Failures indicate need for intelligence reform

By now it is clear U.S. intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was deeply flawed. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, outgoing chief weapons inspector David Kay captured the sentiments of many with just four words: “We were all wrong.”

President George W. Bush’s decision to back an independent investigation into the faulty intelligence on Iraq is a welcome, if belated, move. That the inquiry would be expanded to include North Korea, Iran and Libya is a stark reminder of how far U.S. intelligence has fallen in recent years. The Iraq commission and the handful of other intelligence reviews now under way provide a much-needed opportunity for genuine intelligence reform.

Iraq is only the latest in a long line of embarrassments for the CIA. Despite decades of lavish Cold War budgets, the intelligence community largely failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, nuclear weapons developments in Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea have repeatedly caught U.S. intelligence agencies off guard. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, of course, speak for themselves.

Advancing serious intelligence reform measures in an election year will not be easy. Naysayers are right to fret that Bush’s Iraq inquiry might accomplish little beyond delaying politically explosive findings past November. His insistence on controlling the makeup of the commission is even more worrisome.

Protecting these intelligence inquiries from the poisonous atmosphere of partisanship in Washington is well worth the effort. Serious proposals for intelligence reform already abound, many going well beyond the standard admonitions to “think outside the box” and “connect the dots.” A number of observers advocate a renewed emphasis on the human component of intelligence collection – the spies and field agents so abundant during the Cold War. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations just prior to the Iraq war demonstrates the limits of satellite imagery and communications monitoring. Increasing the intelligence budget deserves consideration, too. Quality analysts, interpreters and case workers are worthy funding priorities.

The failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has done incalculable damage to U.S. credibility throughout the world. Restoring that credibility begins with smart intelligence reform.