- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2004

CIA Director George Tenet’s solid and impassioned speech yesterday constituted a vital first step toward returning rationality and realism to the public debate on intelligence and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The speech was necessary because of the media’s absurdly selective reporting, over the last week, of retiring weapons inspector David Kay’s public remarks.

The major media — and particularly network television — virtually ignored Mr. Kay’s confirmation of the existence of Iraq’s prewar-WMD infrastructure, capabilities and illegal missile program. By focusing on his opinion that “large stockpiles” of WMD probably would not be found, they highlighted the most publicly titillating, but least strategically significant, part of Mr. Kay’s statements.

Mr. Tenet was right to remind the public that the strategic threat posed by Saddam Hussein lay in Iraq’s capacity to quickly build up its WMD, and that the Kay investigation confirmed that pre-eminent fact that prewar CIA intelligence had correctly identified. Mr. Tenet was also right to contest the assertion that we now know all we need to know about the status of possible “large stockpiles.” His argument that the CIA needs more time to search for such weapons was vividly made by his point that such a “large stockpile” of biological weapons could fit in a space no larger than a few college dorm rooms in a country the size of California.

For close followers of the intelligence community, the most fascinating part of Mr. Tenet’s speech was his list of specific recent covert action and intelligence successes in the war on terrorism. Our intelligence services have long and validly complained that the public only hears of their failures, never their successes.

While there is always a danger of compromising intelligence factors by going public with any specific activities, we are confident that Mr. Tenet has exercised proper discretion in making those accomplishments public. It was important that he share with the public some sense of our successes. Public opinion is a strategic factor in any war fought by a democracy. An uninformed public may reach dangerously wrong conclusions regarding its government’s war-fighting effort.

Mr. Tenet’s speech also provided a very useful primer, particularly for deeply uninformed network news producers and television commentators, on the inherent uncertainty of intelligence analysis. For intelligence to be usable, analysts must reach a conclusion, even in the face of ambiguity. To cite an example, the decisive Pacific naval battle of World War II, Midway, was fought and won on only a best guess of the location of the Japanese fleet. Decision-making and action without benefit of conclusive data is the burden and responsibility of all statesmen — and always will be.

Mr. Tenet’s defense of the human intelligence capacity of the CIA was, while accurate, an incomplete account. We thoroughly commend him for his realistic assessment that it will take five years to rebuild that capacity to an acceptable level. (In a recent editorial we estimated five to 10 years, but we won’t quibble.) However, during his long tenure at the helm of the agency, he should have done more, sooner to correct the shortcomings he inherited.

While we continue to believe that it is time for new leadership at the CIA, we enthusiastically commend Mr. Tenet for his sterling effort yesterday to begin bringing sanity back to the public discussion of intelligence, terror and WMD. He should not hesitate to stay in the public debate that is raging. His voice is needed.

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