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The New York Times May 11, 2003

Blind Spots; The Impossible Task for America's Spies


IN a secret report of Sept. 20, 1949, the Central Intelligence Agency gave its best estimate of when Moscow would have the atom bomb, ending the American monopoly. The most likely date, the recently declassified report said, was mid-1953.

Three days later, President Harry S. Truman announced to the world that the Soviets had detonated an atom bomb. The mushroom cloud rose on Aug. 29 -- three weeks before the C.I.A. completed its secret report.

Uncovering weapons of mass destruction has always been a tough job. The science is complex, the languages tricky, the secrecy intense and the clues often too few and partial to warrant firm conclusions. Reports, based on inference and deduction, tend to be rich in caveats and qualifiers. In the gap between what is known and what is suspected, error and bias can creep in, sowing the seeds of failure.

Now, the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emption has given this iffy, imprecise art grave new responsibilities. It presumes that American intelligence can ferret out the most secret of foreign science with near infallibility, doing so not only to inform policy makers but potentially to build a case for war. In effect, it posits a crystal ball.

Two decades ago, said Robert M. Gates, director of central intelligence under the elder President Bush, the government went from simply describing terrorism to gathering detailed evidence for defensive action.

Now, Dr. Gates said, "It's not enough to say Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

"You need information specific enough to give policy makers options for acting against those programs," he added. "It's a very big challenge."

On Iraq, it is unclear if the challenge was met. The White House cited unconventional arms as the main reason for the invasion. President Bush, in his State of the Union address, described a threat of up to 30,000 warheads, 500 tons of chemical weapons, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin and a secret push for nuclear weapons. But during the war, Iraq fired no weapons of mass destruction, nor have any yet come to light since.

Administration officials say that such arms, or strong evidence of them, will be found, but skeptics say that signs are multiplying of intelligence failings or worse.

W. Patrick Lang, a former director of Middle East analyses at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Pentagon officials "started picking out things that supported their thesis and stringing them into arguments that they could use with the president."

"It's not intel," he said. "It's political propaganda."

For decades, and despite some early mistakes, spy agencies prided themselves on their ability to track the bomb. Nuclear arms require mines, factories and reactors -- all, in theory, detectable by the nation's armies of agents and spy satellites.

By contrast, turning germs and chemicals into deadly weapons is much easier, requiring smaller, more readily hidden gear. During the cold war, the C.I.A. missed the vast size of the Soviet Union's germ warfare efforts, which involved factories and research centers that employed more than 60,000 people.

After the Soviet Union's demise, the American intelligence capabilities declined. The brightest American college graduates spurned intelligence jobs for the private sector, which for the first time began outspending the government on scientific research and analysis. Budget cuts hit whole divisions that had specialized in intelligence on atomic and other exotic arms.

"Reductions started everywhere," recalled Harry E. Soyster, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In 1991, the C.I.A. missed how close Saddam Hussein came to making an atom bomb, as inspectors after the gulf war discovered. In 1998, American intelligence analysts were surprised when India and Pakistan exploded nuclear arms. In a contrasting error, in 1999, a cave complex in North Korea that the D.I.A. suspected of harboring a nuclear reactor and a reprocessing plant turned out to be empty.

Today, the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emption increases the need for intelligence on nuclear and other unconventional arms.

The doctrine, spelled out in the administration's National Security Strategy, published last September, noted that, under international law, the legitimacy of a pre-emptive action by one state against another is often based on the existence of an imminent threat. In the past that threat has most often been a visible mobilization of armed forces. But the report said that in an age of international terrorism, the idea of imminent threat had to be extended to a shadowy world of clandestine laboratories and factories making arms of terrible power.

"The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction -- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves," the doctrine asserted. It added, almost as an afterthought, that the United States would now have to produce "better, more integrated intelligence" to find hidden threats and act against them.

Thomas Powers, author of "Intelligence Wars" (2002, New York Review of Books), said the doctrine has pushed the fragile art too hard, increasing the risk of ethical breakdowns.

"I can't think of a time when there's been greater pressure to deliver evidence to order," he said. "They have to be not just one jump ahead, but two jumps -- before someone actually threatens you."

On Iraq, the jury is still out. Critics of the Bush administration have pointed to evidence that they say shows that it practiced selective intelligence, hiding evidence contrary to the conclusions it wanted to reach..

In this case, the administration claimed that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger for atom bombs, claims that were based on forged documents. The new twist is that the administration investigated the documents more than a year ago and was told they were bogus. For example, a Niger minister whose signature was on one document had been out of office for more than a decade.

"We went to war predicated on a serious manipulation of intelligence," said a person close to the administration's Niger investigation.

In last week's New Yorker magazine, Seymour M. Hersh argued that the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans led a campaign that distorted the appraisal of Iraqi unconventional weapons and misled the White House. Chief Diane Perry, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, denied Mr. Hersh's charges. Ms. Perry said the Office of Special Plans does not have its own intelligence agents. "We the Office of Special Plans do not produce intelligence reports," she said.

Beyond Iraq, many challenges lie ahead. Washington believes that some two dozen countries have secret arsenals of germ or chemical weapons, or both. The suspects include China, Cuba, Iran, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Taiwan.

As for atomic weapons, the Bush administration was surprised when Iran recently revealed to United Nations inspectors that it had made strides in producing centrifuges to enrich uranium, which can fuel reactors or bombs. And American officials are struggling to figure out how far North Korea has gone in reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium for nuclear arms.

"We're looking at much more complex situations but doing so with fewer and fewer people," a senior official at a nuclear weapons lab said of arms intelligence.

Now, officials say, Washington is struggling to rebuild its ranks of seasoned analysts, even while reaching out to industry, academia and its own weapons labs for insights on possible foreign advances in exotic arms.

"Hiring people with the right background to address these issues is a top priority for us," said Mark Mansfield, a C.I.A. spokesman.

Dr. Gates, now president of Texas A & M University, said he was confident the nation could meet the new challenges. He said that stars of academia are joining the C.I.A. and added that just as the military had reached new levels of precision in bombing Iraq, so too, the tools available to the intelligence services had improved.

And those improvements, he said, were of a sort that could be applied to finding weapons of mass destructions.

GRAPHIC: Photos: August, 1949: The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, just about the time an American intelligence report predicted it wouldn't happen until 1953. (Jamie Doran/from "Stalin and the Bomb," by David Holloway Yale University Press, 1994 )(pg. 1); Satellite view of Iran's Natanz uranium enrichment complex and a new underground plant (magnified). (DigitalGlobe/GlobalSecurity.org)(pg. 14)

Copyright 2003, The New York Times Company