February 2, 2004

February 2, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Spook Clean-up

Politics is the art of shifting blame. And that is exactly what's going on in Washington right now over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program-or the conspicuous absence thereof.

Blame-shifting intensifies in election years. But far more important than fixing the blame: Fixing the problem.

The problem here was the intelligence, not the policy. Saddam Hussein had to go. The world is better place without his regime.

But if former Iraqi Survey Group (ISG) chief David Kay is correct, there was a serious problem with American intelligence on Saddam's WMD.

(It should be noted that Kay's assessment is not conclusive. The ISG should continue its work until we are sure that these weapons do not exist. We don't want to drop our guard prematurely, allowing a hidden cache to fall into the hands of Iraqi insurgents or, worse yet, terrorists. And there's still a possibility that elements of Saddam's WMD program are buried in the vast Iraqi desert or have been spirited across the Syrian border.)

But something must be done about what appears to be a significant, if not spectacular, intelligence failure. Intelligence is our first line of defense, and good intelligence is critical to our national security.

This is no small matter in an age of terror, weapons proliferation and rogue regimes. And the lackluster performance of at least some sectors of the intelligence community (IC) is unacceptable.

One really hates to grouse about the IC because it's filled with hard-working, dedicated patriots who spend their days, nights, weekends and holidays working tirelessly to keep us safe. And one hesitates to indict the entire IC for the shortcomings of a few. But the problems that plagued the Iraqi debacle may be symptomatic of bigger problems within the American intelligence establishment. With American lives in harm's way around the world, this must be addressed.

Accountability. President Bush is known for his loyalty to those who serve him, but he should be outraged by apparent shortcomings in pre-war Iraqi intelligence. Someone must be held accountable. As the president's senior intelligence advisor, that person is George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Tenet was appointed by President Clinton and holds the distinction of being the longest serving DCI since the position was established in 1947.

If the Iraqi intelligence assessments prove to be wrong, Tenet should step down. (This wasn't the only major intelligence failure on his watch - the most notable other one being 9/11.)

Mistakes will be made in the intelligence business. It's both art and science. But accountability is critical to maintaining the integrity, credibility - and morale - of the intelligence community. Letting heads roll is often absolutely appropriate, and necessary, to address failures in leadership, management or judgment.

Review. The White House should support an independent review of pre-war Iraqi intelligence. The IC shouldn't be allowed to police itself, and it may be a bridge too far for Congress to conduct a non-partisan assessment in an election year. The mandate wouldn't be a review of White House policy, but a review of the intelligence process that lead to the policy decisions. To keep it from becoming a political circus, the review could be scheduled to conclude after the national elections in the fall.

The world is too dangerous for us not to figure out what went wrong; glean lessons learned from those mistakes, and take measures to fix it - immediately. The challenges of North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, China, Colombia, weapons proliferation, drugs and terrorism all stand tall before us. We'll need good intelligence to deal with them. Remedial action in the intelligence community is critical to bolstering the American people's, and the world's, trust in American intelligence.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. He served with the CIA, DIA and Naval Intelligence. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in New York Post