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On the brink of war, and in front of the whole world, the United States government asserted that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, had biological weapons and mobile biological weapon production facilities, and had stockpiled and was producing chemical weapons. All of this was based on the assessments of the U.S. Intelligence Community. And not one bit of it could be confirmed when the war was over.

While the intelligence services of many other nations also thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, in the end it was the United States that put its credibility on the line, making this one of the most public—and most damaging—intelligence failures in recent American history.

This failure was in large part the result of analytical shortcomings; intelligence analysts were too wedded to their assumptions about Saddam’s inten­tions. But it was also a failure on the part of those who collect intelligence— CIA’s and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) spies, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) eavesdroppers, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) imagery experts.[1] In the end, those agencies collected precious little intelligence for the analysts to analyze, and much of what they did collect was either worthless or misleading. Finally, it was a failure to communicate effectively with policymakers; the Intelligence Community didn’t adequately explain just how little good intelligence it had—or how much its assessments were driven by assumptions and inferences rather than concrete evidence.

Was the failure in Iraq typical of the Community’s performance? Or was Iraq, as one senior intelligence official told the Commission, a sort of “perfect storm”—a one-time breakdown caused by a rare confluence of events that conspired to create a bad result? In our view, it was neither.

The failures we found in Iraq are not repeated everywhere. The Intelligence Community played a key role, for example, in getting Libya to renounce weapons of mass destruction and in exposing the long-running A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network. It is engaged in imaginative, successful (and highly classified) operations in many parts of the world. Tactical support to counterterrorism efforts is excellent, and there are signs of a boldness that would have been unimaginable before September 11, 2001.

But neither was Iraq a “perfect storm.” The flaws we found in the Intelligence Community’s Iraq performance are still all too common. Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world’s most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago. As for biological weapons, despite years of Presidential concern, the Intelligence Community has struggled to address this threat.

To be sure, the Intelligence Community is full of talented, dedicated people. But they seem to be working harder and harder just to maintain a status quo that is increasingly irrelevant to the new challenges presented by weapons of mass destruction. Our collection agencies are often unable to gather intelli­gence on the very things we care the most about. Too often, analysts simply accept these gaps; they do little to help collectors identify new opportunities, and they do not always tell decisionmakers just how limited their knowledge really is.

Taken together, these shortcomings reflect the Intelligence Community’s struggle to confront an environment that has changed radically over the past decade. For almost 50 years after the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the Intelligence Community’s resources were overwhelmingly trained on a single threat—the Soviet Union, its nuclear arsenal, its massive conventional forces, and its activities around the world. By comparison, today’s priority intelligence targets are greater in number (there are dozens of entities that could strike a devastating blow against the United States) and are often more diffuse in character (they include not only states but also nebulous transnational terror and proliferation networks). What’s more, some of the weapons that would be most dangerous in the hands of terrorists or rogue nations are difficult to detect. Much of the technology, equipment, and materials necessary to develop biological and chemical weapons, for example, also has legitimate commercial applications. Biological weapons themselves can be built in small-scale facilities that are easy to conceal, and weapons-grade uranium can be effectively shielded from traditional detection techniques. At the same time, advances in technology have made the job of technical intelligence collection exceedingly difficult.   

The demands of this new environment can only be met by broad and deep change in the Intelligence Community. The Intelligence Community we have today is buried beneath an avalanche of demands for “current intelligence”— the pressing need to meet the tactical requirements of the day. Current intelli­gence in support of military and other action is necessary, of course. But we also need an Intelligence Community with strategic capabilities: it must be equipped to develop long-term plans for penetrating today’s difficult targets, and to identify political and social trends shaping the threats that lie over the horizon. We can imagine no threat that demands greater strategic focus from the Intelligence Community than that posed by nuclear, biological, and chem­ical weapons.

The Intelligence Community is also fragmented, loosely managed, and poorly coordinated; the 15 intelligence organizations are a “Community” in name only and rarely act with a unity of purpose. What we need is an Intel­ligence Community that is integrated: the Community’s leadership must be capable of allocating and directing the Community’s resources in a coordi­nated way. The strengths of our distinct collection agencies must be brought to bear together on the most difficult intelligence problems. At the same time we need a Community that preserves diversity of analysis, and that encourages structured debate among agencies and analysts over the inter­pretation of information.       

Perhaps above all, the Intelligence Community is too slow to change the way it does business. It is reluctant to use new human and technical collection methods; it is behind the curve in applying cutting-edge technologies; and it has not adapted its personnel practices and incentives structures to fit the needs of a new job market. What we need is an Intelligence Community that is flexible—able to respond nimbly to an ever-shifting threat environment and to the rapid pace of today’s technological changes.

In short, to succeed in confronting today’s and tomorrow’s threats, the Intelli­gence Community must be transformed—a goal that would be difficult to meet even in the best of all possible worlds. And we do not live in the best of worlds. The CIA and NSA may be sleek and omniscient in the movies, but in real life they and other intelligence agencies are vast government bureaucracies. They are bureaucracies filled with talented people and armed with sophisticated technological tools, but talent and tools do not suspend the iron laws of bureaucratic behavior. Like government bodies everywhere, intelli­gence agencies are prone to develop self-reinforcing, risk averse cultures that take outside advice badly. While laudable steps were taken to improve our intelligence agencies after September 11, 2001, the agencies have done less in response to the failures over Iraq, and we believe that many within those agencies do not accept the conclusion that we reached after our year of study: that the Community needs fundamental change if it is to successfully confront the threats of the 21st century.

We are not the first to say this. Indeed, commission after commission has identified some of the same fundamental failings we see in the Intelligence Community, usually to little effect. The Intelligence Community is a closed world, and many insiders admitted to us that it has an almost perfect record of resisting external recommendations.

But the present moment offers an unprecedented opportunity to overcome this resistance. About halfway through our inquiry, Congress passed the Intelli­gence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which became a sort of a deus ex machina in our deliberations. The act created a Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The DNI’s role could have been a purely coordinating position, with a limited staff and authority to match. Or it could have been something closer to a “Secretary of Intelligence,” with full authority over the principal intelligence agencies and clear responsibility for their actions— which also might well have been consistent with a small bureaucratic super­structure. In the end, the DNI created by the intelligence reform legislation was neither of these things; the office is given broad responsibilities but only ambiguous authorities. While we might have chosen a different solution, we are not writing on a blank slate. So our focus has been in large part on how to make the new intelligence structure work, and in particular on giving the DNI tools (and support staff) to match his large responsibilities.

We are mindful, however, that there is a serious risk in creating too large a bureaucratic structure to serve the DNI: the risk that decisionmaking in the field, which sometimes requires quick action, will be improperly delayed. Balancing these two imperatives—necessary agility of operational execution and thoughtful coordination of intelligence activities—is, in our view, the DNI’s greatest challenge.

In considering organizational issues, we did not delude ourselves that organizational structure alone can solve problems. More than many parts of govern­ment, the culture of the Intelligence Community is formed in the field, where organizational changes at headquarters are felt only lightly. We understand the limits of organizational change, and many of our recommendations go beyond organizational issues and would, if enacted, directly affect the way that intelligence is collected and analyzed. But we regret that we were not able to make such detailed proposals for some of the most important technical collection agencies, such as NSA and NGA. For those agencies, and for the many other issues that we could only touch upon, we must trust that our broader institu­tional recommendations will enable necessary reform. The DNI that we envision will have the budget and management tools to dig deep into the culture of each agency and to force changes where needed.

This Overview—and, in far more detail, the report that follows—offers our conclusions on what needs to be done. We begin by describing the results of our case studies—which include Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and others—and the lessons they teach about the Intelligence Community’s current capabilities and weaknesses. We then offer our recommendations for reform based upon those lessons.

Three final notes before proceeding. First, our main tasks were to find out how the Intelligence Community erred in Iraq and to recommend changes to avoid such errors in the future. This is a task that often lends itself to hubris and to second-guessing, and we have been humbled by the difficult judg­ments that had to be made about Iraq and its weapons programs. We are humbled too by the complexity of the management and technical challenges intelligence professionals face today. We recommend substantial changes, and we believe deeply that such changes are necessary, but we recognize that other reasonable observers could come to a different view on some of these questions.

Second, no matter how much we improve the Intelligence Community, weapons of mass destruction will continue to pose an enormous threat. Intelligence will always be imperfect and, as history persuades us, surprise can never be com­pletely prevented. Moreover, we cannot expect spies, satellites, and analysts to constitute our only defense. As our biological weapons recommendations make abundantly clear, all national capabilities—regulatory, military, and diplo­matic—must be used to combat proliferation.

Finally, we emphasize two points about the scope of this Commission’s char­ter, particularly with respect to the Iraq question. First, we were not asked to determine whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That was the mandate of the Iraq Survey Group; our mission is to investigate the reasons why the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments were so dif­ferent from what the Iraq Survey Group found after the war. Second, we were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assess­ments they received from the Intelligence Community. Accordingly, while we interviewed a host of current and former policymakers during the course of our investigation, the purpose of those interviews was to learn about how the Intelligence Community reached and communicated its judgments about Iraq’s weapons programs—not to review how policymakers subsequently used that information.

[1]While we have attempted to write this report in a way that is accessible to those not acquainted with the world of intelligence, we have included a primer on the U.S. Intelligence Community at Appendix C of this report for readers who are new to the subject.

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Unconventional Threat podcast - Threats Foreign and Domestic: 'In Episode One of Unconventional Threat, we identify and examine a range of threats, both foreign and domestic, that are endangering the integrity of our democracy'