American Outlook Today
February 2, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd 

With the president joining the chorus of calls for an independent inquiry into prewar intelligence, it is now apparent that the Intelligence Community was wrong about the nature of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal. Like the boy who cried wolf, the Iraqi dictator lied about disarming for so long that no one could believe he allowed his prized WMD program to atrophy to the point that only a skeleton remained on the eve of war. 

Perhaps the only thing that takes away the sting from this intelligence failure is the fact that everyone else was fooled as well—the Germans and French, the Israelis and Iranians, Hans Blix and his hapless inspectors. “It turns out we were all wrong," as David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, told a Senate panel, "and that is most disturbing."  

Actually there is something more disturbing: the fact that this isn’t the first time stale intelligence has left policymakers in the dark. 

Recall that our mass confusion over Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction comes on the heels of September 11, which was arguably the worst intelligence failure in American history. Some 3,000 Americans died as a result. 

September 11 came on the heels of a string of intelligence failures in the 1990s, when al Qaeda and its kindred movements struck American targets seemingly at will—truck bombs against the World Trade Center and Khobar Towers, a bin-Laden financed ambush in Mogadishu, car bombs outside a pair of embassies in Africa, capped off by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.  

It was in the late 1990s that North Korea stunned the world by testing long-range rockets and brandishing nuclear weapons. As the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded at the time, "the intelligence community has been repeatedly surprised by advances in ballistic missile technology achieved by less developed countries, calling into question its ability to anticipate precisely when the United States will be threatened by long-range missiles."  

Iran followed suit by test-firing medium-range missiles. According to a 1998 report by the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, "The ballistic missile infrastructure in Iran is now more sophisticated than that of North Korea...Because of significant gaps in our knowledge, the US is unlikely to know whether Iran possesses nuclear weapons until after the fact." 

Pyongyang and Tehran’s one-two punch came after a pair of long-forgotten intelligence failures involving Saddam—one that he wouldn’t invade Kuwait, the other that his nuclear program was undeveloped. After the Gulf War, weapons inspectors discovered that Saddam was within months of going nuclear. 

Of course, those failures came after the intelligence community was caught unawares by the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet empire. 

The last two decades have seen still other intelligence breakdowns and more than a few intelligence victories. It pays to recall that some of the greatest intelligence success stories are never known to the general public. But this brief thumbnail sketch should remind the Bush administration’s critics that the problems began long before January 2001; and it should energize President Bush into action. This pattern of failure is an institutional problem; a national-security problem; and a diplomatic problem—all of which makes it a political problem for the president. Bush must show the public that he represents the solution to the problem, not an obstruction. To do so, he should follow the lead of three Democratic presidents who suffered their share of intelligence headaches.  

Pearl Harbor was an unparalleled military and intelligence disaster. Like Bush, FDR had a war to fight, even as Congress hunted for scapegoats. But FDR knew that winning the war was more important than winning political points or fixing blame. After being blindsided in 1941, he created the Office of Strategic Services, poured resources into human intelligence and code-breaking, and prodded America’s embryonic intelligence community to learn from Britain’s more seasoned intelligence service. The result was an intelligence windfall that aided the campaigns in the Pacific and Europe and hastened the end of war.  

One lesson of FDR’s handling of the intelligence catastrophe at Pearl Harbor, it seems, is that the political problem will take care of itself once the intelligence problem is fixed. 

An FDR-style intelligence overhaul may be even more important today than in 1941: While all wars rely on intelligence (even the ancients sent spies ahead of their armies before they attacked), intelligence is no longer the handmaiden to military action, as it was during World War II. In the global war on terror, intelligence drives, shapes and even triggers military action, as we saw in Iraq.  

This is a direct and necessary consequence of September 11. As Bush explained in his 2002 national-security strategy, the United States must move against “emerging threats before they are fully formed.” If America does not, the results could be much worse than 3,000 dead.  

Like Bush, the American people have concluded that it is better to act preemptively than to wait to be evaporated without warning or cause. This doctrine of preemption was tailor-made for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—a country with ties to terror, a skeleton WMD program, and the means and motives to mete out revenge on the United States. As we wade through this postwar postmortem, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Saddam’s regime itself was the threat. His programs, as Kay has noted, were in a kind of stasis or dormancy and could have been re-activated once Washington lost focus. (Recall that according to the UN—not the CIA—10,000 liters of anthrax, 80 tons of mustard gas, thousands of chemical-tipped bombs, and large amounts of sarin and VX nerve agent were never accounted for.)  

The benefits of this doctrine are already evident beyond Iraq: Since Saddam’s fall, Libya has preemptively sworn off WMDs and shipped tons of nuclear weapons materials to the United States; Iran has opened its nuclear facilities to international observers; and Saudi Arabia has suddenly “discovered” al-Qaeda cells and camps inside its borders. But bad intelligence will cripple the preemption doctrine, by eroding Congressional support and inviting more international distrust and doubt. 

A War within a War

President Harry Truman shut down FDR’s OSS after the war. He worried about the rise of what some journalists smeared as “an American Gestapo.” But two years later, he signed the National Security Act and created the CIA to make sense of all the intelligence landing on his desk. “I had information coming at me from 200 different sources and no one to boil it down for me,” he conceded.  

Then, after the surprise invasion of South Korea, Truman formed a special committee to examine the nation’s intelligence gaps. A year later, he created the National Security Agency by executive fiat in part because America’s nascent Intelligence Community needed a central node for monitoring and deciphering information and communication from the Cold War’s many fronts. 

Like Truman, Bush is waging a war within a war. In Truman’s day, it was the Korean War that served as a microcosm for the Cold War. Today, it’s Iraq, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan that represent the various fronts of a global war. Truman’s example should remind Bush that mid-course corrections are sometimes necessary, even if it means giving your critics fodder for political attacks.  

This is especially difficult when the opposition alternately quotes Kay’s report like it’s the Gospel in order to de-legitimize the decision to go to war, but then dismisses Kay’s other findings—such as his view that “it was reasonable to conclude that Iraq posed an imminent threat” or that “a lot of material went to Syria before the war, including some components of Saddam’s WMD program.”  

Even so, Bush could turn a tactical setback into a strategic gain by conceding some points to his political opponents. He could start by quoting Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.): "When lives are at stake and our military is going to be placed in harm's way,” according to Levin, “it is totally unacceptable to have intelligence that is this far off, or to exaggerate or shape intelligence for any purpose by anybody." Everyone should be able to agree on that. For his part, Bush can confidently say that he didn’t exaggerate or shape one scrap of intelligence. He merely reported to the American people what he and Congress were told. 

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and others called for an independent commission to unravel the intelligence tangle. Bush was right to agree. However, it might make sense to let Congress finish its various investigations before punting the problem over to yet another investigative body. After all, the Constitution gives Congress—not a commission of unelected, unaccountable former CIA hands—the power to check and balance the executive branch. 

Besides, when a leader wants to do something, he does it; when he wants to look like he’s doing something, he sets up a commission to study it. That’s why Bush should do more than simply appoint a special committee.  

Here’s where President John F. Kennedy’s example is instructive. Fidel Castro seized power during the Eisenhower administration, which led to the CIA’s poorly executed invasion of Cuba, which was carried out during the Kennedy administration. It was more than a failure for Kennedy’s young presidency—it was a humiliation. Yet JFK didn’t retreat into a cocoon of commissions. Instead, he reminded America and the world that Castro and communism were the problem—not the CIA. He remained doggedly committed to containing communism through covert military action and intelligence activities—in Cuba and elsewhere. In fact, photo reconnaissance and other intelligence proved invaluable in uncovering a Kremlin plan to nuclearize the island a year after the Bay of Pigs.

But what if JFK had just convened a study group, or declared Cuba and Castro off-limits in order to avoid further embarrassment, or concluded that the Cold War was no longer worth waging because of an intelligence debacle? Khrushchev’s missiles might never have been unearthed, the balance of power might have shifted, and the world might be very different today.  

In the same way, Bush should remain tenaciously committed to prosecuting this global war, promising that while the problems didn’t begin on his watch they will be fixed.

Personnel changes are always the easiest to make. Frank Gaffney made a compelling case in National Review Online for Kay to take over as Director of Central Intelligence. Perhaps something like an “intelligence czar” could be grafted into the president’s National Security Council to serve as one last filter between policy and politics. 

Even so, an individual seldom makes the difference with a bureaucracy as big and byzantine as the Intelligence Community. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has observed, “the natural tendencies of big institutions are to keep doing what they’re doing.” Yet Rumsfeld may be on the right track with his proposal to create “a new institution, either within the DoD or elsewhere” that fuses together the Pentagon’s best intelligence and anti-terror assets with the equivalent from other departments. Like the early NSA, perhaps this new sub-agency or supra-agency could become the central node for coordinating intelligence and operations specifically related to the global campaign against terror. Put another way, it could augment the president’s decision-making overseas the way the Department of Homeland Security enhances decision-making and coordinates counter-terrorist activity here at home.

Even with new procedures, new agencies and new personnel, however, intelligence will never be perfect. Because it’s a mix of science, art, gut instinct, and surmise, intelligence sometimes fails.

Just ask the former president of Iraq, whose intelligence assured him that Moscow and Paris would prevent the United States from overthrowing him.