Lingering intelligence issues

In blog-time, it’s practically ancient history by now, but back last summer, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report (pdf) on prewar intelligence failures over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The investigation, notably, focused mainly on the agencies responsible for the failures, without getting into thornier questions of administration involvement. At the time, I trawled through the report and noted that it didn’t answer several still-glaring questions about administration pressure on various analysts and agencies to push the intelligence in a direction more congenial to Iraq hawks, or how the White House used the intelligence it received.

Those questions and others were supposed to be answered in a follow-up Senate report, conveniently scheduled to be released after the 2004 election, which would deal primarily with how the Bush administration used the intelligence it received. But now, as David Corn reports in the Nation, the Senate Intelligence Committee has decided to punt on that second report:

In mid-March, [Republican chairman of the intelligence committee Pat] Roberts declared further investigation pointless. He noted that if his committee asked Bush officials whether they had overstated or mischaracterized prewar intelligence, they’d simply claim their statements had been based on “bum intelligence.” Roberts remarked, “To go though that exercise, it seems to me, in a postelection environment–we didn’t see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it.”

Um, no, everybody does not “pretty well get it.” There are two reasons why this second report is important. One, if the White House did in fact pressure agencies or distort intelligence on the march to war in Iraq, the public deserves to know about it. Period. But on a more practical note, inquiries like these help policymakers figure out exactly whether and how the lines of intelligence and decision-making are broken, so that they can be fixed.

Over the next four years the White House will need to prepare to deal with nuclear programs in both Iran and North Korea. Having good and proper intelligence on both countries—and being able to use that intelligence clearly and honestly—will be hugely important for setting the proper policy and persuading allies to sign aboard American strategy. Already there are signs that the White House has fudged intelligence on both North Korea and Iran, and the mistakes of the past, if not being exactly repeated, are certainly creating disturbing echoes. An investigation into how and why this is happening is not, whatever Pat Roberts might think, a trivial matter.