In the know

April 03, 2005

AT THE END of the first war with Iraq, in 1991, American intelligence agencies were caught by surprise when it became clear just how close Saddam Hussein was to developing a nuclear weapon. Understandably, they weren't going to make that mistake again, so when the idea took hold that the Iraqi dictator was once more pursuing weapons of mass destruction in the early years of this decade, who would have been so foolish as to downplay the threat?

Virtually the entire intelligence community jumped over the cliff together on that one, and now a commission named by President Bush has helpfully pointed out that they were all "dead wrong." That's not news. It's also not news that spy chiefs are jealous of their turf and resist challenges from any direction. They're human, after all, and error is a human prerogative.

The presidential commission, in fact, points out that U.S. intelligence agencies are no better equipped to deal with hazy or ambiguous information than they were in 2002, and that there are significant gaps in the government's understanding of what is going on today in North Korea and Iran.

One obvious solution is to develop a better class of spy. In the Cold War, the U.S. government had a large body of people with considerable expertise on the Soviet Union. Not so now, in regard to the world of Islamic extremism. A second obvious solution is to encourage free debate and dissent among intelligence leaders, on the theory that false assumptions might not stand up to scrutiny. The commission offers both of these proposals, worked out in significant detail, and they're entirely sensible.

But people are always going to make mistakes. Underlings are always going to tell political leaders - who can rarely be bothered with details - what they think those leaders want to hear. The point to keep in mind is that the decision to go to war, in Iraq or anywhere else, is a political one. It is up to the commander in chief to hold his intelligence organizations to the highest standards possible, and it is up to the commander in chief to use his judgment in weighing their reports. Preventive war looks like an especially bad bet, precisely because it is so dependent on good intelligence. America's spies can do better, but the buck stops at the White House.

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