The CIA lacked spies on the ground in Iraq who could detail Baghdad’s weapons programs and is working to build up its ranks after years of neglect, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
The agency is too dependent on former officials, defectors and foreign intelligence services that lack the kind of detailed knowledge that human intelligence can provide, according to the officials.
CIA sources on Iraq is one of the issues being examined by Congress as part of its probe into whether the CIA provided bad intelligence on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, or whether policy-makers skewed reports to fit their goals.
Much of the information about Baghdad’s weapons came from former Iraqi officials and friendly foreign intelligence services, in addition to intercepted communications and satellite photographs, intelligence officials said.
The CIA had few agents with firsthand knowledge of weapons inside Iraq, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey said having the right agent in the right place at the right time is the best use of human spying. But he also believes the U.S. government did too little to acquire information from Iraqi exiles, many of whom were in touch with people in Iraq.
“You don’t have to control an asset for them to be useful,” Mr. Woolsey said. “An awful lot of people in the Cold War were volunteers and defectors.”
Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress, said his group provided three Iraqis with information on Iraq’s arms programs. Two were useful to the CIA and one was not, Mr. Chalabi said.
Mr. Chalabi also said in an interview that an Iraqi double agent fooled the U.S. military into bombing two purported Saddam hide-outs during the war. The CIA denies the claim.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell revealed much of what U.S. intelligence agencies knew about Iraq’s arms programs in a Feb. 5 briefing before the U.N. Security Council.
Mr. Powell said the data came from electronic intercepts of Iraqi communications and from human sources.
“Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” Mr. Powell said.
No weapons have been found in the two months since coalition forces took Baghdad. U.S. forces found two mobile biological-weapons production vans, which a CIA report called evidence of Iraq’s hidden arms programs.
Democrats on Capitol Hill say that intelligence was politicized by the Bush administration to support its efforts to go to war.
The Powell presentation included references to at least 12 human sources, most of them defectors. These sources provided the CIA with details on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, as well as missile systems.
The two biological-weapons vans that were discovered in April were disclosed before the war by a chemical engineer and corroborated by three other Iraqis, including two defectors.
The chemical-arms intelligence on Iraq came from defectors, including two human sources that were not further identified.
Two defectors were the source of information on Iraq’s nuclear program, and two sources inside Saddam’s missile program revealed information about Baghdad’s hidden Scud missiles.
The CIA, which is in charge of human spying operations, has tried to rebuild its agent networks around the world and especially in Iraq.
The head of the CIA’s espionage branch, James Pavitt, said in a speech in January that in the mid-1990s the recruitment of case officers came to a virtual halt.
“Today, however, we have more reporting on the really hard targets than I can remember at any time in my nearly 30 years of agency service,” Mr. Pavitt said.
The clandestine service today includes veteran officers and newer recruits hired in the past five years, Mr. Pavitt said.
U.S. spying capabilities were sharply cut in the 1970s under CIA Director Stansfield Turner, and again in the 1990s under President Clinton.
The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense HUMINT Service also conducts espionage. Its efforts to build up agent networks have been hampered by the CIA, which in the past has taken the best agent-recruits and contacts away from DIA.
Problems with espionage persist in Iraq. U.S. officials said CIA officers working in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities must travel with armed escorts, who critics say limit their ability to conduct spying.
CIA officers in Baghdad also carry firearms, which has led some critics to call the agency risk averse. One intelligence official, however, rejected the idea.
“Iraq continues to be a dangerous place, and CIA officers take all necessary steps to protect themselves and those they deal with,” this official said. “The notion that there is something risk averse about agency officers carrying weapons to protect themselves in a dangerous environment is ridiculous.”
The official would not comment on the requirement for armed escorts.
The CIA’s cadre of spies is estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 people.
Last week, the agency graduated the largest class of case officers, as its field agents are known, in its history, said a U.S. official who declined to say how large it was. The large class is a sign that CIA efforts to improve spying are progressing and have increased sharply since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the official said.
Other officials said most CIA trainee classes in the past ranged from 50 to 100 people. During Vietnam, the agency’s training facility near Williamsburg turned out as many as 600 spies per class.
The CIA also has launched a program to recall some experienced clandestine service veterans. However, officials said some of the best officers were turned down for jobs because they did not fit the political profile of the current agency’s case officers.
Robert Baer, a former CIA operations officer who worked in Iraq during the 1990s, said the Clinton administration decided to cut back on spies because of the end of the Cold War.
“They basically closed down [CIA operations] in Africa,” Mr. Baer said. “Africa was a place to send officers not for intelligence, but to learn how to do the job.”
Mr. Baer said the problem with CIA spying is that the agency is risk averse, hamstrung by too many lawyers and fails to back its people when they make mistakes or get in trouble.
“People are going to make mistakes, and if they do, they need to be protected,” Mr. Baer said. “It’s the price of doing business.”
Mr. Baer has said that during the 1990s, the CIA had no case officers in Iraq and thus no agents on the ground.
That changed after the September 11 attacks, as the CIA attempted to set up networks in Iraq, officials said.
North Korea is another area where the CIA lacks good spies of its own.
The agency is trying to improve its spying in the tightly controlled Stalinist state and also is focusing on spying in China aimed at North Korea.
Officials said the CIA relies heavily on South Korean spies in the North for its intelligence, something the agency is trying to remedy.
CIA estimates of North Korea’s nuclear program were exposed as deficient in April by the private comments of Li Gun, a North Korean negotiator, during talks in Beijing. Mr. Li stated that North Korea was nearly finished reprocessing spent fuel rods that the CIA had reported were still in storage under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement. The comment prompted the CIA to reassess its intelligence on the fuel reprocessing.
One U.S. official said either the North Korean official was lying or there was a major intelligence failure on the part of the CIA.