Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction

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Established by Executive Order 13328, issued by President George W. Bush, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,[1] often called the WMD Commission, was a bipartisan panel intended to assess U.S. capabilities to detect of weapons of mass destruction capabilities and warn of actual threats. Its scope covered both national and non-national threats.

The record, in the opinion of the commission, was mixed.

Key Conclusions

While there were legitimate long-term questions that were addressed, a good deal of the motivation came from the failure to find WMD in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. These were seen as caused by shortcomings both in collection and in analysis. According to the Commission, there was not enough human-source intelligence, signals intelligence, and imagery intelligence to draw proper conclusions about Iraq.

The Commission did not see total failure, commending the United States intelligence community (IC) contributions to exposing the nuclear proliferation activities of the Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan, and in the national effort that led Libya to renounce WMD. They saw ongoing activities as getting better and better.


Some of the areas in which the IC was found weak are discussed on general pages here, which will give more background on the concerns and approaches to improving the area.

  • Analytic tradecraft: "The way analysts think, research, evaluate evidence, write, and communicate--must be strengthened..."Conversely, policymakers must be prepared to accept uncertainties and qualifications in intelligence judgments and not expect greater precision than the evaluated data permits." The Commission found a widespread drop of technical knowledge about weapons systems, and, in areas such as biotechnology, the IC is well behind industry.
  • The Soviets were such great enemies: Those were not the words of the Commission, but they observed that there is no equivalent body of expertise on Islamic extremism as developed for the Cold War threats. "In some cases, the security clearance process limits the Intelligence Community's ability to recruit analysts with contacts among relevant groups and with experience living overseas. Similarly, some security rules limit the ways in which analysts can develop substantive expertise."
  • Insufficient use of open source intelligence: The IC has a tendency to overemphasize secret information and use non-clandestine and public information too little.
  • Lack of political context--and imagination: The October 2002 National Intelligence Estimatecontained an extensive technical analysis of Iraq's suspected weapons programs but little serious analysis of the socio-political situation in Iraq, or the motives and intentions of Iraqi leadership--which, in a dictatorship like Iraq, really meant understanding Saddam. It seems unlikely to us that weapons experts used to combing reports for tidbits on technical programs would ever have asked: "Is Saddam bluffing?" or "Could he have decided to suspend his weapons programs until sanctions are lifted?" But an analyst steeped in Iraq's politics and culture at least might have asked those questions, and, of course, those turn out to be the questions that could have led the Intelligence Community closer to the truth. In that respect, the analysts displayed a lack of imagination. The Iraq example also reflects the Intelligence Community's increasing tendency to separate regional, technical, and (now) terrorism analysis--a trend that is being exacerbated by the gravitational pull toward centers like the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
  • Overemphasis on and underperformance in daily intelligence products. As problematic as the October 2002 NIE was, it was not the Community's biggest analytic failure on Iraq." The Commission did emphasize that they addressed a problem endemic for details: the daily reports given to top policymakers, such as the President's Daily Brief (PDB) and in its more widely distributed companion, the Senior Executive Intelligence Brief (SEIB), which are written to be "attention-grabbing". The repeated headlines led executives to more certainty than the more nuanced, but less studied, NIEs would have suggested... "And in other instances, intelligence suggesting the existence of weapons programs was conveyed to senior policymakers, but later information casting doubt upon the validity of that intelligence was not. In ways both subtle and not so subtle, the daily reports seemed to be "selling" intelligence--in order to keep its customers, or at least the First Customer, interested."
  • Inadequate information sharing: There is little doubt that, at least in the context of counterterrorism, information sharing has improved substantially since September 11. This is in no small part due to the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (now NCTC) and the increased practice of housing collectors and analysts together, which provides a real-world solution to some of the bureaucratic and institutional barriers that exist between the big intelligence-collecting agencies." Counterterrorism has gotten better since the 9/11, but not counterproliferation sharing. "even in the counterterrorism context, information sharing still depends too much on physical co-location and personal relationships as opposed to integrated, Community-wide information networks. Equally problematic, individual departments and agencies continue to act as though they own the information they collect, forcing other agencies to pry information from them. Similarly, much information deemed 'operational' by the CIA and FBI isn't routinely shared, even though analysts have repeatedly stressed its importance."
  • Poor human intelligence: When the October 2002 NIE was written the United States had little human intelligence on Iraq's nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs and virtually no human intelligence on leadership intentions...The CIA deserves credit for its efforts to discover and penetrate the A.Q. Khan network, and it needs to put more emphasis on other innovative human intelligence methods. Worse than having no human sources is being seduced by a human source, who is telling lies. In fact, the Community's position on Iraq's biological weapons program was largely determined by sources who were telling lies--most notably a source provided by a foreign intelligence service through the Defense Intelligence Agency (CURVEBALL). Why DIA and the rest of the Community didn't find out that the source was lying is a story of poor asset validation practices and the problems inherent in relying on semi-cooperative liaison services. That the NIE (and other reporting) didn't make clear to policymakers how heavily it relied on a single source that no American intelligence officer had ever met, and about whose reliability several intelligence professionals had expressed serious concern, is a damning comment on the Intelligence Community's practices."
  • The challenge to traditional signals intelligence: Signals intelligence--the interception of radio, telephone, and computer communications--has historically been a primary source of good intelligence." The commission said it could not elaborate in an unclassified way.
  • Declining utility of traditional imagery intelligence against [WMD] programs. The imagery collection systems that were designed largely to work against the Soviet Union's military didn't work very well against Iraq's WMD program...our adversaries are getting better at denial and deception, and because the threat is changing." Again, the details were not discussed in the unclassified report. It was observed that "traditional imagery can tell us about chemical and biological facilities. Biological and chemical weapons programs for the most part can exist inside commercial buildings with no suspicious signatures." MASINT (see below) has more potential in this area. T
  • An absence of strong leadership. "For over a year, despite unambiguous presidential direction, a turf battle raged between CIA's Counterterrorist Center (CTC) and the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (now NCTC). ... The best hope for filling this gap is an empowered Director of National Intelligence."