John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC. He is author of the forthcoming Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Ivan Dee Publisher).
In late June came a belated effort by Bush administration defenders to prove that the Iraq war was justified, that Baghdad’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” had been found after all. It swiftly emerged that the claim revolved around a cache of 500 artillery shells found in an old munitions dump that dated to the 1980s, during the Iraq-Iran war. Skeptics were treated to the additional assertion that the entire matter had already been vetted by the National Ground Intelligence Center (NGIC), which supposedly ascertained the shells were loaded with lethal chemicals (mustard and VX gas).
The claim, advanced by House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., was culled from the unclassified summary of the NGIC report. It was quickly laughed under the table. The administration’s own experts assured Americans the shells were old, the chemicals degraded and the munitions not the vaunted weapons Bush sought in invading Iraq.
But aside from the amusement factor, this episode raises more important questions for a nation that faces key intelligence mysteries as it seeks to divine the capabilities, not to mention the intentions, of places like Iran and North Korea. Is U.S. intelligence up to the job? The whole purpose of the creation of the post of director of national intelligence, and the appointment of John Negroponte as the first of these czars, was to ensure that the United States benefits from objective, accurate, and unbiased intelligence data—and to execute in rapid order all reforms necessary to bring that about. This has not happened.
The National Ground Intelligence Center is a case in point. This organization is a product of the spooks’ 1990s fascination with creating “fusion” centers that would use data of all types to produce “value-added” intelligence, to use a couple of terms from the vernacular. The U.S. Army sponsored the NGIC as its contribution to the community-wide effort. The unit’s own website declares that it is to “produce all-source integrated intelligence on foreign ground forces and support combat technologies to ensure that U.S. forces and other decision-makers will always have a decisive edge on any battlefield.”
To do this the Center has built of a staff of nearly 900 experts, three-quarters of them civilians, almost 10 percent Ph.Ds. Its main facility near Charlottesville, Va., is the largest current project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Dedicated NGIC detachments feed data to the main office from the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Army’s proving grounds at Aberdeen, Maryland.
Despite the high-tech inputs and its state-of-the-art building, the NGIC seems to have problems fulfilling its mission. Though much of the criticism of the phony Iraq intelligence estimates has focused on the CIA and the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, in fact NGIC played a central role in at least one key shenanigan of that fiasco, the bogus argument that aluminum tubes being imported by Iraq could only be for the purpose of enriching uranium for bombs (dismissing the alternative view that the tubes were to serve as casings for artillery rockets). Not only did the Center insist on its alarming view of the threat in September 2002, it issued a further report that November insisting the other view represented falling for “a poorly disguised cover story” concocted because the Iraqis realized their nuclear enrichment efforts had “been compromised.”
Even worse, at the time of reporting the two primary NGIC rocket analysts claim to have been unaware of the technical specifications of the type of artillery rockets the Iraqis were building with these tubes—this from an “all-source” intelligence center. In fact, this data had appeared in reports from U.N. weapons inspectors years earlier, and from the U.S. Department of Energy the previous summer. That NGIC should be unaware of the data is nothing short of scandalous, and the presidential commission investigating intelligence issues related to weapons of mass destruction singled out the NGIC for criticism in this regard.
George Tenet actually referred to the NGIC reporting in defending his Iraq estimates in the summer of 2003. After that the claims became untenable. The Washington Post has reported the Center’s contention that its faults became apparent before the presidential commission began inquiries, and that it had already instituted reforms in training and procedures. Yet the analysts who developed the improvements were the same people who were responsible for the errors, and both received annual performance awards.
The National Ground Intelligence Center also would be implicated in the scandal surrounding convicted congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. In October 2002, the NGIC hired the MZM Corporation to collect certain basic intelligence data. This became the first of a number of such contracts. The Center’s deputy director at the time, William S. Rich, Jr., retired in the fall of 2003 to become a top executive at MZM. Another of its vice presidents formerly served as the senior noncommissioned officer at the NGIC. The president of MZM Corporation, Mitchell J. Wade, is the corporate executive who bought Duke Cunningham’s California house at a tremendously inflated price (Wade took a $700,000 loss on the deal), triggering some of the initial inquiries into the congressman’s business deals.
Now comes news of the chemical munitions claims. There are documents in the public domain—declassified intelligence reports from the period up to and after the first Gulf war—that already questioned the chemical stability and longevity of the agents used in Iraqi artillery munitions. As a matter of basic chemistry, it is also true that the precursors mixed to create these agents have a certain shelf-life and lose effectiveness after that time. To claim, 15 years after the Gulf war, that Iraqi chemical shells left over from the 1980s constituted a significant military threat—either in 2002 or 2006—can only call into question the basic objectivity of NGIC analysis.
It appears that real reform has yet to arrive at the National Ground Intelligence Center. And NGIC is but one of the units that contributed to the Iraq fiasco. John Negroponte clearly still has a lot of work to do, and it is important to establish with confidence which intelligence units are dependable and which are not. With the difficulty in collecting intelligence from places like Iran—suspected of covert development of a nuclear weapons program and North Korea—which recently launched missiles into the Pacific—accuracy and objectivity are more vital than ever. This is no time for intelligence that only reports what some people wish to be true, but not what is.