The CIA's chief called it a "slam dunk" back in the spring of 2003. But yester day the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed that "slam flunk" is more like it. Worse yet, the intelligence community likely still hasn't learned all the necessary lessons from its massive screw-up on pre-war evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
With the likes of North Korea, Iran and al Qaeda challenging international peace and security, this nation can't afford such a vast intelligence failure again.
The Intelligence Committee's 510-page report (20 percent of it too sensitive to make public) indicted the IC's work on Iraq on a number of accounts. But two fundamental glitches are the most glaring:
Failure No. 1 - Analysis: The intelligence community (IC) failed to challenge its own long-held beliefs about Iraqi WMDs. Further, it drew other conclusions based on sparse or less-than-credible information. For instance, because the IC believed that Saddam Hussein hadn't destroyed all of his WMDs when U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, it assumed that Iraq still had WMDs in 2003.
In the intelligence business, you must continually question the conventional wisdom. The best way to shake things up is to get an outsider with fresh views to do it for you.
One approach is to bring in "red teams" of qualified, outside experts who will vigorously challenge the assumptions of intelligence analysts and shatter the possibility of "group think."
The 1998 congressionally mandated Rumsfeld Commission (Yes, Don Rumsfeld) exemplifies this approach. It correctly debunked the IC's weak analysis of the progress of North Korea's and Iran's ballistic-missile programs.
Failure No. 2 - Operations: The IC fell short on the critical element of human intelligence (HUMINT). Multiple, reliable human sources are essential to a well-balanced intelligence collection effort. Yet it appears the IC had no human intelligence assets on the ground in Iraq after 1998. That's five years of relying on second-hand data from Iraqi dissidents and exiles of questionable reliability.
Instead of developing human assets, the IC depended on the magic of modern technology such as satellite photography and electronic eavesdropping. These marvels add significant value, but HUMINT is often key to getting at the most closely held plans and motivations of potential enemies. The right spy at the right place at the right time could have set it all right.
On the plus side, none of the analysts interviewed by the Senate committee said they felt pressured to reach specific conclusions that supported a particular policy outcome - i.e., going to war with Iraq.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has done us all a great service by identifying the intelligence community's failures on Iraq and the systemic problems that may permeate our intelligence establishment. But this leaves the job only half done.
NOW that we've fixed the blame, we must also fix the problem - and quickly. Unfortunately, with reports from the House Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission still forthcoming, progress is likely to be slow.
Equally troubling, the IC thinks it can fix itself. Acting CIA chief John McLaughlin said recently, "What shortcomings there were - and there were shortcomings - were the result of specific, discrete, problems that we understand and are well on our way to addressing or have already addressed."
Sorry, but we can't just rely on the intelligence community to reform itself, especially when the stakes are so high and time is so short. (Earlier this year, Tenet said reform would take five years. Who's got five years?)
The agent of change must be the White House, aided strongly by well-considered congressional legislation and oversight. An outside commission to monitor progress on intelligence reform wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
Al Qaeda threats hover over this summer's political conventions and the fall elections. Meanwhile, we are learning of new estimates regarding the size of the insurgency in Iraq (now as many 20,000 fighters, up from 5,000). Getting intelligence right is more important to American interests than in any time in recent memory.
The time for reform was yesterday. Without serious, systemic changes to the intelligence community to prevent similar colossal failures, America's security at home and abroad remains at serious risk.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
First appeared in the New York Post