WASHINGTON – The latest intelligence-failure (search) report to land on President Bush's desk raises serious questions about his policy of pre-emptive action against potential foes. How can he order such strikes if he doesn't have solid information?
Findings by the special presidential commission could also complicate American efforts to mend fences with allies who opposed the Iraq war. U.S. officials might have a hard time persuading other nations to accept new American intelligence on the world's next hot spot after being "dead wrong," as the panel put it, on Iraq.
"Obviously the report creates severe doubt about the administration's ability to implement a policy of pre-emption," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank.
"The past failures of our intelligence system have already alienated key allies. Now these findings seem to signal that we can't rely on available intelligence to make such decisions in the future," Thompson said.
The panel, headed by senior federal appeals court Judge Laurence Silberman (search), a Republican, and former Virginia Democratic Sen. Charles Robb (search), called for a broad restructuring in the intelligence community, better sharing of information and a process for encouraging dissenting views.
The panel's 600-page report accused spy agencies of producing "worthless or misleading" intelligence on Iraq's weapons capabilities. And, the panel added, "we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of our most dangerous adversaries." It kept sections dealing with North Korea and Iran classified.
Asked about the possible impact of the findings on the U.S. policy of pre-emption, Robb said: "We did not get into policy matters, period ... and we're not going to go there now."
At a separate briefing, Fran Townsend, Bush's White House-based homeland security adviser, also sidestepped the question. "I'm going to demur here. This is well beyond my remit," she told reporters. "I'm really looking right now at the process of going through the report and analyzing the commission's recommendations."
In many ways, the report emphasized what was already widely known in the intelligence community and by those who oversee it: not enough spies on the ground, a Cold War-vintage bureaucratic system that encourages turf battles, and a pervasive group-think culture.
After all, the CIA and its sister agencies were missing things well before Iraq, well before the days leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Intelligence agencies failed to correctly gauge the downward economic spiral taking place inside the former Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, conditions that contributed significantly to its breakup. And the U.S. intelligence community was caught by surprise when both India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
While the commission said it found no evidence that the White House or the Pentagon put political pressure on intelligence analysts, it also noted it was "hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."
The report makes clear that John Negroponte (search) has his work cut out for him as Bush's choice for the new job of national intelligence director. He is charged with integrating the nation's 15 separate and often feuding intelligence agencies.
Bush welcomed the "unvarnished" Silberman-Robb report and promised "concrete actions."
Still, Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said it is important for the president — and Negroponte — not to "do too much while trying to respond to all these reports, not to try to confuse the appearance of activity with meaningful reform."
And the impact on U.S. relations with its allies?
"The bottom line is that our report, we hope, will provide the basis for a starting point to rebuild the confidence that has been shaken by the inaccurate intelligence that was delivered," said Robb.
Co-chairman Silberman had a slightly different take: "It's true, we put our prestige on the line ... but the truth of the matter is that every intelligence agency that we know of, that cooperates with the United States, in the world, had the same views."