The Intelligence Mess

Editorial

The Washington Post

Saturday, July 10, 2004; Page A18

THE SENATE intelligence committee has added considerable authority and detail to the judgment that the U.S. intelligence community's estimates about Iraq were badly wrong, both in their conclusions and in the way they were prepared. The 511-page report issued by the committee yesterday with the unanimous support of its members supports with scalding rhetoric and devastating detail what previous investigations have shown: that the United States lacked reliable reporting about one of its most dangerous enemies, that the handling and interpretation of the data by its intelligence professionals was shockingly incompetent, and that the CIA and other agencies badly served the policymakers who relied on them in making the fateful decision to go to war. The report offers yet another reminder about the weakness of U.S. intelligence agencies -- one that the Bush administration and Congress should be answering more urgently.

Sadly, the electoral season and the partisan politics that come with it are slowing the process. Key parts of ongoing investigations have been scheduled for after November, including a report by an independent panel appointed by President Bush and the intelligence committee's own examination of how the intelligence on Iraq was used by the administration. We think the broad answer to that last question is already pretty clear: Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney and other senior officials sometimes exaggerated the flawed intelligence they were given, even if they were correct in identifying Iraq as a threat.

Still, the intelligence committee's report unambiguously states that it "found no evidence" that the bad reporting on Iraq's weapons "was the result of political pressure." Yesterday several Democrats who signed off on this finding argued the opposite at news conferences. The evidence they cited mostly concerned the subject of Iraq's connection to terrorism. Yet in that case, as the report also concluded, the CIA mostly got it right: It said there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda, but not a formal relationship.

The most grievous intelligence errors, as the report makes clear, concerned the judgments about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs -- and the roots of these failures pre-date the Bush administration. Like other investigations before it, the Senate probe found that the CIA failed to develop agents in Iraq -- it had none after 1998 -- and neglected to distinguish fact from conjecture. The agency layered new conclusions about Iraq's weapons programs on top of old ones on the basis of small and sometimes questionable scraps of evidence, withheld key information from other agencies and its own analysts, and relied too heavily on foreign governments and Iraqi exiles. It failed to reexamine or second-guess its conclusions, in contravention of its own doctrine. Much of the responsibility, the report implicitly suggests, lies with the leadership of longtime director George J. Tenet; little wonder that Mr. Tenet chose to leave the agency before the report's release.

The director's well-timed resignation won't end the debate over responsibility for the Iraq intelligence failure, nor should it. But it ought to create an opportunity for the administration and Congress to undertake reforms that address its causes. The agency says it has already made changes in response to Iraq and to the failure to foresee the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But its response remains defensive and inadequate -- and a broader rethinking of the intelligence community may be necessary to tackle the problems the report describes in the CIA's relationship with other agencies. Mr. Bush is weighing the appointment of a new CIA director; he should look for someone capable of revitalizing the agency and forging a bipartisan consensus on its structure and priorities. Yes, an election is coming; but we are still at war, and better intelligence cannot wait.