Criticism is building in the United States and abroad over the kinds of intelligence that were used to make a case for going to war with Iraq. The failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has led to skepticism about the pre-war intelligence citing their existence. Also in question is the connection made between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. A number of former US intelligence officials accuse the Bush Administration of misusing the information it was given, a charge top level officials strongly deny.
Speaking to US troops at their base in Qatar, President Bush said Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are sure to be found. "This was a man who spent decades hiding tools of mass murder," said the president. "You know better than me, he's got a big country in which to hide them."
To date, Americans have searched only a third of some 900 possible weapons' sites. Administration officials concede it may take years to comb them all. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the weapons could have been destroyed before the war or taken out of Iraq. In time, he is confident, we will know.
Increasingly, others are not so sure. Above all, many members of the US intelligence community are forcefully taking issue with the administration. They charge intelligence was misused to justify war with Iraq.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times that intelligence analysts are spitting mad at the way their work was manipulated to exaggerate the Iraqi threat, and they are talking with surprising candor. Their complaints have been picked up by all three major American newsmagazines - Newsweek, Time and US News & World Report - which carry harsh critiques of the use of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.
W. Patrick Lang, former Director of Middle East affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA, says policy on Iraq was allowed to overrule intelligence. "People let their enthusiasm get away from them on evaluating some of the information that was presented to them by emigres especially, and as a result, weight was given to reports of these things that probably should not have been given."
Disappointed with the intelligence he received from both the CIA and the DIA, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld set up a small competitive unit under neo-conservative scholar Abram Shulsky.
Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern says this group produced more acceptable intelligence. "They created their own mini-intelligence establishment in the bowels of the pentagon and ordered up all the raw information and were able to craft evidence indicating that there was some kind of tie between Iraq and al-Qaida and that there were these weapons of mass destruction that we had to destroy before they got us."
An important wall was breached, says Patrick Lang, formerly of DIA. Policy makers always have a tendency to push intelligence providers as far as they can. In that case, he insists, intelligence must hold its ground. "There should be a clear distinction between the people who describe reality; that is, the intelligence people, and the people who seek to create a new reality, which are the policy people. If the intelligence people do not have sufficient independence to render objective judgments, then your decisions are based on things that are in fact wishful thinking, and that has to stop."
Ray McGovern, who provided intelligence briefings to the elder George Bush when he was vice president, says the CIA must not be compromised if policies are to be based on accurate assessments of events. If the CIA cannot maintain its independence, why have it? "The Central Intelligence Agency was set up first and foremost to be apolitical, to be one place in town where the president can go for a straight answer, no polity to defend like the State Department. Once you denigrate the CIA's capability to do that, the strength and power really shift over to whoever fills that vacuum, and in this case it is the pentagon."
Mr. McGovern is a member of a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. It was formed last January, he says, and is growing fast.
Maybe too fast, suggests General William Odum, former Director of the National Security Agency and author of a new book, "Fixing Intelligence." He says some CIA people have delusions about their craft. It remains a product of the variable human mind. "There is no such thing as unbiased intelligence, any more than there is unbiased scholarship. The intelligence community plays a little game by pretending to be neutral and objective and pure and untainted. That has never been the case and never will be the case."
General Odum adds that the CIA is only one of the players in the intelligence game. The president is bombarded with all sorts of information on a daily basis. It goes through various levels of interpretation and sometimes - people being people - misinterpretation. There are, for example, regional specialists. "They are getting this intelligence, and they are the ones who know what it means for a particular region. Where intelligence really makes a big impact on the White House is through all these NSC staffers and the national security adviser because they link it directly to policy issues that are uppermost in the president's mind. They know what they are."
CIA analysis always has its detractors, says General Odum, as does any intelligence operation. Nothing is foolproof. He cites a so-called team B that was set up during the Cold War because of dissatisfaction with CIA estimates of Soviet military power. "There were a number of fights over the last three or four decades where outside processes were brought to bear. Team B - the second-guessing of the CIA in 1976 was a case. The CIA has made some very wrong judgments. Clearly, its assessment of Soviet defense spending in retrospect was far too small, and its assessment of the strength of the Soviet economy was too high."
Bush administration officials heatedly deny that intelligence was misused at any point in the build-up to war with Iraq. Defense Under-Secretary John Bolton says he never asked anybody in the intelligence community to change a single thing, and he is not aware of anyone else who did.
Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith says nobody was ordered or pressured to come up with useful evidence for going to war. On CBS-TV, National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice says there was a preponderance of evidence from many sources indicating Iraq had the super weapons. "The judgment of the intelligence community was that he had weapons of mass destruction, that his programs were active and being reconstituted, that he was going to great lengths to conceal these programs from the international community."
CIA Director George Tenet told US News & World Report: "Our role is to call it like we see it - to tell policy makers what we know, what we don't know, what we think and what we base it on. The integrity of our process was maintained throughout, and any suggestion to the contrary is simply wrong."
But suggestions to the contrary persist, and the debate is likely to continue until weapons of mass destruction are finally found - or are not.