CIA must explain its failure on WMD

PRESIDENT BUSH has been criticized on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, or chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq. As the tempo of the Democratic primary campaign accelerates, critics of U.S. military intervention in Iraq or of the postwar occupation will seize the WMD issue as a focal point for attacking the president.

Some Bush defenders also are disappointed by the president's reaction to the statement by David Kay, head of the Iraqi Survey Group inspecting for WMD after the Iraq war, that there were no significant quantities of WMD in prewar Iraq. Mr. Kay does not accuse Mr. Bush of misleading the public about the facts of Iraqi weapons. Instead, he blames faulty intelligence for providing both President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush with inaccurate estimates.


Mr. Bush's defenders want to know why, in an election year, he doesn't put some distance between his political fate and the intelligence that justified the invasion of Iraq.

How could the CIA and other organs of U.S. intelligence have gotten it so wrong, for so long?


One theory, held by many liberal critics of Mr. Bush, is that the CIA did not get it wrong. CIA reports are, according to informed sources, laced with caveats about the possible unreliability of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD. The Bush White House, according to these critics, cherry-picked the most pessimistic parts of the intelligence supplied to political leaders in order to support its preordained aim of regime change in Iraq. There is some support for this view in leaks from the intelligence community.

A second theory about why U.S. intelligence was wide of the mark is more popular with conservatives. From this perspective, the CIA's deficient performance on Iraq is the inevitable result of decades of misplaced priorities. The CIA too often sees itself as an apolitical center of analysis instead of an agent of change in a rough and ready world. The CIA should be part of the president's team, not a provider of disinterested and "objective" analysis. The CIA's problem in the Cold War and afterward is, in this view, an insufficient appreciation of the dangers facing U.S. security and a clubby withdrawal into the University of Langley.

Intelligence professionals offer a third view. According to CIA case officers stationed abroad, their ability to recruit spies over the past several decades has been hamstrung by politicized intelligence and political correctness.

Politicized intelligence means intelligence collection and estimation that are tailored to the political requirements and policy proclivities of presidents and their advisers. The Nixon White House, for example, repeatedly pressured the CIA to adjust its analysis and conclusions on issues such as Soviet nuclear missiles, foreign sources for U.S. political dissent and other matters.

Political correctness in intelligence meant, since the congressional investigations of the CIA in the 1970s, that CIA case officers were told to be risk-averse in selecting and running agents. Covert actions were put on the back burner of policy options. Liberals claimed covert actions were prone to failure; lawyers argued that covert actions were tough to defend in congressional hearings or judicial inquiries. And presidents feared possible embarrassment after alleged intelligence "fiascoes."

One of the reasons Mr. Bush does not want to make the CIA a scapegoat for 9/11 or for WMD in Iraq has to do with his view of the problem of politicized intelligence.

The first President Bush served as CIA director under President Gerald R. Ford. The tradition to that point had been that CIA directors did not change jobs with the president's departure from office - signaling that the intelligence chief's position was above politics. But President Jimmy Carter forced a reluctant George H. W. Bush to depart as CIA director in 1976, much to Mr. Bush's chagrin. Mr. Bush fell in love with the CIA and enhanced his appreciation for intelligence, which later served him well as president.

The second President Bush carried CIA Director George J. Tenet forward from the Clinton administration, suggesting that he may have been influenced on this point by his dad's views. And both father and son are correct: the CIA director, as titular head of the intelligence community, should be nonpartisan in appearance and in reality.


But nonpartisan does not mean unaccountable. The CIA needs to explain how Mr. Kay and his earnest searchers found no significant WMD caches in Iraq, despite U.S. insistence that Saddam Hussein was awash in deadly weapons. President Bush's decision to establish an independent commission to review the performance of the entire intelligence community may uncover the mysteries not only of WMD in Iraq but of more general intelligence inadequacies.

Stephen J. Cimbala, distinguished professor of political science at Penn State University, is the author of numerous books on international security and U.S. defense policy.