WASHINGTON – A presidential commission investigating weapons of mass destruction is highly critical of U.S. intelligence agencies' performance on Iran, North Korea and Libya and attempts to lay out what went wrong on Iraq, according to individuals familiar with the findings.
None of the 15 agencies is expected to be singled out as doing an exemplary job of collecting or assessing intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (search). The report from the nine-member panel led by Republican Laurence Silberman and Democrat Charles Robb is expected next week.
"I don't get the impression that one [agency] is better than the other," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a member of the commission.
The report comes at a critical time for the CIA (search), the Defense Intelligence Agency (search), the National Security Agency (search) and others charged with collecting, protecting and analyzing secrets.
They all face the prospect of sweeping changes from the intelligence reform bill passed in December, including the appointment of a national intelligence director. President Bush's nominee, John Negroponte (search), has a Senate confirmation hearing next month.
The new director takes over a sprawling bureaucracy, beset by infighting and finger-pointing following the Sept. 11, 2001 (search), terrorist attacks and the botched prewar intelligence on the threat from Iraq. The commission's recommendations will largely fall to him to implement.
Individuals familiar with the report, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the commission devoted significant time to dissecting what went wrong on the Iraq intelligence, including many issues that have been examined by internal government investigations and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The commission, for instance, has reconsidered the issue of aluminum tubes. A National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in October 2002 said that most intelligence agencies believed that Iraq's "aggressive pursuit" of high-strength aluminum tubes provided "compelling evidence" that the Saddam Hussein's regime was reconstituting its uranium enrichment effort and nuclear program.
In its report last summer, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the Energy Department was more accurate in its assessment that Iraq sought the tubes for a conventional rocket program, not a nuclear program.
The Silberman-Robb commission also closely examined U.S. capability to understand the weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, programs of Libya, North Korea and Iran.
Libya has agreed to give up its efforts to develop such weapons of mass destruction and dismantle those it has. Iran and North Korea, however, remain significant hot spots for the United States. Intelligence operatives and analysts are not expected to get glowing marks on their abilities there.
Based on Bush's direction, the commission looked at the merits of creating a new intelligence center devoted to tracking WMD proliferation, as written in the intelligence overhaul law passed in December.
The panel also consulted lawmakers on congressional oversight and considered how the president actually receives intelligence, including his daily briefings.
In contrast to the Sept. 11 commission, the WMD commission's work has been done largely behind closed doors, with only brief press releases about witnesses who appeared provided to the public.
McCain said he's learned much about the intelligence agencies and how they interact now and in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. He said he's gotten an understanding of the value of "human intelligence" — or traditional spying — and that the report was worth the $10 million Congress dedicated to it.
"I think questions had to be answered as to why we were so wrong," McCain said, referring to faulty intelligence on Iraq. "We needed to have recommendations as to how to prevent something like this from ever happening again."
Final drafts of the commission's report are now being circulated among the intelligence agencies for declassification. Historically, they have tried to use that process to keep secret some of the most embarrassing or critical details of investigative findings.
It's unclear how much of this report, which is expected to run hundreds of pages, will be available to the public. Commission spokesman Larry McQuillan said commissioners intend to release as much as possible.