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Commission Offers Scathing Appraisal of US Intelligence


The U.S. intelligence community suffered another blow Thursday as one more investigative commission offered a scathing indictment of the intelligence agencies' performance. The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction found severe shortcomings by U.S. intelligence agencies in tracking the world's most dangerous weapons.

What comes across in the 601-page report of the commission is a picture of an intelligence community resistant to change, slow to adapt to the new threats of the post-Cold War world and lacking in imagination and innovation.

The report says much of the information gathered on Iraq by the intelligence collectors was, as the commission put it, either worthless or misleading. Commission co-chairman Laurence Silberman says that caused the intelligence analysts to make faulty assumptions in their evaluations of Iraqi weapons.

"They had very little collection, very little evidence collected," said Mr. Silberman. "What little evidence they had, they pushed into assumptions, based on the past behavior of Saddam Hussein. And although it was perfectly reasonable for them to speculate, or to assume, what the intelligence community should have done is say, 'we have very little evidence of this, we really don't know.' And that would have been justifiable."

The commission notes successes on tracking weapons of mass destruction, particularly with regard to Libya and Pakistan. The portions of the report on Iran and North Korea remain classified. But the commission says such flaws as demonstrated on Iraq are still far too common among U.S. intelligence agencies.

But, in a VOA telephone interview, former chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay says all the blame for the breakdown on Iraqi intelligence should not be laid solely at the feet of the analysts.

"The real breakdown in Iraq was not so much the analysts, although I think they did not do a very good job," said Mr. Kay. "It was at the upper management levels of the CIA, the director of Central Intelligence and his deputy, who, in fact, imposed the uniformity on what went forward to the policymakers that was not present, if you actually read, or took the trouble of talking to, the analyst."

Steven Aftergood, who analyzes intelligence matters at the Federation of American Scientists, notes the commission report does not examine how administration officials used the intelligence they had in justifying a course of action in Iraq.

"That, for many people, remains an outstanding question. Was the administration led by the nose by U.S. intelligence agencies? Or do they share some responsibility for the way they used and presented U.S. intelligence? That question is not asked or answered by this report," said Mr. Aftergood.

But Mr. Silberman, the commission co-chairman, said that was not in the commission's brief.

"Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policymakers, and all of us agreed that that was not part of our inquiry," Mr. Silberman added.

Many of the recommendations of the WMD commission to reform U.S. intelligence echo those made by other committees and commissions in and outside Congress, including the so-called 9/11 Commission, that have faulted the performance of the intelligence agencies.

At a recent conference, Randy Pherson, a former CIA specialist in alternative analysis, said there is what he called a startling sameness to the recommendations on intelligence reform made by various commissions and committees.

"My unfortunate conclusion is that there are some very fundamental things that we just can't figure out how to get right. And almost every commission has come up with a series of primary recommendations, and it's startling how consistent they are from commission to commission," he noted.

Mr. Aftergood, the intelligence analyst, says repetition of many of the same recommendations is significant.

"The fact that many of their recommendations have been made before and not implemented highlights what may be a systemic problem - namely, that our intelligence agencies are resistant to reform," noted Mr. Aftergood. "They may be simply deaf to any external recommendations, and if they are going to change, they're going to need to be dragged kicking and screaming into making those changes."

President Bush, who commissioned the report, said he accepted its central conclusions, and agreed that the U.S. intelligence community needs "fundamental change."

One key recommendation that has been adopted is creation of the new post of Director of National Intelligence to oversee all intelligence efforts. Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Negroponte has been nominated to the post. But the extent of his authority is still not clear and is expected to evolve over time.

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