Saturday, December 17, 2005

Powell Blames Intelligence Agencies

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell accused US intelligence agencies of withholding doubts about the veracity of their reports regarding Iraq's possession of WMDs. Powell, one of the few peace advocates in the Administration, had argued the US case for war in a landmark presentation at the UN; a presentation seen at the time to parallel Adlai Stevenson's historic presentation on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Herald Sun: White House 'never told' of WMD doubts). Powell told BBC News 24, "What really upset me more than anything else was that there were people in the intelligence community that had doubts about some of this sourcing, but those doubts never surfaced to us."

At the heart of our preparations for war were certainties regarding Iraq's possession of chemical and biological weapons as well as an extensive nuclear program that had yet to produce a bomb. The evidence was enough to convince Powell that an overwhelming case had been made for war. On more than one occasion he asserted that anyone who saw the evidence available to the administration would have no doubt that war with Iraq was necessary. Given Powell's pacifistic views, it is hard to imagine that he would be part of any hawkish conspiracy to manipulate the evidence to build a case for war. Powell's claims regarding the intelligence community care a significant weight of truth.

What this shows, however, is one of the major failings of the Patriot Act and a major problem with the way intelligence was handled after 9/11. Prior to 9/11, the various intelligence agencies had little to no contact with each other. They did not share information with each other, and the President was able to receive independent reports from each agency. Of course, this separation was viewed as a problem in the post-9/11 review since there was - and still is - a belief that cooperation between the agencies might have prevented those terrorist attacks.

Following the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, the President backed the concept of an "Intelligence Czar", a single focal point of all intelligence gathering efforts and one that would report directly to the President. Unfortunately, what this would do is undermine the ability to present different and opposing views to the President. It is essential that the President receive reports from all sides, not just a single point of view. That apparently did not happen in the pre-war intelligence reporting that was made available to the White House. As a result, reports that some members of the intelligence community doubted some of the sources also never made it to the White House.

What's interesting is that the measures in the Patriot Act forcing cooperation between various intelligence agencies will expire on January 1, 2006. Despite passage in the House, the US Senate has killed efforts to renew the Patriot Act and that cross-agency cooperation will end when this year comes to a close. In my view, that is a good, though unintended, event. Once again, the various agencies will be able to operate independently, untainted by each other's research or viewpoint. When multiple agencies reach the same conclusions independently, there is a much higher chance of accuracy in the interpretation of gathered intelligence. When they are all sharing each other's information, they are also sharing each other's misinterpretations and the quality of our intelligence is lessened.

Would any of this have changed our decision to go to war? Probably not. The Administration believed from the onset that war with Iraq was necessary for the stability of that region and it is likely that we would have sought to remove Hussein from power in 2003 regardless of any WMD intelligence. All it would have changed was the public argument presented both in the UN and in the American press. The outcome would remain unchanged. With or without that evidence, Saddam Hussein would today be a prisoner on trial for his life and Iraq would be emerging as a new democratic force in the Middle East.

As to our intelligence gathering, change is certainly needed. Accuracy of information when determining when to go to war is essential. The credibility of our intelligence agencies must be restored world-wide since that has implications whenever we make an appeal to our allies or enlist their support in containing our enemies. Yet that necessary change must not undermine the ability of the President to hear all sides of the intelligence debate. It is essential that multiple agencies have access to the President, not just one. It is essential that multiple agencies be free to conduct their own intelligence gathering untainted by the efforts of other agencies. It is essential that each agency provide a check and balance against the others. The goal is to improve the quality of our intelligence, not to water down the efforts of all agencies involved in information gathering.


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