December 19, 2003

When Do You Judge Intelligence?

The 1990s opening of the former Soviet Union's intelligence archives resolved a great deal of Cold War controversy. Yes, Hiss was a spy. Yes, the nuclear freeze movement was heavily penetrated and influenced by the KGB, etc. Between the time these controversies were first raised before the public to the time when they were definitively resolved, years and decades intervened. Countless barrels of ink were spilled on both sides of the argument writing all sorts of insightful truths and rank nonsense.

Today, we have a similar situation with the War on Terror. Where are the WMDs? Can you explain the intelligence failures? One tack to take is the one President Bush used in the recent Diane Sawyer interview "What's the difference?". This is a coping mechanism for the persistent fact that intelligence estimates are often mistaken that identifies hostile intentions as the key to deciding whether or not to act.

The Washington Post gives a thumbs down to this method. They have something of a point but they do not give anything near proper deference to the facts of the present case. As I noted earlier today the case of whether Saddam had WMD is not actually closed. The Kay report that has been issued to Congress is an interim report and no final conclusions have been drawn of whether or not intelligence estimates were, in fact, wrong in any particular.

An intelligence blunder of massive proportions can destroy careers, set an agency back years in the weight their intelligence product is given in the halls of power and can make them too timid in providing anything of value except the most certain of conclusions. In short, it can wreck an agency.

Some agencies should be wrecked. They might be so far gone that the painful process of a wholesale restructuring would lead to an immediate and long lasting net benefit for the country. But shouldn't the guilty verdict be in hand before we start work on the hangman's scaffold?

I've made it clear that I'm all in favor of firings once the evidence is in and checked. Official incompetence and malfeasance cannot be excused when lives are lost. But we should never lose sight of justice and the cost that unjustified accusations can extract both personally, and nationally.

Posted by TMLutas at December 19, 2003 11:43 AM