The assertion by the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq that prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons was flawed has sparked intense partisan debate. It has also sent shock waves through U.S. intelligence agencies, which are now on the firing line for some sharp criticism. New questions being raised about how U.S. intelligence agencies conduct their business.
At least one, if not several, inquiries are expected to delve into how estimates of Iraq's weapons capabilities - cited by President Bush and his aides as the justification for going to war - could have been so wrong.
Post-war searches have failed to find any stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons. David Kay, who until just recently headed up that search, says Iraq did not have any such stockpiles at the time the war started.
Talking to VOA by telephone, Mr. Kay - who has called for an independent inquiry into the intelligence breakdown - says he believes several factors caused a failure of intelligence. Chief among them, he says, was the inability to determine when Iraqi officials might have been telling the truth instead of lying about their weapons programs.
"Well, my gut tells me partly we were snookered by the Iraqis," he said. "They started lying and cheating, and we didn't notice when the facts had changed and maybe they were genuinely telling the truth when they got rid of things. I think their consistent efforts to frustrate the U.N. inspectors misled us into believing there was something to hide, and we didn't think of alternative explanations, like bluffing for your own internal reasons or external reasons."
Analysts say that what is peculiar is that the prewar intelligence on Iraq's programs was consistent, and that information coming from other countries such as Britain and France was very similar to that collected by U.S. intelligence bodies. That, Mr. Kay says, seems to discount charges that there was pressure from Bush administration policymakers to doctor the intelligence.
"I suspect there will be multiple reasons, and none of them the easy reason - someone simply distorted the intelligence, they were pressured - I don't think that's the answer," said David Kay. "I think the answer is far more complex because other countries also came up with similar estimates, and indeed, the U.N. inspectors themselves when they left in '98 drew a very stark assessment of Iraq's WMD program. So it was a series of people who made errors, and I suspect it will turn out to be a series of errors and not a single one. But we won't know until we conduct the investigation that's required to find out that answer."
Still, say intelligence experts, there is an impetus to smother doubts and erase questions from intelligence estimates. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says policymakers abhor ambiguity in intelligence analyses and intelligence analysts don't like it either because it might cause their estimates to be ignored.
"The intelligence community has always had a problem in expressing uncertainty," he said. "Some people feel that it simply leads decision-makers to ignore intelligence. Many policymakers and, indeed, many professional users of intelligence actively discourage uncertainty from being provided in intelligence. They insist on point [exact] estimates when point estimates are not possible. And this has created a climate very often where you get far more positive statements than should ever be made."
Mr. Kay says that as intelligence analyses move up the ladder, ambiguities and footnotes are often cut away.
"What happens is you don't like mushiness, so you tend to tighten them up and firm them up," he explained. "And if you're not careful - and I think there is a good argument that in this case they were not careful - you firm them up beyond what the actual data will support. You become harder, more assertive, more sure, of what you're estimating than in fact the data really supports. And that's a disservice."
Whatever the reason for the intelligence breakdown, the questions about the intelligence community's performance arise at an awkward time politically just at the beginning of a U.S. election year.