Oh, That Politicization

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The commission that investigated U.S. intelligence agencies and what they know -- or mostly, do not know -- about weapons of mass destruction produced a 600-page report Thursday that has something for everyone, and at least one dubious conclusion.

Led by Republican federal Judge Laurence H. Silberman and Democratic former U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb, the review concluded that the intelligence community was “dead wrong” in nearly all its judgments on Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons leading up to the war that started two years ago last month. Yet the panel extended an olive branch of sorts by saying the collectors and analysts of information did a good job in learning about Libya’s attempt to gain nuclear weapons.

As for the dubious conclusion, Robb said the investigators found “absolutely no instance” in which anyone had been pressured to change or shape a position on Iraqi capabilities. Somehow the panel must have missed the intelligence agents who told reporters for The Times on several prewar occasions that they thought their product was being politicized and that they were pushed to provide evidence to support the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq was a threat.


The commission said it was not its job to determine how the administration used the intelligence it was given, just to determine if the facts were politicized. In the end, it turned out Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, which had been the administration’s major selling point for going to war.

Even if the intelligence was not manipulated, there will always be a tendency on the part of individuals (not to mention bureaucracies) to try to divine what outcome bosses want and tailor their facts accordingly, leaving out some inconvenient truths. That’s bad in private industry and deadly in time of war, and the commission doesn’t quite address this behavioral problem.

One valuable panel recommendation, common sense at its best, is for policymakers to sharply question the process used to reach conclusions and spot gaps in evidence. Too often those who present their findings don’t admit the limits of their knowledge.

The report’s biggest beneficiary should be John Negroponte, President Bush’s pick as the first director of national intelligence. The conclusions are sufficiently scathing to help Negroponte assert control over all the intelligence agencies. He has to prove that having one person in charge of 15 agencies, including the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, will help prevent another “Curveball,” the Iraqi defector whom his intelligence handlers called crazy and his friends labeled a congenital liar. Yet the defector’s claims that Saddam Hussein possessed mobile biological weapons laboratories wound up in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s report to the United Nations.

The mountain facing Negroponte is demonstrated by the commission’s conclusion that three years after the Sept. 11 attacks and two years after a war launched on a false premise, the nation’s intelligence agencies still are uncoordinated, resist reform and, when it comes to nuclear weapons, know less than they did five or 10 years ago.