Limited Intelligence

U.S. intelligence services missed a “Wal-mart of private-sector proliferation.”


OK, so let’s get this straight. The Iraq Survey Group, whose chief, David Kay, just quit, has come up empty in its search for Iraqi WMDs. (The Bush administration professes itself confident that the weapons will turn up “eventually,” even as it diverts resources away from the hunt.) Meanwhile, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, says he’s astonished at the scale and complexity of Libya’s successful efforts to get hold of materials and blueprints for nuclear weapons designs. The IAEA’s work in Libya and Iran has already uncovered what ElBaradei has called a “Wal-Mart of private-sector proliferation” involving “things being designed in one country, manufactured in two or three others, shipped to a fourth, redirected to a fifth,” with Pakistan as the key supplier and North Korea a major buyer. “The sophistication of the process, frankly, has surpassed my expectations,” ElBaradei said.

It has also surpassed the expectations of the U.S. intelligence community, which, in its eagerness to prove the existence of non-existent weapons in Iraq, completely missed the existence of real weapons elsewhere. (Remember, too, that the first the CIA knew of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear progress was when, in 1998, both countries actually tested their bombs.)

All of which is to say, What’s up with U.S. intelligence?

Kay, himself a CIA alum, regularly popped up on network news in the run-up to the war to advocate regime change on the grounds that Saddam surely had (not might have, not will have) weapons of mass destruction. Now he’s just as sure that no such weapons existed, certainly not on the eve of the U.S. invasion.

Kay said:

“I’m personally convinced that there were not large stockpiles of newly produced weapons of mass destruction. We don’t find the people, the documents or the physical plants that you would expect to find if the production was going on.”

Kay faulted the CIA’s intelligence in Iraq, calling it a mistake to try to gauge Iraq’s weapons programs without the use of CIA spies. During the 1990s, the CIA had gotten intelligence by infiltrating U.N. weapons inspection team. But in 1998, Iraq stopped cooperating with the inspectors (in part because, Iraq claimed (accurately!) that the U.S. was using the inspections process to spy on them) and what intelligence there was seemed to go stale. Kay said the CIA had no idea how badly chaos under Saddam’s leadership had corrupted Iraq’s weapons capabilities. “The system became so corrupt, and we missed that.”

But the flaws in U.S. intelligence system revealed by this go beyond Iraq. Libya’s, and most likely Iran’s, nuclear ambitions were served by a sophisticated black market offering weapons designs, technical advice, and thousands of sensitive parts — and nobody had a clue!

ElBaradei said:

“It’s obvious that the international export controls have completely failed in recent years. A nuclear black market has emerged, driven by fantastic cleverness. Designs are drawn in one country, centrifuges are produced in another, they are then shipped via a third country and there is no clarity about the end user. Expert nuclear businessmen, unscrupulous firms, and perhaps also state bodies are involved. Libya and Iran made extensive use of this network.”

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a non-profit organization dedicated to international security issues, says that the essential precondition for such a black market to flourish is a break-down in intelligence:

“The fact that Libya could go out and buy an entire centrifuge plant without anyone detecting it is startling. It represents a failure of the export-control system, and most certainly a failure of intelligence.”

All this raises two disturbing questions: 1) What else don’t we know? and 2) Can we ever again trust information from the U.S. intelligence services? It’s far from clear what the answers are.