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Intelligence Without Agenda

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Intelligence gathering is more art than science, a craft in which information about potential enemies’ intentions and abilities is nearly always iffy. Analysts looking at the same facts can reach different conclusions. Does Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? Does Cuba have biological weapons? The answers can prompt presidents to send soldiers to fight and die.

Hearings in Washington last week on the proposed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, and the nominee for the country’s first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, illustrate the political struggles that can blur the spies’ work, and the difficulty of controlling battles for influence among intelligence agencies.

The State Department’s former intelligence chief, Carl W. Ford Jr., last week described Bolton as a “bully” who kicked those beneath him on the organizational chart. Still more damning was Ford’s description of Bolton’s treatment of an analyst who felt Bolton’s language about an alleged Cuban biological weapons program was not supported by facts. Bolton, since 2001 the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, reacted by screaming at the man and throwing him out of his office. Bolton has denied charges that he tried to get the analyst fired, saying he merely wanted to have him reassigned because he’d lost confidence in him. That still sounds like attempted punishment for not shaping facts to the desired conclusions.

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Negroponte, who was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. when Iraq’s dangers were debated before the invasion, has his own experience with uncertain intelligence presented as certainty. He saw former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell make the United States’ most persuasive case that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Powell confidently used photographs and eavesdropped conversations to bolster his argument, yet it turned out the weapons were not there.

The latest investigation of the state of U.S. intelligence found no evidence of pressure to shape intelligence on Iraq’s capabilities. Even Bolton aside, the definition of pressure must be changing. CIA analysts had periodically complained in the months prior to war that they were being pressured by superiors to support the thesis ultimately reflected in Powell’s U.N. speech.

Negroponte, a career diplomat whose role as ambassador to Honduras during the Iran-Contra scandal continues to trouble many, was vague about his plans for the intelligence agencies. As some Capitol observers noted, he may be trying not to telegraph his intentions to internal antagonists.

Negroponte’s appointment, depending on his authority and skill, could help quell the agencies’ dogfight for power, money and access. But those efforts would be undercut by Bolton-like behavior, which feeds the impression that politically acceptable intelligence gets access and the rest gets exile.

Negroponte will need strong support from President Bush as he supervises 15 spy agencies, many of them in the Defense Department’s bailiwick. It is Bush, not Negroponte, who can ensure that his Cabinet officials do not demand political tidiness from spies.

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