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Chasing the wrong targets, and doing it poorly

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US intelligence agencies suffer from a poor analytical process influenced by presumptions and biases, and poor data collection capabilities, according to an unclassified report just out from the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.

The Commission, created by executive order a year ago, is chaired by former federal judge Laurence Silberman and former Virginia governor and US senator Charles Robb. Their report constitutes a depressing assessment of current US intelligence capabilities, in spite of all the money hastily poured into these agencies since the 9/11 atrocities.

The report is focused on the US ability to assess threats posed by nuclear proliferation and chemical and biological weapons programs throughout the world. Using the Iraqi WMD debacle as a starting point, the report observes that intelligence analysts were "wedded to their assumptions about Saddam's intentions."

It adds that the "CIA's and the Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) spies, the National Security Agency's (NSA) eavesdroppers, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's (NGA) imagery experts" had "collected precious little intelligence for the analysts to analyze, and much of what they did collect was either worthless or misleading."

And apparrently, little has changed. Looking ahead, the report acknowledges that "across the board, the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago."

The WMD shell game

While acknowledging that US intel outfits are doing a good job of providing tactical support for the military, they are not on top of developments concerning the world's most dangerous weapons. The implication here is hard to ignore, but the report repeatedly side-steps the issue of whether the war in Iraq is diverting much-needed intel resources from the hunt for real WMDs.

Similarly, there is a soft-pedaling of issues surrounding Pakistani WMD salesman AQ Khan, who has admitted selling nuclear know-how to Iran and North Korea. While there is praise for "the intelligence community's use of new techniques to penetrate the AQ Khan network [which then] allowed the US government to pressure Libya into dismantling those programs," the report goes a bit lighter on the Faustian bargain between the US and Pakistan that has let Khan off the hook and kept him out of the hands of US interrogators.

In places, the report becomes internally inconsistent. It opens with the statement, "after a thorough review, the Commission found no indication that the intelligence community distorted the evidence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction...They were simply wrong."

But later, it acknowledges that "in many instances, we found finished intelligence that was loosely reasoned, ill-supported, and poorly communicated. Perhaps most worrisome, we found too many analytic products that obscured how little the intelligence community actually knew about an issue and how much their conclusions rested on inference and assumptions." (emphasis original)

Everybody's got an opinion

The report's recommendations are basically sensible, and one wonders why the group behind it needed a year of investigating to come up with them. Essentially, more attention should be paid to WMD proliferation (especially since Iraq turned out to be of no importance in that realm); the many intel agencies need to be better integrated; and they need more effective Congressional oversight, and better direction and coordination from an overall administrator with real authority. Additionally, all aspects of raw intelligence gathering, whether human or technological, need to be improved dramatically.

The report differs from the myriad similar reports generated since 9/11 only in the details of its recommendations. Among those most likely to stir controversy are the establishment of a national center devoted exclusively to counter-proliferation, increasing outside oversight, establishing a specific, human intelligence directorate, and expanding the FBI's role in intelligence gathering and analysis.

It all sounds like common sense, but it can also be highly disruptive to a system that's already struggling to come to grips with scores of demands from Congress, the Administration, and numerous oversight and advisory committees and commissions, each with an exhaustive list of reform prescriptions.

Perhaps the first things that need to be coordinated are the guidance and direction that the intelligence establishment is receiving. ®

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