The presidential commission investigating the intelligence failure that led this country into war under false pretenses provided an achingly vivid picture of the nation's inadequacies in information gathering. Not only did the intelligence community deliver erroneous information about Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, the commission made it clear that the United States knows very little about the WMD capabilities of nations such as North Korea and Iran.
The report, put together by a bipartisan panel co-chaired by Republican Laurence Silberman, a retired federal judge, and former Sen. Charles Robb, a Democrat, did an admirable job, as far as it went, in analyzing intelligence failures.
But the report is seriously flawed -- by design -- in failing to address the question of whether the Bush administration manipulated the data to justify its near theological obsession to depose Saddam Hussein. Robb and Silberman said they found no evidence that the administration used its influence to force intelligence agencies to actually change their findings. However, the commission's report noted that analysts "worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."
A number of intelligence experts have put it more bluntly. They charged that the administration used only the intelligence that supported its desire to invade Iraq, and willfully ignored countervailing information. Robb and Silberman said the commission was not charged with investigating the roles of policy-makers in the intelligence failure. That may be, but ignoring that aspect makes the report incomplete.
As intelligence experts noted, there is no such thing as a pure intelligence failure. "Intelligence failure is usually linked to policy failure," Ashton Carter wrote in the Washington Post. He is co-director of the Harvard-Stanford Preventive Defense Project and was assistant defense secretary in the Clinton administration.
The report pointed out repeated warnings about the information being provided to the administration by members of the intelligence community, and the disastrous effects those warnings had on their careers. Indeed, those who bolstered White House perceptions and claims later were rewarded with promotions. Those who raised doubts tended to find themselves tucked away in obscurity. Still, the commission stopped short of criticizing an administration that clearly wanted intelligence data that backed up its preconceived notions.
Of particular concern was the administration's reliance on information from a defector in German hands code-named "Curveball." Apparently, some in the intelligence community, including some Germans, sent along several caveats in their reports to American officials regarding the information Curveball provided about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Those caveats were ignored. The commission issued 74 recommendations to overhaul the "disorganized and fragmented" U.S. intelligence community. It called for more centralized management and for clearer authority for the new director of national intelligence.
Because of the cultures of the various agencies and the inevitable turf battles, it will be up to President Bush to make sure these recommendations are treated with the seriousness they deserve. Given the president's role in the intelligence fiasco, there's no small irony in that.