Guessing on the future

February 06, 2004

GEORGE J. TENET, the CIA chief, defended his agency's analysts and their reports on Iraq's weapon programs with a forceful and unapologetic speech at Georgetown University yesterday, a speech that was built around a central assertion: "They never said there was an imminent threat."

That caught plenty of people's attention. How can that be? Wasn't that the whole point?

In fact -- disturbingly -- it wasn't. Let's examine this idea, because of the truths that it reveals.

In the fall of 2002, the CIA produced an alarmist assessment of Iraq's likely stores of chemical and biological weapons, its prospects for producing more, and its efforts to construct a nuclear weapons program. Knowledgeable critics believe the agency had come under pressure from the White House to tailor its findings; Mr. Tenet denied that yesterday. He defended his agency -- but he also defended the Bush White House, at a moment when the CIA and the administration might have started pointing fingers at each other over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And then Mr. Tenet went a step further -- by aligning himself with the White House contention that the war in Iraq was not about an imminent threat.

Forget what you thought you heard last year. The administration may have had plenty of allies and outliers -- including Richard Perle and the British government -- who beat the drums over the notion that Baghdad was ready to do something horrible at any moment. But however useful that may have been in whipping up support for the war, it was not the White House line, if you listened carefully.

President Bush said a year ago, in the State of the Union address, that it was not his job to wait until a threat had become imminent, but to stop it before that could happen. That's what his doctrine of pre-emptive war is all about. A better name for it, actually, would be preventive war: The United States will attack countries that might develop the capacity and intent to threaten the United States.

So what's wrong with that? Just this: Intentions and capabilities are easy to figure out in hindsight. Looking into the future is not so easy. The problem with a doctrine of preventive war is that it is entirely dependent on nearly perfect intelligence. And there's no such thing, as Mr. Tenet himself pointed out yesterday.

A case could be made that the CIA's assessment was not so unreasonable, given Iraq's recent history. An intelligence report, in the end, has to be based on informed estimates, extrapolations and subjective accounts. It's a best guess. In this case, apparently, it was some ways off the mark. That happens with intelligence, which deals of course with information that the target country doesn't want known. This is the crux of the problem: How can the United States decide on war if all it has to go on is intelligence that to a lesser or greater degree is inevitably going to be inaccurate?

And the more prospective that intelligence is, the more inaccurate it's likely to be. An imminent threat can be discerned, but this was not about imminent threats. Maybe Mr. Tenet should have been a little clearer on that point a year ago.

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