In four days, the President will deliver his annual State of the Union address before both houses of Congress, his Cabinet, the Ambassadorial Corps, the Supreme Court, and a worldwide television audience.
Almost one year ago, on January 28th, 2003, the President devoted one-third of his State of the Union address to what he described as "a serious and mounting threat to our country" posed by Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. He spoke, in those famous 16 words, about efforts by Iraq to secure enriched uranium from Africa. He talked about aluminum tubes "suitable for nuclear weapons production." He described stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and said, "we know that Iraq, in the late 1990s, had several mobile biological weapons labs."
One week later, on February 5th, Secretary of State Colin Powell, with Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet sitting behind his right shoulder, used charts and photographs to elaborate on the Administration's WMD case. "These are not assertions," Powell said, "these are facts corroborated by many sources." Among Powell's claims were:
Powell has subsequently said that he spent days personally assessing the intelligence. He included only information he felt was fully supported by the analysis. Hence, no mention of enriched uranium from Africa, no claim that al Qaeda was involved in 9-11.
The effect was powerful. Veteran columnist for the Washington Post, Mary McGrory, known for liberal views and Kennedy connections, wrote an op-ed the following day entitled "I Am Persuaded". Members of Congress, like me, believed the intelligence case. We voted for the resolution on Iraq to urge U.N. action and to authorize military force only if diplomacy failed. We felt confident we had made the wise choice.
But as the evidence pours in ...
... we are finding out that Powell and other policymakers were wrong, British intelligence was wrong, and those of us who believed the intelligence were wrong. Indeed, I doubt there would be discussions of David Kay's possible departure if the Iraq Survey Group were on the verge of uncovering large stockpiles of weapons or an advanced nuclear weapons program.
Let me be clear. There were good reasons to support regime change in Iraq -- which was the policy of the Clinton Administration and was supported by an overwhelming vote in Congress in 1998. It is also true that Iraq violated 16 UN resolutions by failing to prove it had dismantled its WMD and continuing efforts to deceive UN inspectors.
But if 9/11 was a failure to connect the dots, it appears that the Intelligence Community, in the case of Iraq's WMD, connected the dots to the wrong conclusions. If our intelligence products had been better, I believe many policymakers, including me, would have had a far clearer picture of the sketchiness of our sources on Iraq's WMD programs, and our lack of certainty about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities.
Let me add that policymakers -- including members of Congress -- have a duty to ask tough questions, to probe the information being presented to them. We also have a duty to portray that information publicly as accurately as we can.
A far clearer picture of the true nature of the intelligence information could have led to more policy options -- more time for diplomacy to work, and more time to build international support for military action, which was likely inevitable given the ruthless, deluded characters of Saddam and his sons.
With more time, there would have been a greater ability to learn the lessons for the post-war from five prior nation-building efforts in the last decade -- more time to prepare a careful strategy and build an effective budget for the real costs of winning the peace.
Finally, if the threat from Iraq was less urgent, we could have continued to focus more heavily on the threat from Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda. Instead, we diverted attention and resources to a war in Iraq in the midst of our hunt for the true villains of September 11.
The October 2002 NIE on Iraq's WMD Programs
The intelligence community communicates its judgments to senior officials in many ways -- in verbal briefings, in short memos, and in longer reports. The cornerstone document on Iraq's WMD before the war was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD published in October 2002. NIEs are the most carefully written, methodically coordinated products of the intelligence agencies.
Having studied the 19 volumes of source materials that went into the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, and having read that NIE carefully, my conclusion is it was a significantly flawed document.
While the Intelligence Community has portrayed that NIE as consistent with judgments throughout the 1990s, in fact, it included at least two important new statements:
These were centerpieces of the NIE and of the case for war and it appears likely that both were wrong.
Recently, I met with the senior analysts who wrote the October 2002 NIE. Describing their mind-set at the time, they believed the decision to go to war had already been made. They wrote as if they were advising the military commanders on the likely status of Iraq's weapons as they prepared for a war. It was a mind-set that, according to the analysts, focused on "making the case" and "making the tough calls." They felt they had to come down on one side or the other -- did Saddam have chemical and biological weapons or didn't he? Would he use them on our troops?
I think the intelligence community misunderstood its audience and its role. Let's remember that this NIE was requested by Congress -- by my colleague Senator Bob Graham, then head of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- in order to inform Members' decisions about the timing and need for military action. It was published a few days before the key vote in the Senate to authorize the use of force. This is a very different audience -- and purpose -- than the military commander preparing to fight.
Almost twelve years ago, departing DCI [CIA Director] Robert Gates, a Rebublican who served in the first Bush Administration, articulated standards to ensure intelligence analysts and managers stayed free from political pressure or personal bias. Gates said it is not the analyst's job to make the tough calls. Their job is to describe as accurately as possible what is known, "make explicit what is not known, and clearly distinguish between fact, inference, and judgment."
Gates insisted that dissenting views receive prominence: "we must not dismiss alternatives or exaggerate our certainty under the guise of making the tough calls'. We are analysts, not umpires, and the game does not depend on our providing a single judgment ..."
In testimony before our Committee last fall, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and CSIS [Center for Strategic & International Studies] President John Hamre underscored another of Gates' warnings: to protect against "groupthink," an institutional mindset that fails to challenge arguments which take on the patina of "truth."
A troubling example of groupthink, as we are coming to learn, was the unquestioned assumption that the failure to prove that Saddam Hussein destroyed weapons of mass destruction after 1991 was proof that they still existed. That tautology infected intelligence reporting around the world, and was the centerpiece of Colin Powell's UN address.
The Intelligence Community in a State of Denial
Four months ago, Republican Committee Chairman Porter Goss and I sent a bipartisan letter to the DCI outlining shortcomings we had identified in pre-war intelligence. Subsequently, questions have also been raised by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which, like our Committee, plans to issue a report. We said that collection had not provided sufficient insights into an admittedly very tough intelligence target. In addition, the departure of the U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998 ended the world community's best window into what Iraq was doing. Analysis failed clearly to present alternative hypotheses or contrary information, such as claims that Iraq had destroyed weapons, or that its WMD programs were hollowed out by deception, corruption and deceit among players in the regime. The Chairman and I have yet to receive a serious substantive response to our letter.
I believe that unanswered questions regarding U.S. intelligence have left the nation in a precarious position and endanger our ability to understand and deal with threats posed over three administrations since the end of the Cold War.
Last month, the Los Angeles Times ran a detailed piece casting doubt on the Intelligence Community's judgments about North Korea's nuclear program. A recent Washington Post piece suggested that China is also skeptical of the assessment that North Korea has a uranium enrichment program in part because of questions regarding the credibility of U.S. intelligence in Iraq. Several days ago, the North Koreans claimed their own statements had been exaggerated. Our intelligence community has been vocal about the North Korea threat: How good are its assessments?
Libya's recent decision to abandon its WMD programs provides the intelligence community with the chance to compare its assessments with the truth on the ground. These should be viewed as opportunities for lessons learned rather than a time to circle the wagons.
Policymakers, too, should be learning lessons from the Iraq and Libya experiences to improve strategies to combat WMD proliferation. Libya seems to have recognized that relinquishing WMD is a surer path to security than possessing WMD. Sanctions and patient diplomacy -- backed by the threat of military force -- appear to have worked. Patience was something notably lacking in the Administration's approach to building a coalition for Iraq.
The Imperative of Intelligence Community Reform
Why does all this matter? I often say it is important to look back in order to look forward. The lessons of our pre-war intelligence on Iraq must inform and shape the intelligence community over coming years.
Leadership. There is no reform as important as ensuring that the right leadership sets the right tone. It is essential to have a work environment that welcomes constructive criticism and opportunities for lessons learned.
Leadership also requires the power and institutional structures necessary to get the job done and be held accountable. We ought to be thinking seriously about reorganizing the intelligence community and creating a Director of National Intelligence, a cabinet position with full statutory and budget authority, to run it.
This idea has long had bipartisan support. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft has recommended it, and the bicameral Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9-11, on which I served, endorsed it. The current structure is a mess. The Director of Central Intelligence only has direct authority over the CIA. The bulk of the community's technical signals and imagery collection efforts are in agencies that report to the Secretary of Defense. The FBI is part of the Justice Department. And Congress recently reorganized 22 agencies into a mammoth Department of Homeland Security that is both an important new customer of intelligence and contains its own intelligence function.
Collaboration. We also need to build stronger collaborative capabilities to take on the new threats. The new Terrorist Threat Integration Center, a joint venture of intelligence agencies to fuse intelligence analysis, and the new Terrorist Screening Center to strengthen watchlisting, are potential bright spots in devising new capabilities.
More traditional targets, such as proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, also require greater collaboration across the intelligence community. Technical experts and regional experts must work hand-in-glove. And we will never effectively penetrate and understand foreign targets without greater emphasis on language skills and a more diverse workforce.
"Virtual reorganization." A DNI may be far off. Meanwhile, several distinguished groups, such as the Markle Foundation Task Force, have identified important steps that could be taken toward a "virtual reorganization," using today's business models and information technology tools. Make it easier for analysts in different agencies to find each other and compare notes in real time. Facilitate the capability to "surge" and create "task forces" by changing personnel policies and providing virtual workspaces. Move from a "need to know" culture to a "need to share" culture. Create career incentives for community assignments. All of these steps could significantly enhance intelligence capabilities.
For another model, we should look at how the Defense Department has been transformed by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 and the "jointness" that it instilled across fiefdoms. Goldwater-Nichols sorted out the Defense Department's capabilities. It assigned the Services to "organize, train, and equip" forces, and assigned the various commands called "CINCs" to run operations. Similarly, the intelligence community might focus the directors of agencies like NSA on organizing, training, and equipping intelligence forces, while stronger community "CINCs" are established to manage joint operations against specific targets.
Laws. Finally, the new missions and new threats require an appropriately strong and effective legal framework to guide them. That framework must recognize, as the Founding Fathers did, that security and liberty are mutually reinforcing. To remain strong, we need both.
The U.S. military is stretched dangerously thin, relationships with key allies seriously strained, and the costs of war and homeland security are contributing to a budget deficit which has broken all previous records. In these circumstances, the Intelligence Community's responsibilities are staggering. There is no margin of error and no room left for surprises in the coming year -- and, if there's one thing we can count on, it's surprises.
The good news is the quality and courage of the professionals in the Intelligence Community who work so tirelessly to keep us safe and to protect our national interests. I've met and thanked hundreds of them all around the world. They put the country ahead of their own safety and comfort, and deserve our gratitude and our respect.
They clearly share our desire for the best intelligence possible. To get it, things must change, starting with the Intelligence Community's acknowledgement of deficiencies in the pre-war intelligence on Iraq.
Quite frankly, this willingness to learn lessons should start at the top. The President should lead the effort to improve his intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. I urge him in his State of the Union address next Tuesday to acknowledge the problems and outline specific steps to fix them.
Chiseled on the main entrance to the CIA are the words "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Freedom depends on accurate, timely, and actionable intelligence. It is the point of the spear in the war on terrorism. We must do better.