The failure so far to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has sparked controversy over the performance of Western intelligence agencies in the leadup to the war. U.S. officials and Western allies continue to insist the intelligence they got on Iraq was sound, and that the weapons cited as one of the justifications of the war will eventually be found.
In the intelligence process, agencies collect a huge amount of information from a variety of open and covert sources, such as satellite photographs, communications interceptions, and human informants. The information is then sifted through and analyzed for its truthfulness. The finished product, which can then properly be dubbed "intelligence", is then passed on to the president and his aides for his use in determining policy.
That is how it works in theory, anyhow.
In the real world intelligence work is done by several different mammoth, secretive bureaucracies, of which the Central Intelligence Agency is only one, that are in competition for manpower, funds and the favor of the policymakers they serve.
Policy is supposed to be determined on the basis of intelligence. But former CIA analyst David MacMichael says it is often the other way around, and selective intelligence is used to justify an already determined policy.
"The intelligence process, frankly, in my experience is consumer-driven. In other words, policymakers of course want information on which they can act," he said. "But policymakers have a tendency, and I think I'm not being overly cynical in saying this, to have policies in mind which they wish to pursue. And the intelligence they prefer to receive, the information they prefer to receive, is that which supports the course on which they wish to embark."
Intelligence analyses that do not fit that predetermined picture, he says, sometimes get sidelined. And, adds Mr. MacMichael, intelligence agencies can lose favor with policymakers and thus find themselves with smaller budgets and resources.
"What has appeared in this is something that has been going on now for quite a number of years [and that] is the transfer of effective control of the intelligence process to the Pentagon. So there are aspects of, let's say, an institutional turf fight in this as well," he said.
A group of 25 former intelligence officers called "Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity," of which Mr. MacMichael is a member, claims that intelligence was manipulated to justify the war against Iraq.
Another former analyst, Ray McGovern, says that when administration officials did not like the answers they were getting from the CIA, they went elsewhere for ones more to their liking.
"The object was to justify or to persuade Congress in order to enable the president to make a war against Iraq," he said. "So when they didn't get the right answers from the Central Intelligence Agency or even their own Defense Intelligence Agency, much to its credit, I would say, they created their own little CIA in the bowels of the Pentagon and served up that information to the president, which information was shown to be, well, the proof is in the pudding. Where's the weapons of mass destruction?"
Bush administration officials hotly deny the charge. And a senior intelligence official who would not be quoted by name, said the intelligence community stands by the quality of its information on Iraq. He also says Mr. McGovern and the other ex-intelligence professionals cannot know the truth of the matter, since they have been out of the intelligence world for too long.
But Mr. McGovern asserts that the fraternity of the intelligence world has bonds that carry into retirement, and that former colleagues inside the agency keep him and other intelligence veterans informed.
Nevertheless, the failure to uncover Saddam Hussein's reported arsenal of weapons of mass destruction has prompted a review within the intelligence community about quality of the intelligence on Iraq. Intelligence officials describe it as "open-ended," saying there is no deadline by which it will be completed.