Reviewing the Intelligence on Iraq
Reviewing the Intelligence on Iraq
The New York Times | Editorial
Monday 26 May 2003
With doubts mounting about the accuracy of prewar American intelligence reports about Iraqi unconventional weapons, we are glad to see that the Central Intelligence Agency has begun a review of the spy assessments. The failure so far to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the prime justification for an immediate invasion, or definitive links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda has raised serious questions about the quality of American intelligence and even dark hints that the data may have been manipulated to support a pre-emptive war. These are critical issues that require thorough review not only by the C.I.A. but also by high-level oversight bodies in the administration and Congress.
The C.I.A. review was requested late last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was irritated by conflicting intelligence assessments on Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Rumsfeld urged that if war came, the prewar analyses should be compared with what was actually found on the ground in Iraq when the war ended. That review now takes on added urgency because the credibility of the United States is at issue. If the estimates about Iraq's capabilities ultimately prove far off base, it will be harder for the administration to bring international pressure to bear against North Korea, Iran, Syria and other rogue states based on intelligence assessments that they are building unconventional weapons or aiding terrorists.
Given the scant findings in Iraq so far, it is disturbing to recall how gravely the administration portrayed the dangers of Iraq's unconventional weapons. High officials said Iraq had reconstituted its program to develop nuclear weapons, was continuing to make biological weapons and possessed a large stockpile of chemical agents, some ready to be used against American troops or made available to terrorists. Many experts believe that the search teams will eventually find hidden stocks of unconventional weapons just as they did after the first Persian Gulf war. Yet the only evidence discovered in more than a month of searching is three mobile laboratories that weapons experts believe could only be intended to make biological weapons. Even if that theory holds up under independent analysis, there is no evidence yet that the trailers were ever used for that purpose.
Intelligence estimates about weapons are notoriously difficult to get right. In notable past failures, the C.I.A. misjudged how fast the Russians could make a hydrogen bomb, never spotted the vast size of the Soviet germ warfare program and failed to realize how close Saddam Hussein was to making nuclear weapons before the first gulf war.
Numerous questions need to be explored. Some are narrow issues, like how the administration came to rely on forged documents to make the case that Iraq was trying to import uranium for its presumed nuclear weapons program. Others are broader, like the role played by a new special office in the Pentagon that applied its own interpretations to the information and analyses generated by the traditional intelligence agencies. A critical question is what information was presented to the president in the run-up to war.
The C.I.A. will be reviewing the reports prepared by all the major intelligence agencies. That is a good start, but the C.I.A. should not be the sole judge of its own performance or that of other agencies. President Bush should ask the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of outside experts headed by Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser, to assess the record on Iraq, and the Congressional intelligence committees should conduct their own reviews. When President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell repeatedly assured the world that Iraq's unconventional weapons were a threat to international security, they relied on America's intelligence agencies. The country needs to know if the spy organizations were right or wrong.
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