Along the Tracks

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Tenet-ive evaluation

Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet has given his big speech, and I must say, I largely agree with the argument he lays out in his (and his agency’s) defense. The problem isn’t that they are always wrong or ineffective - in fact, the CIA and other American intelligence units have a generally good record. Rather, the problem is two specific cases where information was too incomplete or inaccurate or non-specific in retrospect to be considered “actionable intelligence,” but “actionable intelligence” was vital: the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq WMDs.

Yes, Tenet has led the way toward more human intelligence assets. Yes, there are some great success stories in the discovery of North Korea’s uranium program and Libya and Iran’s nuke programs, in A.Q. Khan’s profiteering and in several al Qaeda captures. These are important, and may well show the agency is improving.

None of these successes, however, in any way covers the two enormous blots on the agency’s record over the past three years. Were al Qaeda and Iraq tough nuts to crack? Of course - among the toughest, because of their very natures.

You know what? Being CIA director is a tough job. American expectations are monumental, and the quiet, ordered world which grows from CIA success is really your only reward; most people will not appreciate the fact when boys are not dying in some God-forsaken war, it is often thanks to the diligence of the American intelligence community - many of whom may well have died in the effort themselves. Our intelligence analysts, agents and operatives all deserve our gratitude in the same way the military does - yet they rarely get it.

Nevertheless, in two crucial examples, the intelligence community did not meet those high expectations - and America was hurt. Unless some jaw-dropping revelation comes out of the 9/11 commission investigation, it is an unfortunate fact that the CIA was unable to penetrate al Qaeda or gather information capable of being used to stop the attack. (The alternative is that such specific, credible information was available, but went unused - something I would call “jaw-dropping.”) It seems we have greatly improved our efforts to infiltrate al Qaeda since then, and while only time will tell, the absence of a major attack on American soil for two-and-a-half years can certainly be credited in substantial part to the CIA. Still, a black mark is a black mark, and 9/11 certainly counts as one.

The failures concerning Iraq are of a different nature, but potentially just as dangerous. “In the intelligence business, you are almost never completely wrong or completely right,” Tenet said in his speech. Granted. However, there were some very specific citations of Iraqi weapons locations which were completely wrong. These inaccuracies were damaging diplomatically and politically, and may well have forestalled action against a future threat no matter how good the intelligence seems. I credit the agency for its successes with Iran and Libya, but the window the Iraq war opened is almost certainly closing, as world rogues realize that America’s hands are tied for some time no matter what the CIA uncovers. All the bad guys need to do is question our intelligence capabilities.

Even more frightening to many of us is the disposition of Iraq’s weapons. Are they in the Euphrates River? Are they in Syria? Are they in Hamburg, Paris, Montreal and New York City? We don’t know. If those weapons - even a small portion of them - have been acquired by terrorists, and they are used, a second major attack will be directly attributable to an American intelligence failure. Not a “lucky” hit. Not an unseen or unappreciated threat. Not a lack of political resolve. An intelligence failure, pure and simple.

I pray that Tenet and others who think the weapons are still sitting somewhere in Iraq are correct - but even if they are, that does not change the fact that important information we used as part of a justification for war was wrong.

Someone must be held accountable for that.

On the politics of the intel question

Did George W. Bush and Co. “overplay” the hand Tenet and other intelligence services dealt? Maybe they did. I would like some proof of that suggestion, however. I would like evidence that the photos and recordings in Colin Powell’s U.N. presentation last February were used over the objections of Tenet, who just happened to be sitting directly behind the secretary of state. I would like to know whether the CIA-approved information provided to the U.N. inspectors in December 2002 and January 2003 came with caveats suggesting a very wide margin of error. I would like an explanation of the American special forces and CIA paramilitary strategy in Iraq in the days prior to and the opening weeks of the war, which I would assume had securing WMDs as a top priority.

The “independent commission” now being created should be operating on a short - not a lengthy - timetable. This is about U.S. security, not politics, and if the news is bad for George W., so be it. Frankly, I doubt that’s the case. There’s no reason the crucial questions of intelligence sourcing, analysis and, yes, policy making cannot be answered in six months. As I said in an earlier post, we can’t wait to fix the problems, which evidently still exist, until after the next big failure. And the next big failure is always just one well-executed terror plan away.

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