Although the mainstream media remains fixated on the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, yesterday’s report from the presidential Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States contains some important findings, including the intelligence community’s underestimation of al Qaeda’s WMD programs.
The bipartisan panel, co-chaired by Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Sen. Charles Robb, a Democrat, and including members such as Republican Sen. John McCain and noted Democrats like Lloyd Cutler and Judge Patricia Wald, found no evidence that the intelligence community, under pressure from the Bush administration, exaggerated the truth about Iraqi WMD: “After a thorough review, the commission found no indication that the Intelligence Community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. What intelligence professionals told you about Saddam Hussein’s programs was what they believed. They were simply wrong.”
Along these lines, the commission implicitly rebutted one charge that has repeatedly been made about Vice President Dick Cheney’s visits to CIA headquarters before the Iraq war: that pressing the intelligence community for more information and better analysis is somehow evidence of an effort to twist intelligence for political reasons. In fact, the panel appears to suggest that future policy-makers should emulate Mr. Cheney’s actions. “Analysts must be pressed to explain why they don’t have better information on key topics,” the commission said. “While policy-makers must be prepared to credit intelligence that doesn’t fit their preferences, no important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true. This is not ‘politicization’; it is a necessary part of the intelligence process. And in the end, it is the key to getting the best from an Intelligence Community.”
With regard to Iraq, the U.S. intelligence community overestimated its WMD capabilities, but the Silberman-Robb report concluded that it made the opposite mistake with regard to al Qaeda’s WMD programs — greatly underestimating them. In fact, from reading the report, it appears that U.S. intelligence, which failed to penetrate the al Qaeda network, had virtually no idea what WMD programs al Qaeda had prior to September 11. Although much of the specific intelligence information on this subject remains classified, the panel found that al Qaeda’s biological- weapons program was further along than pre-war intelligence indicated, and that after the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, new evidence of al Qaeda WMD efforts was uncovered. One of the bipartisan panel’s most worrisome findings is its conclusion that although the new intelligence-reform legislation is supposed to improve information sharing between intelligence agencies, it has created a confusing new job structure at the top of the intelligence community; the commission even hints that new legislation may be needed to fix the problem.
All in all, the Silberman-Robb panel’s findings are very sobering indeed.