U.S. Spy Efforts Face a New Round of Criticism

Times Staff Writer

U.S. intelligence officials are bracing this week for another harshly worded review of American efforts to spy on terrorist groups and radical regimes armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Officials who have read portions of the still-classified report by a presidential commission said it was sharply critical of U.S. intelligence collection and analysis in Iran and North Korea, and that it cited glaring gaps in core U.S. intelligence about the two regimes’ nuclear programs. Agent networks in both countries have been said to be sorely deficient.

CIA Director Porter J. Goss issued an e-mail message to agency staffers Friday that a U.S. official described as a “heads up” intended to boost morale in the days ahead. Another official, who has been involved in the commission’s work, described the criticism as “very detailed, very blunt.”


The commission is to deliver its report to President Bush on Thursday, and officials said they hoped to release unclassified portions to the public.

The nine-member panel is chaired by Laurence H. Silberman, a Republican and senior circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and former Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).

“This is a highly valuable document,” said Laurence McQuillan, spokesman for the panel. He described it as “literally assessing the quality of 15 federal intelligence agencies to figure out how good their work has been and where it’s lacking” on weapons of mass destruction and related threats from governments or transnational terrorist networks.

A U.S. intelligence official, who has read the report and spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was “almost like a report card. And if you’re looking for A’s, they’re not there.”

But the official sought to discount some of the report’s criticism: “In essence, on Iran and North Korea, does intelligence know all it would like to know? No. That didn’t strike me as terribly surprising.”

The latest challenge to the CIA’s credibility, especially on Iran and North Korea, comes at a sensitive time. Washington is engaged in multilateral negotiations aimed at curbing the nations’ nuclear ambitions, and after the U.S. intelligence fiasco in Iraq, Bush administration claims already are viewed with suspicion in many capitals.

But the commission’s recommendations on how to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities and operations could provide a fresh template for still-murky intelligence restructuring mandated by Congress. The Senate is expected to conduct confirmation hearings next month for John D. Negroponte, who Bush nominated as the first director of national intelligence.

U.S. officials said the panel largely applauded the CIA for its role in persuading Libya’s radical ruler, Moammar Kadafi, to surrender a long-hidden nuclear weapons program, as well as the CIA’s long-delayed success in breaking up a decade-old international nuclear smuggling ring headed by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

The report is critical of the CIA’s role in relying on bogus defectors, unreliable exiles and flawed analysis of intelligence on Iraq in the years before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Bush appointed the commission 14 months ago after the top U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, David Kay, testified at a Senate hearing that prewar U.S. intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs was “almost all wrong.” The White House initially resisted creating another panel on Iraq, but then reversed its position and gave the panel a larger role than expected to help it wrestle with broader issues of intelligence reform.

Unlike the Sept. 11 commission, which was created by Congress, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, as the presidential panel is formally known, has conducted virtually all its work behind closed doors. Members have revealed little about their deliberations, and it’s still unclear how much of the final report will be deemed fit for public release.

The full commission has met 12 times over the last year, a schedule that one official involved with the panel called “somewhat leisurely.” The panel’s 60 staff members interviewed hundreds of officials and reviewed hundreds of thousands of pages of classified documents.

Among those interviewed were current and former intelligence chiefs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her recent predecessors, senior leaders from the National Security Council, congressional oversight committees, the FBI, other intelligence agencies and think tanks.

The panel also met with intelligence officials and members of parliament from Britain and Australia, who conducted similar highly critical reviews of prewar intelligence on Iraq.

One U.S. official who has read the report said it covered material already scoured by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Sept. 11 commission and other government panels that had reviewed U.S. intelligence, especially regarding Iraq, in recent years.

He said the report sharply criticized the CIA for producing a deeply flawed national intelligence estimate on Iraq’s illicit weapons in October 2002, for example, as well as the CIA’s insistence -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that Iraq’s efforts to purchase aluminum tubes from China and elsewhere were proof of an illicit nuclear program.

The report also reviews the case of “Curveball,” a still-unidentified Iraqi defector in Germany whose now-discredited reports about Iraqi mobile germ weapons facilities were cited by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the United Nations Security Council in February 2003.

“The new insights are hard to come by,” the official said. “It’s all been said.”