Last week, a U.S. presidential commission found serious flaws in American intelligence gathering in the run-up to the Iraq war. The commission also found that spies know, in its words, "disturbingly little" about nuclear threats around the world. RFE/RL spoke with three American intelligence specialists about what this means for the immediate future of U.S. nonproliferation efforts.
Washington, 4 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Commission co-Chairman Charles Robb (Democrat-Virginia) said on 31 March that the findings would help put the U.S. intelligence community back on the right track.
"Our report, we hope, will provide the basis for a starting point to rebuild the confidence that has been shaken by the inaccurate intelligence that was delivered with respect to Iraq," Robb said.
The commission's report concluded that U.S. intelligence on Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, was, in its words, "dead wrong."
It said what little evidence the agencies had was interpreted with the assumption that now-deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was still pursuing these weapons.
The commission also found little change in U.S. intelligence capabilities since then. In particular, it highlighted inadequacies in intelligence on potential nuclear weapons in North Korea and, perhaps, in Iran.
Leon Fuerth, White House as national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore during the 1990s, says that the continuing problem with U.S. intelligence -- in particular the known errors in Iraq -- may strip the United States of influence as it works with allies to steer Iran and North Korea away from nuclear weapons.
Fuerth tells RFE/RL it has been his experience that European governments believe all situations, no matter how imminently threatening, can be resolved through negotiations.
But it is conceivable, Fuerth says, that the United States will one day gather evidence suggesting that the situation in Iran or North Korea requires more forceful action. It is also possible, he says, that the United States' allies would disregard such evidence:
"By policy, by politics, by inclination, they [the Europeans] strongly believe that if only we will negotiate, we will resolve these problems," Fuerth says. "They have now got the documented failure of U.S. intelligence as something to use to help buffer themselves [eds. to protect themselves] from any information that we're putting on the table about new problems such as Iran or North Korea. The threshold that we have to pass for credibility, I think, is higher now than it would have been otherwise."
Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, also expects the report's findings to create a credibility issue with U.S. allies -- but on a different level.
Serfaty tells RFE/RL that the problems will arise not in private dealings with other governments, but in the public perceptions of any future U.S. use of force. He offers the case of Iran as a hypothetical example.
"I think that there is lasting damage [in the public sector]," he says. "If the time comes when, in fact, negotiations with Iran are n-o-t working and the Bush administration were to consider some action against Iran, it will be very difficult for the administration to say convincingly, 'Look, they've got WMD, and we've got to pre-empt them.'"
But Serfaty says this weakened credibility is counterbalanced by some U.S. successes, such as the recent elections in Iraq and its support of the Palestinian democratic process.
And, he notes, other governments are aware of just how difficult intelligence gathering can be.
Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the Defense and State departments, says that governments do recognize that intelligence gathering on weapons proliferation is among the hardest jobs for a spy.
Cordesman tells RFE/RL he doubts the report will cause the United States' European allies to snub U.S. intelligence. That, he says, is because they are dependent on many U.S. intelligence assets that they themselves cannot afford.
Cordesman also notes that the report cites one major U.S. ally in Europe -- which was n-o-t named -- that had in its custody an Iraqi allegedly responsible for much of the bad information on Iraq:
"It's not a matter of the United States having made these mistakes alone," he says. "And that was a major European country, one of the principal opponents of the Iraq war, which may tell you a little about the gaps between intelligence and policy in European countries as well as in the United States."
Cordesman says he is n-o-t alarmed by the report's assessment of current intelligence capabilities on countries such as Iran and North Korea.
He says arms control, deterrence, and military planning are n-o-t based on perfect intelligence. Perfect intelligence, he says, has never been possible and never will be -- and America's allies know it only too well.
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