"Weapons of Mass Deception"


Failing Grade for Spies

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 1, 2004

George W. Bush and Tony Blair are momentarily in the clear. But their intelligence services are left stuck in deep doo-doo, as a former CIA chief and ex-president named George H.W. Bush might well put it.

Neither outcome is good for the seven Democrats seeking a chance to defeat Bush in November, or for the Tories who hoped finally to break Blair's political mastery on the rocks of an "intelligence hoax" in Iraq. Having to campaign against the ineffectiveness of your nation's spies -- rather than running against your political opponents' vile lies -- is no easy task.

In credible, authoritative and at times painfully exacting testimony before a Senate committee last week, David Kay revived the Washington practice of making a sensational discovery out of a known but obscured truth: Saddam Hussein's police state was a very difficult and dangerous place for the U.S. and British intelligence services to try to uncover secrets, and they were usually unsuccessful in their attempts over two decades.

What was new and most helpful was the clear description by Kay of the non-secrets about Iraq's disintegrating society that the agency apparently also missed. As the United States prepared to invade, the agency did not have human resources inside Iraq able to communicate the existing chaos, corruption and social decomposition that was to explode under the pressure of invasion.
"The glue that holds people together in a relationship that allows cooperation was destroyed by Saddam Hussein, just as the infrastructure was destroyed," said Kay, the former weapons inspector employed by the CIA to head up the search for Iraq's still-missing chemical and biological weapons and military nuclear program.

Kay correctly cast the huge intelligence failure in Iraq in historic terms: This was on a par with the agency's misreading of the strength of the Soviet Union's economy as it stumbled toward collapse. "What had looked like a 10-foot power turned out to be an economy that barely existed. . . . We are particularly bad about understanding societal trends" because intelligence agencies invest in satellites and other technological means and neglect "our human intelligence capability," Kay added bluntly.

Kay's unequivocal denials that agency analysts had given in to political pressure or had the intelligence they supplied falsified or manipulated were echoed in London by Lord Brian Hutton in his report on the Blair government's handling of intelligence. These twin denials put a big dent in the overblown charges from congressional Democrats that Bush (and by implication Blair) perpetrated an "intelligence hoax" on their national legislatures and publics.
The truth in Machiavellian terms is worse: Bush and Blair accepted and actually believed the flawed intelligence that their spy bosses and senior aides provided, and then inflated it in their public speeches. Credulity, not chicanery, would be the plea, your honor.

The CIA's failure on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is only one strand, and a somewhat understandable one. Analysts are rewarded for gravitating toward worst-case scenarios. Predicting what could go right -- that U.S. forces would not need chemical protection suits in the desert, or that Saddam might have been fooled by his scientists, who were stealing money for nonexistent programs, as Kay speculates happened -- is an art that does not flourish in Langley or at the Pentagon.

If yet another investigation of the CIA is needed, it must be broad and not limited to weapons of mass destruction. Why did the agency fail to predict before the war the deadly insurgency that American troops now face? That will lead to examination of the fruitless "decapitation" strategy the agency pursued in Iraq for 15 years, to the detriment of other, more promising approaches.
But trying to conduct such an inquiry in the middle of a war and a presidential campaign is a shaky proposition. It is probably a task best left to an independent commission appointed after the November elections.

The focus for Democrats should be on Bush's competence, not on the sinister but sketchy presentations of his motives that have formed the debate thus far. The most deft Democrat on this issue is Hillary Clinton, who has been forthright in describing Iraq as a justified war that has been subsequently mishandled at the White House and Pentagon.

Making the CIA's performance the big issue is hardly a clean victory or escape for Bush. The doctrine of preemption is badly wounded as a national policy by this intelligence failure. And the president has yet to explain in a convincing way what he believed and when he believed it.

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Milton Frihetsson, 04:21


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