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Editorial

Intelligence Gaps

Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page B06

APRESIDENTIAL commission appointed last year to study the failings of U.S. intelligence on Iraq has returned with many of the same conclusions -- and similarly scathing rhetoric -- as previous official investigations. Intelligence agencies, it said, collected precious little hard data about Iraq and failed to critically examine what they had; in the absence of fresh evidence, analysts stuck to long-standing assumptions that Saddam Hussein must be hiding weapons of mass destruction. The commission also agreed with much of the critique of the Sept. 11 commission: that the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies fail to adequately share information or collaborate, operate poorly on the ground in collecting "human intelligence" and are too resistant to innovation. What's new, and alarming, is the commission's blunt conclusion that the same failings now plague intelligence collection on critical current threats, ranging from the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea to the proliferation of biological weapons. That finding ought to provide an urgent mandate for President Bush and his incoming director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte.

Like its predecessors, the commission report begs the question of whether anyone will be held accountable for what it describes as "one of the most public -- and most damaging -- intelligence failures in recent American history." If the Bush administration and Republican leadership of Congress have their way, there will no such consequences -- just as no senior officials have been held responsible for some of the most damaging violations of human rights in recent U.S. history, committed against detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission, headed by Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former Virginia senator Charles S. Robb, sidestepped the question of how Mr. Bush and his senior aides made use of the faulty intelligence -- though, like previous panels, it reported no evidence that intelligence analysts were pressured into twisting facts or drawing false conclusions.

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The commission did present a compelling tale of malfeasance by senior officials of the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, who hyped allegations from a defector who turned out to be a fraud, exaggerated the reporting Mr. Bush received in his daily intelligence briefing and disregarded skeptics who questioned the reliability of their information. Was former CIA director George J. Tenet honestly, if wrongly, convinced beyond doubt that Mr. Hussein was producing chemical and biological weapons, or was he merely trying to please his first customer, as one sentence of the commission's report obliquely suggests? We may never know: Mr. Tenet deftly retired just before the release of a congressional report on Iraqi intelligence last summer, and Mr. Bush later rewarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What of the commission's proposed reforms? Many of them are aimed at adjusting a fait accompli -- the intelligence reorganization rushed through Congress last fall before the panel had completed its work. The report is ambivalent about parts of that reform but adopts the pragmatic position that if there is to be a director of national intelligence -- Mr. Bush has nominated Mr. Negroponte -- he should be made powerful enough to force through some of the changes the commission believes are needed to improve collection on targets like Iran and North Korea. That appears to be a sensible approach, especially given the grave failings the commission identified in current U.S. knowledge about adversaries who possess or seek nuclear weapons or who may be planning catastrophic attacks on the United States. Mr. Bush has been given a wake-up call: he should respond quickly.


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