U.S. intelligence agencies were criticized for failing to anticipate the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. Now, the country's former chief weapons inspector in Iraq says these same spy services were unable to determine how well -- or how poorly -- Iraq was armed in the weeks preceding last spring's war. RFE/RL spoke with intelligence experts to explore the possible reasons for this failure.
Washington, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle East has replaced the defunct Soviet bloc as the chief security threat to the West, but the U.S. intelligence community has not successfully shifted its sights to contend with it.
This conclusion is supported by David Kay, the former United Nations weapons inspector whom the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sent to Iraq to find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He told Congress this week that -- after an intense search -- he believes there are none.
A week ago (23 January), Kay quit his post as leader of the Iraq Survey Group. Since then, he has given several interviews in which he has said U.S. intelligence agencies were simply wrong when they consistently reported to U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that Hussein had large stockpiles of banned weapons. Kay stressed that the fault lay with the intelligence gathering, not with the way the Bush administration may have interpreted that intelligence. The administration cited the information as a reason to go to war in Iraq.
This week (28 January), Kay urged the U.S. Congress to investigate this intelligence lapse as the only way to get to the bottom of the matter. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I must say, my personal view -- and it is purely personal -- is that in this case, you [senators] will finally determine that it is going to take an outside inquiry, both to do it and to give yourself and the American people confidence that you have done it."
It is not clear whether such an investigation will be mounted. But one thing is clear. If Kay's assessment of Iraq is right -- that U.S. intelligence was simply wrong -- it would represent a sobering conclusion about the spy agencies that helped bring down the Soviet Union.
But Anthony Cordesman says it is not fair to look at spying during the Cold War through the same lens that was used to examine intelligence gathering against Iraq. Cordesman is a former Pentagon and State Department intelligence official who now studies national security issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy-research institute.
Cordesman says gathering intelligence on the Soviet bloc during the Cold War was far different -- and in some ways easier -- than learning the details of Iraq's weapons programs, or the weapons status of any proliferator.
Cordesman believes Iraq's weapons capabilities were much more difficult to discern than those of Iran or Libya. He noted that after Israel destroyed the Osiraq nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, Hussein made his country as impenetrable as possible to spies. "We are not dealing with the same kinds of problems when we talk about proliferating countries," he said. "In the case of Iraq, you were dealing with a power which had had the experience of being under attack by Israel, and losing the Osiraq decades before the  Gulf War. That taught Iraq to hide, to lie and conceal. With each year, it learned more about concealment."
Before the war in Iraq began last March, Cordesman said he himself believed Iraq possessed significant stockpiles of banned weapons. Now, he notes, it is apparent that Iraq destroyed these stockpiles -- in other words, that it complied with UN demands -- while making it seem that it was continuing to amass weapons.
Still, Cordesman says he does not believe the Bush administration and the U.S. intelligence community were entirely deceived about Iraq's weapons. "Certainly, when U.S. policymakers use intelligence to make a case, they tend to spin it, invariably, to support the policy case," he said. "But the reality is -- intelligence can't see through buildings, it can't count on human intelligence to provide sources at the moment this is desirable, there won't be the ideal signals intercept, and a lot of the [weapons] technology is very easy to conceal and becoming [easier] to conceal with time."
Leon Fuerth agrees, but puts a heavier burden on the policymakers than Cordesman does. Fuerth served as national security adviser to Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, during the 1990s. Fuerth told RFE/RL that he does not fully accept Kay's assertion that the intelligence community alone should take the blame for the perception that Iraq had a significant arsenal of banned weapons. He says the responsibility should be accepted at the top -- by policymakers such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he characterizes as "consumers of intelligence."
Fuerth sees the Bush administration using Kay's assessment as a way to shift the blame for the Iraq war onto the intelligence agencies. "I think you will see that as the administration is forced away from its original justification [for war with Iraq], it will increasingly take the position that 'we believed what we said because we believed our intelligence community,'" he said. "As I understand it, a separate intelligence cycle was created in the Department of Defense to draw raw intelligence out of the community and process it and send it up to people who already were committed advocates of going to war with Iraq -- people like Rumsfeld and Cheney."
Fuerth says the Bush administration, having taken the United States to war, cannot escape the responsibility of challenging intelligence and understanding its limitations.
If there is a formal investigation into U.S. intelligence about Iraq, Fuerth said, he expects it will find that having spies operating within target countries is the best way to learn about an enemy, and that a lack of such "human intelligence" ought to be a signal that the information is not necessarily reliable. "One of the lessons that I expect people to be drawing from all of this is that we needed better intelligence on the ground," he said. "Of course, there is a question of how you develop better intelligence on the ground in a system where, if you didn't come from Tikrit [Hussein's hometown], you didn't get very close to anything that was going on. But those problems ought to have made consumers of intelligence wary."