A Soft Scold from Goss

This article first appeared on David Corn's web site, davidcorn.com.

After George W. Bush announced he was nominating Representative Porter Goss, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee and a former CIA case officer, to head up the CIA, Democrats and others immediately (and inevitably) raised questions about Bush's selection. Is Goss too political and too close to Bush for this job? (In early June, the Bush campaign used Goss as a surrogate to whack Senator John Kerry on national security.) Goss was also criticized for being more of a cheerleader for the CIA than a watchdog, though he has in the past year criticized the CIA for failing its human intelligence mission and for screwing up intelligence gathering related to Iraq.

But here is perhaps the best reason Goss should not get the job: He failed to recognize or acknowledge that the CIA messed up bigtime in its analysis of the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime.

Last September, Goss and Representative Jane Harman, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, sent a letter to CIA chief George Tenet that excoriated the intelligence community's information-gathering activities regarding Iraq. The committee had reviewed 19 volumes of prewar intelligence and had held several behind-closed-doors hearings. "We believe," Goss and Harman wrote, "there were significant deficiencies with respect to the IC's [intelligence community's] intelligence collection activities concerning Iraq's WMD programs and ties to al-Qa'ida prior to the commencement of hostilities there."

The letter was harsh. It noted that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002 had concluded "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons" and "in the view of most agencies, Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs." But Goss and Harman maintained "these judgments were based on too many uncertainties." The legislators pointed out that there had been "serious shortfalls" in intelligence collection on Iraq after 1998 and that there had been a "lack of specific intelligence on regime plans and intentions, WMD, and Iraq's support to terrorist groups." The intelligence community, they said, had failed to obtain enough information to develop a worthwhile assessment of the Iraq threat. The intelligence available on Iraq's supposed WMDs and its alleged ties to al Qaeda were, the two reported, was "fragmentary and sporadic."

But after reaching those findings, Goss could not bring himself to criticize the production of the intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimate. The Goss-Harman letter stated,

"We have a fundamental disagreement generally on whether the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD programs and the intelligence on Iraq's ties to al-Qa'ida were deficient with regard to the analysis and presentation, especially in the certainty of the IC's judgments. The Ranking Member [Harman] believes it was. The Chairman [Goss] believes it was not."

How could Goss not conclude that the NIE was off in its analysis and its presentation? In the same letter he conceded the NIE's judgments were predicated on "too many uncertainties." For some reason, Goss was comfortable bashing the CIA for insufficient intelligence collection, but he declined to criticize it for cooking up an NIE that overstated the intelligence. Was he trying to protect the White House, which had pointed to the NIE to justify its case for war (even though Bush aides acknowledged Bush never bothered reading the 90-page report)? Was Goss unwilling to indict the entire intelligence community system (which was responsible for the NIE) rather than just an inadequate collection effort?

Goss's reluctance to denounce the flawed NIE looks even more curious in light of the subsequent report produced by the Senate intelligence committee, which is also chaired by a Republican. After conducting its own review of the prewar intelligence, the Senate committee released a report in July that concluded that "most of the major key judgments" in the NIE "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting. A series of failures, particularly in analytic trade craft, led to the mischaracterization of the intelligence."

The Senate report reached a conclusion opposite of Goss':

"The major key judgments in the NIE, particularly that Iraq is 'reconstituting its nuclear program,' 'has chemical and biological weapons,' was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) 'probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents,' and that 'all key aspects-research & development (R&D), production, and weaponization-of Iraq's offensive biological weapons (BW) program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War,' either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting provided to the Committee...."

"The failure of the IC to accurately analyze and describe the intelligence in the NIE was the result of a combination of systemic weaknesses, primarily in analytic trade craft, compounded by a lack of information sharing, poor management, and inadequate intelligence collection. Many of these weaknesses...have not yet been fully addressed, despite having been identified previously by other inquiry panels."

So why did Goss go (relatively) easy on the CIA? He assailed the most obvious failure: its inability to collect information on an important target. But Goss limited his criticism and refused to see that the problem extended far beyond collection to how the intelligence community used – or misused – the scant information it had and how it presented that material within the NIE.

Goss should be questioned about this during his confirmation hearings. Any new CIA chief should be cognizant of all the flaws that have plagued the intelligence community. After all, in recent years, the CIA has committed two of the biggest intelligence screw-ups in U.S. history: It did not detect the 9/11 plot or even pick up on the signs that al Qaeda was interested in using airliners as weapons, and it did not accurately assess Iraq's WMD programs. Unless Goss is willing to acknowledge the complete extent of the problems within the intelligence community – and to be frank about them – he is not suitable to be America's top spy in these dangerous times.

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