Intelligence 101

Recent controversy about President Bush's inclusion in his 2003 State of the Union (search)  address of a reference to British intelligence findings concerning pre-war Iraqi efforts to buy uranium in Niger has, to date, produced considerably more heat than light.

By and large, it has served only to diminish President Bush and his wartime leadership -- the desired effect for most of those partisan critics who bear principal responsibility for promoting and sustaining the frenzy over what was, actually, an accurate and illuminating item in a damning bill-of-particulars.

The sturm und drang may also have another, arguably even more undesirable -- although presumably unintended -- effect: It could well be reinforcing the hopes of Saddam Hussein (search)  and his loyalists that their strategy of bleeding U.S. forces in Iraq will compound Mr. Bush's domestic political problems, possibly precipitating another disastrous American retreat under fire. The effect might be to restore the ancien regime.

At best, more Iraqis may be induced to believe that they should hedge their bets by resisting our troops, if not in murderous attacks against them.

In light of such potentially ominous costs, it may be too much to hope that there could be any silver-lining from this phony controversy. Yet, if it teaches the American people important lessons about the real nature -- and significant limitations -- of contemporary U.S. intelligence (search), at least some good may come of it.

In particular, the following insights should be a wake-up call for all who appreciate how important it is that the United States prevail in the war on terror:

-- U.S. intelligence is not omniscient. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to closed societies run by totalitarians and highly disciplined terrorist organizations bent on concealing their threatening activities. We almost always know some things about such targets. Other things we can responsibly infer from what we do know.

There are, however, still other things about which we can only make informed guesses. Saddam Hussein and his ilk go to great lengths to make as much as possible matters of conjecture for us, unprovable conclusions on which it is tough to act. As a result, no one should expect absolute certitude or be surprised when it turns out that it is impossible to achieve.

-- While the CIA (search)may find it inconceivable or at least impossible to admit, foreign intelligence services (search) are sometimes better informed than our own. This is particularly so to the extent that they have not indulged in the enormous mistake made by successive U.S. administrations: downgrading the priority given to traditional espionage techniques -- namely, recruiting and running spies and other types of "human" intelligence.

Such techniques are absolutely essential to penetrating secretive cells and covert weapons programs.

--The product of U.S. intelligence sometimes reflects a consensus judgment. In such cases, it usually amounts to a lowest-common-denominator assessment that may not be either very accurate or very informative. More common are analyses that are accompanied by footnotes, dissents and disagreements -- particularly National Intelligence Estimates (search)  that are, by definition, documents meant to reflect the views of the entire intelligence community.

In the case of the State Department's Intelligence and Research (INR) Bureau (search), these minority views are often less a reflection of hard, but divergent, intelligence than of an unwillingness to accept an inconvenient conclusion.

--Foreign intelligence services sometimes refuse or are unable to share with us their sources. Such reluctance is hardly unreasonable, given the propensity of American politicians to compromise the fruits of intelligence for short-term tactical purposes. All too often, this is done without any regard for the fact that it can compromise the methods by which those fruits were obtained -- and precipitate the future loss of such sources.

In addition, foreign governments may have substantive reasons for not wanting to share with us what they know. For example, it has been reported in this case that French intelligence supplied its British counterparts with high-quality information about Iraqi attempts to purchase uranium (search)  from Niger on condition that it not be shared without the former's permission. Since Paris was determined to prevent President Bush from going to war, the French government quite understandably would not have wanted to strengthen the American case for doing so.

--Perhaps most importantly, intelligence analysts are human beings, too. Consequently, although it is considered bad form to mention it, the truth is that they have theories and biases that influence their work -- just as do those in the policy community, whose decisions intelligence is supposed to inform and enhance.

It is the job of intelligence analysts to present the facts as fully and as dispassionately as possible. Most of the time this is done well. Inevitably, however, reaching and presenting intelligence findings requires an inherently subjective selection as to what is most important and instructive out of the universe of information that is available. It is entirely appropriate -- indeed, it is vital -- that policy-makers be free to challenge those subjective judgments and explore where necessary the data not included that might lead to a different conclusion.

This is not a matter of politicizing intelligence -- which usually occurs when policy-makers tell analysts what the right answer is and charge them with producing intelligence documents that support this conclusion.

Such behavior was a chronic and deplorable feature of the Clinton administration, notably with respect to assessments of ballistic missile threats (search)  and Chinese and Russian military, political and strategic developments.

The decision-making process works as it should when those responsible for policy strive to understand the limits, as well as the contents, of intelligence, then make the best judgments they can. It appears that that was the way the Bush Administration reached the conclusion

Saddam Hussein had to be put out of business. And history will judge them right for having acted decisively and effectively on the intelligence available to them.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.