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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March 2005, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
US intelligence credibility suffers blow
By Gordon Corera
BBC security correspondent

The Robb-Silberman commission may have been set up in the wake of the intelligence failure over Iraq and its missing weapons of mass destruction, but its conclusions are of more than historic value.

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They throw the debate forward to the question of whether or not the US has the right intelligence capabilities to detect and deal with both current and future threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

And the commission's conclusion is largely in the negative.

As the commission makes clear, US credibility was put on the line over the existence of an Iraqi WMD programme - and as a result of nothing being found, it has been severely undermined.

With the credibility and reliability of intelligence called into question, there are serious consequences as the US tries to fashion new policies and alliances to deal with North Korea and Iran.

The authors of the report were given an enormous amount of access to the US intelligence community - and their conclusions give the CIA and other agencies yet another battering over their record.

The core failings over Iraq were already documented, but their wider importance is also made clear.

More spies needed

Firstly, there was the absence of sufficient "human collection" - in other words, not enough spies were recruited by the CIA.

This led to an over-reliance on information from other sources, whether friendly foreign intelligence agencies -"liaison" - or information provided by defectors, sometimes through foreign services.

The call for more broad and deep change will be met with a shudder from staff already suffering from reform fatigue

Crucially, the absence of new evidence was coupled with a failure to challenge existing assumptions - that because Saddam Hussein had weapons and programmes in the past, he must therefore still have active programmes.

The failure to find any concrete evidence to back up the assumptions was simply put down to Saddam Hussein's effective hiding of the programmes rather than what had actually happened - their destruction after 1991.

The commission found that dissenting views - of which there were some, notably at the state department - were not given sufficient weight in the face of this general consensus.

The report emphasises the need to deal with all these problems with urgency.

Reform fatigue

But the call for even more "broad and deep" change within the US intelligence community will be met with a shudder in some quarters.

Staff there must already be suffering from reform fatigue, following the 9/11 commission report and subsequent creation of a new position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and other sweeping changes.

But these do not go far enough, according to the commission, which says that the new DNI office is given "broad responsibilities, but only ambiguous authorities" - and needs to have the ability to ensure real integration of the agencies' work and real innovation in how they go about collecting and analysing intelligence.

Yongbyon-1 nuclear power plant in North Korea. (archive)
Questions are being raised about the accuracy of present US intelligence
The report warns that the community is reluctant to use new human and technical collection methods and in applying cutting- edge technology.

And it even condemns a deep-seated resistance to reform, warning that the CIA and related agencies "may be sleek and omniscient in the movies, but in real life they and other intelligence agencies are cast government bureaucracies".

It adds that "the intelligence community is a closed world, and many insiders admitted to us that it has an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations".

Current threats

The reason why all of this matters so much lies in the pages of the report that remain classified - those dealing with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes.

The bad news is that we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries
WMD commission's report
The commission makes clear that past problems were not one-offs and that they are structural.

"The bad news is that we still know disturbingly little about the weapons programs and even less about the intentions of many of our most dangerous adversaries," it says.

The twin issues of reliability and credibility of intelligence, which the Iraq failure exposed, have huge importance when dealing with the challenges which look set to top the agenda in the second Bush term of office.

The US has already faced questions from countries in Asia about whether the intelligence about North Korea is really reliable.

And sceptical publics in Europe - although not governments - also question why the claims about Iranian nuclear programmes should be believed, when the claims about Iraqi programmes were so far off the mark.

If the Bush administration cannot overcome these concerns internationally and also domestically, it may find itself increasingly frustrated and isolated as it tries to deal with two cases which have more evidence of illicit activity than was ever the case with Iraq.

Political input

One problem is that, like the Butler review in the UK, the Robb-Silberman commission did not examine the way in which politicians used - or misused - the intelligence in their possession.

The debate over the reliability and credibility over intelligence on WMD is not going to go away - and the consequences of getting it wrong are serious

In both cases, the mandate of inquiry was limited to what happened within intelligence agencies - but, arguably, dealing with the political use of intelligence is another key component in restoring credibility.

Experts and practitioners all caution that intelligence is inherently fragmentary, incomplete and difficult.

The commission says that in the future, this needs to be made clearer to politicians and policymakers.

But the question will still remain about whether politicians make the caveats and qualifications sufficiently clear when they communicate intelligence either to the public or to allies.

A few hours before the commission released its lengthy report in Washington, a dissident Iranian opposition group was holding a meeting in Paris to unveil its latest allegations about the Iranian nuclear programme, including a claim that Tehran was planning to produce 10kg of plutonium for a nuclear weapon by 2007.

The National Council for Resistance in Iran is the political wing of a designated terrorist organisation.

Yet its intelligence on the Iranian nuclear programme has in the past proved correct in some key areas - and its stream of accusations raises the question about whether the US has the ability to independently determine their veracity.

The timing was pure coincidence, but it serves as a reminder that debate over the reliability and credibility over intelligence on WMD is not going to go away - and the consequences of getting it wrong are serious.

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