The Failure


This is a moment of crisis for the Central Intelligence Agency—the second in the half-century since it was established in 1948 primarily to serve the president. Directors of central intelligence are now confirmed by the Senate before they can take office, and they are required to report on their activities in a timely manner to the intelligence committees in Congress, but these gestures of oversight and restraint have not limited the power of presidents to use the CIA as they see fit. In past decades presidents have used the CIA to carry out acts of war against foreign nations, to attempt to assassinate foreign leaders, to raise funds in order to conduct secret wars, and even, in the notorious instance called Watergate, to attempt to quash the FBI’s investigation of a White House–directed burglary team. The current crisis is the result of a White House–directed campaign to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by citing intelligence reports of Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and accelerating programs to build more. But following the fall of Baghdad a CIA team more than a thousand-strong failed to find any WMD stockpiles, and the team’s director, David Kay, concluded after six months of fieldwork that Iraq’s research- and-development programs had been suspended or shut down years earlier.

This apparent failure of American intelligence is the subject of several ongoing investigations and is bound to be a matter of controversy for years to come. The failure is compounded by what Kay’s team actually found—empty warehouses, idle factories and laboratories, as well as clear evidence that the regime in its last years had been corrupt, demoralized, and disintegrating. The CIA, it appears, was not only ignorant of the true state of affairs in Baghdad, where imaginary WMD “programs” were used to extract large sums from an increasingly erratic Saddam Hussein, but the agency’s estimating arm in October 2002 had also expressed “high confidence” in a frightening list of allegedly real and present dangers that simply did not exist. Public controversy and congressional investigators have understandably focused on these twin failures. How could the CIA, with a budget in the many billions and a total staff approaching 20,000, get things so badly wrong? But two separate questions, in my opinion ultimately more important, have for the moment been skirted by observers and investigators alike: Did the CIA’s director, George Tenet, and other high agency officials respond to White House pressure for estimates that would support the administration’s determination to go to war? Did the administration intend from the beginning to use these alarming intelligence reports as a blunt instrument to extract a vote for war in Congress?

The war in Iraq is described as an “entirely irrelevant military adventure” by Richard A. Clarke, a career government official in charge of White House efforts to fight terror under both President Clinton and President Bush. In his new book charging that the Bush administration was slow to grasp the threat posed by Osama bin Laden, Against…

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