Tiny Agency's Iraq Analysis Is Better Than Big Rivals'

By DOUGLAS JEHL

The New York Times

July 19, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 18 — On Iraq and illicit weapons, the intelligence agency that got it least wrong, it now turns out, was one of the smallest — a State Department bureau with no spies, no satellites and a reputation for contrariness.

Almost alone among intelligence agencies, this one, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or I.N.R., does not report to either the White House or the Pentagon. Its approach is purely analytical, so that it owes no allegiance to particular agents, imagery or intercepts. It shuns the worst-case plans sometimes sought by military commanders.

"They are willing to take on the accepted analysis and take a second, harder look," said Alfred Cumming, a former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee who is now an intelligence and national security specialist at the Congressional Research Service, a branch of the Library of Congress.

With just 165 analysts, the bureau is about one-tenth the size of the Central Intelligence Agency's analytical arm. But its analysts tend to be older (most are in their 40's and 50's), more experienced and more likely to come from academic backgrounds than those at other agencies, and they are more often encouraged to devote their careers to the study of a particular issue or region.

"They have a reputation for having personnel who have skills in one specific area, as opposed to being utility infielders," said Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

That panel's otherwise scathing report on prewar intelligence on Iraq not only spared the Bureau of Intelligence and Research from most of its harsh criticisms, but also explicitly endorsed the dissent it had inserted into the National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, challenging as unsubstantiated the view of other agencies that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.

In addition, where the 2002 assessment included a prediction by other agencies that Iraq could develop a nuclear weapon within a decade, the State Department bureau said pointedly that it was unwilling to "project a timeline for the completion of activities it does not now see happening."

The bureau was apparently still wrong, along with other intelligence agencies, in asserting that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. But Congressional officials say that over all, its recent record on Iraq has been better than that of its larger rivals, including the C.I.A., with more than 1,500 analysts, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, with more than 3,000.

The example of the State Department bureau, Congressional officials say, is being closely studied as the White House and Congress debate what changes may help intelligence agencies avoid additional failures.

Among other recent successes, the bureau's admirers say, was a classified report in 2003 that criticized the Bush administration view that a victory in Iraq would help spread democracy across the Arab world. It also predicted correctly that Turkey might not permit American troops to cross its territory en route to Iraq and dismissed as "highly dubious" a British contention, now discredited, that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Niger.

Not surprisingly, the praise that has been directed at the bureau, including a widely noticed column in May by David Ignatius in The Washington Post, has prompted some backbiting at other intelligence agencies from officials who argue that its successes are being exaggerated.

"Everyone has to get it right once in a while," a senior Defense Department official said with some sarcasm.

"It's not in my interest to trash a fellow member of the intelligence community," another senior intelligence official said of the bureau. "But those who think they get it completely right are not completely familiar with the record."

Not even the State Department bureau's admirers say that it alone represents the answer to the kinds of shortcomings discussed in the Senate report, which criticized as unreasonable and unfounded most of the conclusions reached by intelligence agencies on issues related to Iraq and its illicit weapons.

The bureau, with about 300 people in all, including support staff, is too small to shoulder the kind of analytical burden placed on the C.I.A. and the even larger analytical branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Its bureaucratic distance from spymasters at the C.I.A., the signals-intelligence mavens at the National Security Agency and the satellite gurus at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency means that it has little interaction with those who actually collect information around the world, intelligence officials say.

Any restructuring, the bureau's admirers say, should preserve debate and rivalry among the intelligence agencies' analytical branches, which in addition to the State Department agency and the C.I.A.'s Directorate of Intelligence include most of the Defense Intelligence Agency; an element of the geospatial agency, which interprets satellite imagery; the intelligence office in the Department of Energy; and analytical offices in the military services.

"The analysts at I.N.R. are a curmudgeonlike group who delight in being different and getting to the body of something and not caring what other people think," said Carl W. Ford Jr., a former career C.I.A. official who led the State Department bureau from 2001 until he retired in late 2003.

But still, Mr. Ford added in an interview, "It is important for all of us in the intelligence community to talk about where we went wrong."

In retrospect, Mr. Ford and current State Department officials say, the bureau should have extended its doubts about others' assessments of Iraq's nuclear program to the issue of chemical and biological weapons. They also credit experts at the Department of Energy, who also operate independently of the White House and the Pentagon, for taking the lead in challenging the C.I.A.'s view on a critical question related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

The C.I.A. and other agencies concluded that aluminum tubes shipped to Iraq were intended for use in centrifuges as part of that nuclear program; the Energy Department and the bureau strongly disagreed. But senior State Department officials say they believed that a combination of experience and independence gave their analysts the confidence to challenge the judgments of the C.I.A., the dominant agency within the community.

"We're not flogging the fruits of anybody's collection system," a senior State Department official said. "For us it's information, not looking to advance N.S.A.'s budget or C.I.A.'s saying, `Golly, gee whiz, look what we've got.' "

Altogether, the team of State Department analysts most directly involved in assessing Iraq's political structure, economy, conventional military forces and supposed illicit weapons numbered no more than 10 people, said State Department officials, but many had more than a decade of experience in the subjects on which they were focusing.

Those officials refused to identify the analyst whose dissent on Iraq's nuclear program proved particularly prescient, but said the official had worked on the subject for more than 12 years under a supervisor who had twice as many years of expertise.

As an example of the kind of analyst the State Department bureau embraces, the State Department officials pointed to Thomas Fingar, who was Mr. Ford's principal deputy and is awaiting Senate confirmation to lead the bureau as assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. Mr. Fingar has spent 19 years at the bureau, having been recruited from Stanford University, where he had spent the previous decade as a political scientist.

In recounting where their bureau got it right on the question of Iraq, State Department officials acknowledge that the success was hollow, in large part because Secretary of State Colin L. Powell ultimately sided with the C.I.A. and not with his own intelligence shop.

In February 2003, Mr. Powell spent several days at C.I.A. headquarters reviewing intelligence in preparation for his Feb. 5 speech to the United Nations Security Council, in which he laid out the administration's case for a possible war against Iraq. Mr. Powell did not invite any officials from the bureau to accompany him as part of the review, and his speech endorsed the very view on Iraq's nuclear weapons from which the bureau had dissented so strongly.

"After reviewing all of the intelligence provided by the Intelligence Community," the Senate committee wrote in its report, the panel "believes that the judgment in the National Intelligence Estimate, that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program, was not supported by the intelligence."

"The committee agrees with the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research alternative view that the available intelligence `does not add up to a compelling case for reconstitution.' "