The press misses the point about WMDs and intelligence

Posted: Apr 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The President's Commission on (deep breath) Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction has issued its report, and true to predictions, it indicts the CIA and other intelligence agencies for giving the president and Congress information that was "dead wrong" and accompanying this intelligence with a promise that the agencies had 90 percent confidence in its accuracy. Here, at last, is the accounting that has been wanting since our forces scoured the Iraqi countryside and found not a single WMD.

 Specialists at missing the point, some members of the White House press corps demanded of the commission co-chairmen, former Sen. Chuck Robb and Judge Larry Silberman, whether the Bush administration was not really at fault for "pressuring" the intelligence agencies to produce estimates consonant with the administration's preferred policies. There were references to Vice President Cheney's famous ride to Langley to discuss the Iraq situation -- a visit many antiwar types were convinced had the effect of strong-arming the agency to tailor its intelligence to the administration's pattern.

 This the chairmen stoutly deny. As the transmittal letter makes clear "... the commission found no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. What the intelligence professionals told (the president) about Saddam Hussein's programs was what they believed. They were simply wrong."

 Later, the report notes that "the intelligence community did not make or change any analytic judgments in response to political pressure to reach a particular conclusion, but the pervasive conventional wisdom that Saddam retained WMD affected the analytic process."

 The question that should be foremost in the minds of reporters and everyone else is why the intelligence was so wrong. Simple-minded men like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Michael Moore avoid the problem by asserting that President Bush lied. Real grown-ups must grapple with the fact that our most important weapon in the war on terror -- the intelligence agencies -- are severely dysfunctional.

 Admittedly, the intelligence business is difficult for outsiders to judge because, of necessity, their triumphs are mostly kept secret, while their failures make headlines. But even acknowledging that, the record of the CIA and its siblings has been terrible for 25 years.

 The agencies completely misjudged the economic output of the Soviet Union, thus skewing analysis on what the USSR was spending on defense. They failed to anticipate the Khomeini revolution in Iran. They were caught by surprise when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And they completely botched the Osama bin Laden project, virtually inviting the worst attack on American soil since the War of 1812.

 The emasculation of the intelligence community began with the Church committee hearings in the 1970s -- an orgy of military- and intelligence-bashing by liberal Republicans and Democrats embarrassed that the United States would stoop to defending itself. It continued through the next several decades.

 Reagan was pro-intelligence, but the Iran-Contra scandal served to make the skittish agency even more risk-averse. Added to the risk of being hauled before a congressional committee was a new fear of being indicted by a special prosecutor.

 Things reached a nadir during the presidency of Bill Clinton. As Gabriel Schoenfeld notes in the March issue of Commentary, "When the Clinton administration came into power, combating sexual harassment and the 'glass ceiling' became part of a much broader campaign to reconstitute the agency workforce." Under Director George Tenet, who knew how to please any boss, the CIA initiated a thoroughgoing program to recruit more minorities and women, and to make the agency friendlier to Pacific Islanders and Hispanics. Such trivialities can lead to dangerous weakness in a world that contains Zarqawis and bin Ladens.

 The new report, like the 9-11 Commission report and others, recommends better integration of the intelligence agencies and better information sharing. All to the good. But more important than any structural change would be a change of spirit in the world of intelligence -- an injection of elan that can come only from a change in the political world that oversees intelligence. The days of condemning the CIA for getting its hands dirty must be truly behind us. Nor should we permit affirmative action to take precedence over getting the best possible information to our leaders.

 It's a matter of victory or defeat.