Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard
President Bush formed the commission last February and put Judge Laurence Silberman, right, and former senator Chuck Robb in charge. (AP)

The WMD Commission and intelligence reform

ASK THIS | March 28, 2005

A new commission report on the failures of U.S. intelligence should raise questions about government accountability and the feasibility of intelligence reform, writes Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

By Steven Aftergood



Q.  Do Bush Administration officials bear any responsibility for their public representations of the inaccurate intelligence assessments of Iraqi nuclear weapons programs? Or was the White House merely an unwitting conduit?


Q.  What makes this commission report different from the dozen or so studies that have tackled the intelligence problem in the last decade?  Why is it any more likely to produce meaningful change?


Q.  Did U.S. intelligence accurately project that more than 1,500 American servicemen and women would be killed in a U.S. attack on Iraq, and many thousands more wounded?  If not, do the commission's findings and recommendations address this intelligence failure as well?


Q. In light of the commission's findings, was it appropriate for President Bush to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet?


The Commission on WMD intelligence led by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Virginia Governor Charles Robb is about to issue its report on the inadequacies of U.S. intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.  The commission, established over initial White House resistance last year, served to deflect pre-election controversy over the false intelligence estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Will its new report now enhance accountability, or diffuse it further?  Will the report advance the intelligence reform agenda, or take its place on the long shelf of commission studies that led nowhere?


One of the most frequently advocated reforms to U.S. intelligence is the disclosure of the annual intelligence budget total.  In 1996, such disclosure was even recommended by the bipartisan Aspin-Brown-Rudman Commission, whose members included Porter J. Goss, the current DCI.  (The budget total was declassified in response to FOIA requests in 1997 and 1998.)


Last year, the 9/11 Commission specifically proposed the publication of annual intelligence budget figures as one of its 41 recommendations. According to the commission's final report, adopting this practice would help prompt a more discriminate application of classification authority throughout the intelligence community and would therefore foster greater information sharing as well as greater accountability.


But this perennial intelligence reform recommendation, approved by the Senate last year, was blocked by the White House and by House Republicans.


If such elementary reforms are beyond reach, what are the odds of achieving any more penetrating change?  Should we expect to see another commission on intelligence reform established in six months or a year from now?

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.