Did we go to war on a false pretense? That’s the political theme of the year, and it’s the most damaging kind of question, because to answer it correctly (i.e., “no”) requires proof of a negative: that our intelligence community didn’t blow it. There is no comfort to be found in the fact that the intelligence agencies of many nations concluded the same thing: that Saddam’s WMD disclosures were perfect nonsense, that Iraq had chemical weapons ready to use, and that it was working hard at getting nuclear weapons. President Bush needs to make his case–that we did not go to war on a false pretense–more forcefully and credibly, because this issue can cost him re-election. But it is hardly the issue that merits the most attention. For while President Bush’s presidency may stand or fall on the political question, the substantive and equally important question is how to improve our intelligence agencies’ performance.
Their critics insist President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair decided to take military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime based on a completely wrong assessment of the threat of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Bush and Blair are trying to deflate the criticism by creating investigative commissions that cannot possibly either find the answers or reduce the political damage. The commissions won’t satisfy either their supporters or their opponents, because they can’t do more than sift through what we already know: that Saddam had some WMD and the capability to produce more. Whether the WMD were–as David Kay said–either a figment of Saddam’s imagination or hidden or smuggled out to Syria is not something that the investigators can even begin to determine.
We may never know precisely what Saddam had and was capable of producing or using because we gave him six months to hide it. That his troops were equipped with anti-exposure suits and doses of antitoxins is quietly forgotten. The president and Secretary Powell seem ready to concede that the threat of Iraqi WMD wasn’t what we thought it was. The most likely reason for the apparent failure–the six months we gave Saddam to move and hide his weapons–is not even being discussed. Tony Blair says that the question of the legitimacy of the war was decided by Lord Hutton’s investigation, which found Blair’s government innocent of having “sexed up” the intelligence to justify the war. But Hutton didn’t assess the intelligence and agree with Blair’s conclusion. Hutton only found that one BBC reporter misused a source’s information to justify a politically-motivated attack on Blair. The question remains.
President Bush has been uncharacteristically lacking in confidence in his answers to the critics. He needs to come out swinging, and soon. Waiting to see if something will be found in the next few months only allows his political stock to fall, and strengthens Senator Kerry’s position that we should have waited and cooperated more with the U.N. President Bush’s policy of preemption against terrorism is the only choice America can make, other than waiting to be struck again and again. If Senator Kerry–or any Democrat–is our next president, that policy will be abandoned, and America’s homeland will be made much less secure. To make preemptive strikes, however, we must have confidence in the intelligence community’s assessments of the threats. Without conceding to his critics, President Bush must move to transform the intelligence community to improve how it operates and what it produces.
Good intelligence is often the difference between victory and defeat in conventional war, but is essential in the unconventional struggle against terrorists and the nations that support them. Without the best intelligence, we will never be able to preempt terrorist strikes on our homeland and our interests abroad. Even if the apparent failure on Iraq hadn’t occurred, it would be long past time to make a top-to-bottom assessment of the intelligence agencies to see how they should be improved.
In an almost unbroken string of failures, the CIA and the others haven’t given us warning of everything from the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran to the 9/11 attacks. Now comes the Iraqi WMD question, and Congress is flailing about, searching for quick fixes to perceived inadequacies. One “fix” would create another agency, an American equivalent of the British MI-5 domestic-intelligence agency to supplant the FBI’s domestic role and take control of the CIA assets that can assist in domestic intelligence. Another would create a “director of national intelligence” outside the CIA to control and coordinate all intelligence assets. Imposing more layers of bureaucracy on intelligence will only create more problems, just as the creation of the Homeland Security Department has. Instead, America needs a new operational concept that makes better use of what we have, and can define what else we need.
Intelligence assets are dispersed among too many parts of the government. Strategic assets–like reconnaissance satellites and computer-based assets for listening to and otherwise intercepting communications–are under the control of the Defense Department, the CIA, and the National Security Agency. Some of these assets are used to support the FBI’s counter-terrorist capabilities, and all are supposedly coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security. Alongside all of them is the State Department’s intelligence function. Tactical assets–people in dangerous places, including both civilian and military–are also supposed to be funneling information into the DHS and the “TTIC”–the Terrorist Threat Integration Center. Supposedly.
The idea is intelligence “fusion,” getting all the information to the right people in one central place, the DHS, and making the combined assessments available to the president and other policymakers. But TTIC is failing because the CIA and the FBI, along with the other agencies, still haven’t gotten the message. DHS is more a dumping ground for information than an effective intelligence agency. It is little more than political cover for the lingering problems in intelligence gathering and analysis.
Instead of trying to create yet another political non-answer to intelligence weaknesses, the president and Congress should repeal the last round of ineffective solutions. DHS shouldn’t be in the intelligence business at all. The intelligence community has strengths that should be built upon, not diluted by injecting other weaknesses. To do that, the agencies need to be joined operationally so that there is a centralized intelligence apparatus that can use all of our assets in a more effective manner. The model that should be followed is the one Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers established at the Pentagon: jointness in force organization and operation. Joint armed forces–under the new force structure–combine the capabilities of each service and overcome the turf battles that have occurred since the army started arguing against the navy having its own ground troops back in about 1775. Though the bureaucrats still drag their feet, the warriors are cooperating better now than they ever have before.
The intelligence community must be made to do the same. Though the CIA’s leadership ability is questionable, it is the only agency that has the institutional framework to combine the intelligence assets in the way the DoD combines everything from special forces to strategic missiles. DHS doesn’t have it, and never can. We all have legitimate qualms about a single intelligence agency operating here as it must abroad–no secret police force has ever corrupted the freedoms that this nation was founded on, and none should be able to. Yet we can provide safeguards against that and still join the intelligence agencies–not just link them–effectively. This will require breaking some treasured rice bowls at the FBI, the DoD, and other agencies to give the CIA the authority it needs to work. It will also require enabling the CIA to operate inside the United States against terrorist threats here.
Combining the NSA’s, the FBI’s, and the State Department’s intelligence functions, and all other intelligence assets, under one roof–and taking DHS out of the intel business except as a recipient of analysis–is the only way to take advantage of and build on the strengths we have to protect the nation from terrorism. Reform of the CIA will be an essential part of the operational concept, because the CIA is not now suited to the task. It is still mired in the Cold War approach to intelligence, and relies far too much on satellite and electronic intelligence to make its assessments. Reforming the CIA to make it function against the current threats–and maintaining its watch on other possible adversaries–will require a thorough housecleaning.
George Tenet is party to most of the cultural problems that affect the intelligence community. Under his stewardship, the CIA has achieved some of its greatest failures. He is not the kind of reformist and visionary who can lead the CIA and the other assets to come under its operational control through consolidation and transformation. He should be replaced with someone able to lead, someone who knows how the theory of joint operations can be applied and managed to capitalize on our strengths and build the others we need. Gen. Dick Myers is one leader who knows how to create and build joint operational capabilities. Tenet should go, and Myers–or someone very much like him–should be tapped as the successor. The sooner the better.
–NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration.