Damage Control

President Bush's decision to create an independent commission to investigate what went wrong with U.S. intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (or lack thereof) is literally too little, too late, according to intelligence and proliferation experts.

The commission was handpicked by White House officials and vetted by the vice president, whose alleged mishandling and manipulation of intelligence should be the subject of investigation, some experts say. In addition, the commission's Republican co-chairman, Laurence Silberman, was one of two judges who reversed Iran-Contra figure Oliver North's conviction on charges of obstructing Congress and unlawfully destroying government documents.

In addition, none of the seven members on the commission has experience on proliferation issues. And only one, former deputy of central intelligence and Admiral William Studeman, has a background in professional intelligence. (Former Virginia Senator Charles Robb sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Silberman was a member of the Defense Policy Board.)

Experts also say the commission's mandate is too broad, including an examination of U.S. intelligence related to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as well as in Libya, Iran, and North Korea. And, finally, the panel has no subpoena power or ability to compel agencies or individuals to testify, nor is it required to report its findings until March 2005 -- well after the elections.

"If you look at the timing and terms of reference for the commission, it's very transparent what's happening here," says former CIA analyst Ray McGovern. "Obviously, it's being created to avoid any damage before the election. The White House is attempting to broaden the panel's scope. So the upshot will be broadening out the issues so that the Iraq [weapons of mass destruction] issue will be obfuscated -- lost in the weeds."

"If the executive order [creating the commission] is written just to look at the intelligence process, i.e., the CIA and the [Defense Intelligence Agency] and those agencies within the system, it's not going to get to the problem," agrees former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was sent to Niger by the CIA to chase down what turned out to be fraudulent reports that the African nation had sold uranium to Iraq. Despite Wilson's findings, the bogus Niger-uranium claim made it into Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. "Because at the end of the day, it will leave out all of these lateral, stovepiped entries of information into the system, such as by the Office of Special Plans and the vice president's shadow National Security Council.

"David Kay made two significant statements that struck me," Wilson added, referring to the recently resigned head of the team hunting for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "One was when he said that analysts had not been pressured. David Kay has no basis upon which to make that judgment. He was not employed by the CIA at the time the CIA was making that judgment, until after the war. I don't know how he comes to the conclusion that analysts were not pressured.

"Secondly, Kay says that we were all wrong," Wilson continued. "That is just incorrect. If you go back and look at the portions of the [National Intelligence Estimate] that were declassified, you can see that in virtually every case related to the nuclear piece there was at least one caveat and one exception raised by members of the intelligence community."

Other experts agree that the panel seems to lack the intelligence professionals who can crack what they call "intelligence code" -- the language the intelligence community uses to express doubt, uncertainty, and other caveats.

"When I think of people who really know the subject and know how to read the intelligence-code words, Studeman is the only one who would know that stuff," says Greg Thielmann, former director of the strategic intelligence at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "One of the difficult things about interpreting what went on is you really need to have more than one person who understands that when an intelligence estimate says, 'We judge that,' or 'We estimate that,' that means, 'We're guessing.' It's very important to be able to differentiate 'we estimate' statements from. those confident assertions of the policy-makers or the president and his cabinet who said, 'It is clear that,' [and] 'There is no doubt.'"

"If you look objectively at what's best for the nation, you would want a commission that had top experts, not just former political leaders on it," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That included someone with deep knowledge of the information gathered by the [United Nations] inspectors, and which would start reporting to you immediately.

"Why?" Cirincione continued. "Because the threats won't wait. We have a serious intelligence crisis in this country, coupled with a major policy crisis of how to handle these things. We need to fix that now.

"It's great to have a far-ranging look at the role of intelligence in the 21st century. But we have to understand now what went wrong with the threat assessment and how do we fix it before the next crisis, which might happen next month."

Laura Rozen is a freelance journalist who writes on foreign policy from Washington, D.C.