Andean drug lords and foiling industrial espionage.

Budget cuts closed dozens of CIA stations. James Pavitt, the CIA’s clandestine chief, says the hiring of new case officers virtually ceased during Bill Clinton’s presidency. The Clinton administration backed congressional human rights restrictions requiring CIA to drop thousands of its agents. The agency was left with fewer spymasters and fewer spies. Because international inspectors had access, CIA became complacent about recruiting spies inside Iraq.

While human spying was downsized, the 1990s brought another adverse development for intelligence. The telecommunications revolution — the Internet, cheap PCs, encryption software and explosive use of cell phones — overwhelmed high-tech spying methods. Eight months before September 11, National Security Agency director, Gen. Mike Hayden, said NSA couldn’t keep up with the global telecommunications revolution. Osama bin Laden, Gen. Hayden warned, had “better technology” than the NSA.

By the mid-90s, the deterioration was acute. The CIA had no high-grade assets or counterintelligence in Iraq. It did not even know the function of one of Saddam’s security services. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s quip that “you do not know what you do not know” succinctly summarizes the intelligence dilemma confronting the Bush administration when it took office.

Lacking “coverage” — vetted assets of its own to collect and corroborate information — the shrunken CIA coped by liaison with foreign intelligence services. Liaison relationships are fraught with risk. The foreign agency has operational control over the real spies, and decides what reports to share or withhold. It may use the liaison relationship to influence American policy-makers by providing only “purposeful” information, withholding contradictory reports or even planting disinformation. The more the CIA must rely on liaison arrangements instead of its own coverage, the more vulnerable America is to foreign manipulation.

After September 11, the war on terrorism sharpened demands on America’s enfeebled intelligence establishment. Assessing Iraq’s capabilities acquired new urgency. Into this information vacuum stepped Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Mr. Chalabi, exiled from Iraq since 1958, seems to be a character straight out of John le Carre’s “The Tailor of Panama,” a spy novel uncomfortably apt for our times. The CIA reduced its use of Mr. Chalabi in the mid-1990s because of a track record of manipulation (and because good tradecraft doesn’t rely on spies who aren’t under the agency’s full “operational control”, but the INC found new support in Congress. When the Twin Towers collapsed, Mr. Chalabi’s sources purported to have solid information connecting Iraq to the attack. Mr. Chalabi’s reports were met eagerly by fact-hungry policy-makers. The CIA’s qualms were dismissed. When Secretary of State Colin Powell made his Feb. 5 presentation on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations, most of the human sources he cited were not spies recruited by the CIA, but defectors from Mr. Chalabi’s network.

With the war over, the U.S. military has begun to assess the accuracy of defector reports site-by-site. Discrepancies between the intelligence and facts on the ground can be profound.

Lt. Gen. James Conway, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commander, was told in pre-war intelligence briefings that Iraq’s Republican Guard had chemical weapons and battlefield authority to use them. In May, he said it “remains a surprise to me now that we have not uncovered weapons in some of the forward dispersal sites.” The British parliamentary commission white paper faulted the report that Iraq’s military could use chemical weapons in only 45 minutes because it came from a single, unreliable source. There are more examples of erroneous intelligence.

America’s intelligence community — across the board — failed to deliver timely, accurate, and actionable intelligence to the president because it had atrophied in the ‘90s. By September 11, 2001, the CIA was an empty shell. Intelligence insiders say the only way the agency could quickly put case officers into the field after September 11 was to hire retirees, many in their 60s and 70s. One Operations veteran says some CIA offices can only function thanks to these “re-employed annuitants.”

Under Mr. Bush, the CIA has graduated the largest classes of case officers in decades, but it will take years before the young spymasters recruit enough human assets to give CIA global coverage. There are more intelligence failures ahead to be added to the lapses of September 11 and the misjudgments regarding Iraq. There is plenty of fault to go around for the emasculation of our intelligence. But you can’t blame Mr. Bush.

John B. Roberts II is a former Reagan White House official who writes frequently on terrorism and national security matters.

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