Politics of Spy Agency Failures ; Senate Report on Faulty Intelligence Spreads from Congress to the Campaign Trail

Article excerpt

The Washington debate over the justifications for the US invasion of Iraq is deepening in intensity, swirling into a Force 5 storm as the presidential political season begins in earnest.

A series of reports critical of the intelligence community's pre- war assessments of Saddam Hussein's power and intentions appears set to provide charges of incompetence for weeks to come. At the same time, the new Democratic ticket is signaling its intention to make the issue a central one - even though Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted to approve the war before combat began.

The bottom line: The US appears poised to continue an unprecedented national argument about the inner workings of its national-security apparatus, with the charged context of an election year inevitably affecting that debate. "These things are converging - and a lot of them are saying the same thing: 'We got things wrong,' " says Lee Strickland, a former senior intelligence officer, now a professor at the University of Maryland.

The latest major development on this subject came Friday, when the Senate Intelligence Committee dealt a stinging blow to the nation's intelligence community. In a scathing 521-page report, the committee charged that the Central Intelligence Agency's judgments about Iraq's continuing weapons of mass destruction programs (WMD) were exaggerated, and were a product of "group think" - not properly challenged from within.

The report specifically said that:

* Key judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's pursuit of WMD were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."

* Intelligence officials did not fully explain to policymakers the uncertainties behind key judgments.

* There were shortcomings in almost every aspect of human- intelligence collection about Iraq's WMD activities.

* Most of the problems stem from a "broken corporate culture and poor management, and will not be solved by additional funding and personnel."

In addition, the report pointed out that prior to the invasion of Iraq, CIA information described an Iraqi Army long on dysfunction and short on strength. The most dangerous weapon Iraq possessed at the time may have been the unpredictable Mr. Hussein himself, according to contemporaneous CIA assessments.

Time pressures were among the reasons intelligence was mangled and misinterpreted in this area, according to experts. "Group think" complacency was another issue. But pressure from administration officials to back up their pre-cooked conclusions was also partly at fault for CIA mistakes, according to at least one high-ranking current official.

"I think what happened in this case, to use the British phrase, it was 'sexed up,' " says a senior intelligence official, who has just written the book, "Imperial Hubris," a strong criticism of the war on terror.

Publicly, top CIA officials agree with most of the Senate Intelligence Committee report findings - with the notable exception of charges of broken corporate culture, and the report's implication that the agency is too timid to send spies into dangerous or difficult situations. …