The assertion by the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq that prewar
intelligence on Iraq's weapons was flawed has sparked intense partisan debate.
It has also sent shock waves through U.S. intelligence agencies, which are now
on the firing line for some sharp criticism. New questions being raised about
how U.S. intelligence agencies conduct their business.
At least one, if not several, inquiries are expected to delve into how estimates
of Iraq's weapons capabilities - cited by President Bush and his aides as the
justification for going to war - could have been so wrong.
Post-war searches have failed to find any stockpiles of chemical or biological
weapons. David Kay, who until just recently headed up that search, says Iraq
did not have any such stockpiles at the time the war started.
Talking to VOA by telephone, Mr. Kay - who has called for an independent
inquiry into the intelligence breakdown - says he believes several factors
caused a failure of intelligence. Chief among them, he says, was the inability
to determine when Iraqi officials might have been telling the truth instead
of lying about their weapons programs.
"Well, my gut tells me partly we were snookered by the Iraqis," he said. "They
started lying and cheating, and we didn't notice when the facts had changed
and maybe they were genuinely telling the truth when they got rid of things.
I think their consistent efforts to frustrate the U.N. inspectors misled us
into believing there was something to hide, and we didn't think of alternative
explanations, like bluffing for your own internal reasons or external reasons."
Analysts say that what is peculiar is that the prewar intelligence on Iraq's
programs was consistent, and that information coming from other countries such
as Britain and France was very similar to that collected by U.S. intelligence
bodies. That, Mr. Kay says, seems to discount charges that there was pressure
from Bush administration policymakers to doctor the intelligence.
"I suspect there will be multiple reasons, and none of them the easy reason
- someone simply distorted the intelligence, they were pressured - I don't
think that's the answer," said David Kay. "I think the answer is far more complex
because other countries also came up with similar estimates, and indeed, the
U.N. inspectors themselves when they left in '98 drew a very stark assessment
of Iraq's WMD program. So it was a series of people who made errors, and I
suspect it will turn out to be a series of errors and not a single one. But
we won't know until we conduct the investigation that's required to find out
Still, say intelligence experts, there is an impetus to smother doubts and
erase questions from intelligence estimates. Anthony Cordesman of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies says policymakers abhor ambiguity in
intelligence analyses and intelligence analysts don't like it either because
it might cause their estimates to be ignored.
"The intelligence community has always had a problem in expressing uncertainty," he
said. "Some people feel that it simply leads decision-makers to ignore intelligence.
Many policymakers and, indeed, many professional users of intelligence actively
discourage uncertainty from being provided in intelligence. They insist on
point [exact] estimates when point estimates are not possible. And this has
created a climate very often where you get far more positive statements than
should ever be made."
Mr. Kay says that as intelligence analyses move up the ladder, ambiguities
and footnotes are often cut away.
"What happens is you don't like mushiness, so you tend to tighten them up
and firm them up," he explained. "And if you're not careful - and I think there
is a good argument that in this case they were not careful - you firm them
up beyond what the actual data will support. You become harder, more assertive,
more sure, of what you're estimating than in fact the data really supports.
And that's a disservice."
Whatever the reason for the intelligence breakdown, the questions about the
intelligence community's performance arise at an awkward time politically just
at the beginning of a U.S. election year.