Whatever the final outcome of the confrontation with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, one thing is clear: The United States needs to improve its ability to find these weapons programs -- hidden by rogue states and terrorists around the world -- and to stop them.

In fact, this lesson has been applied with regard to North Korea, where intelligence work helped uncover a troubling uranium enrichment program that could help Pyongyang build nuclear weapons.

But we still lack a clear picture of the threat posed by nations such as Iraq, North Korea and others, as well as by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. And we still lack some of the means needed to reduce these threats. Our intelligence agencies are our most valuable asset in preventing regimes and terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological weapons. We must ask them to do more than they have ever done before.

Four steps are critical to building a better intelligence capability:

* Make counterterrorism and counterproliferation the highest priorities. Before adjourning, Congress provided for a large increase in the intelligence budget. More of the new resources we provide must go to addressing the threats from weapons of mass destruction. America's taking the offensive against terrorism since 9/11 has been the single biggest factor in reducing the terrorist threat. Alongside programs that seek to address root causes, this same vigor needs to be applied to emerging threats from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists and leaders of rogue states. And the effort needs to be institutionalized so the focus can be kept on these threats for decades to come.

* Improve intelligence collection regarding possible users of weapons of mass destruction. The use of such weapons by terrorists is unlikely, but the evidence suggests that we need to work harder to make it even more so. In the past year we have learned more about al Qaeda experimentation with such weapons in Afghanistan, possible support from Pakistani scientists for al Qaeda and also possible aspirations by an al Qaeda sympathizer to build and detonate a radiological "dirty bomb." We must devote more analytical resources to clarifying this picture, including mapping terrorist and proliferation networks and all their financiers, suppliers and weapons procurers; identifying "black" and "gray" markets for illicit materials; and fully understanding possible linkages to states.

* Make intelligence "actionable" -- that is, linked to the ability to move quickly to interdict and prevent: to thwart, for example, Iraq's alleged interest in buying specially designed aluminum tubes that could be useful in enriching uranium for nuclear weapons. Our policymakers need more solid, near-real-time information that can support operations to stop attacks and eliminate threats. And our intelligence and law enforcement officers and their foreign counterparts in the coalition need more training, expertise and capabilities to focus on warning signs that individuals or terrorist groups are seeking weapons of mass destruction.

* Build new offensive capabilities. We need an even stronger operational focus among intelligence agencies on weapons of mass destruction, and better interdiction capabilities -- to stop shipments of weapons materials to rogue states, to stop terrorist buyers from procuring materials or building laboratories, and to disrupt illicit research, development and fielding of weapons technologies. Operations officers must aggressively penetrate networks related to such weapons and interdict and disrupt the flow of materials and technology. This requires new resources and new capabilities.

Our best intelligence analysts have told the American people to be prepared for attacks in the United States and abroad, possibly involving weapons of mass destruction, if we take military action in Iraq. Our brave men and women may ultimately be able to prevent these attacks. But our intelligence agencies ought to guarantee the American people the greatest security possible. We must start now to enhance and build the new capabilities we need to stem the threat from regimes and terrorists with access to weapons of mass destruction.

Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) is chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security. He was elected to the Senate in November. Rep. Jane Harman of California is the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.