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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Friday, March 12

Iraq changes war-making and intelligence gathering

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON — Baghdad fell so fast last spring that U.S. supply lines could scarcely keep pace with the rapidly advancing troops.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld‘s squinting grin covered magazines. President Bush‘s approval ratings soared.

Then came the insurgency … but not the weapons of mass destruction Bush had warned were poised to threaten Americans.

The campaign in Iraq, now a year old and counting, showcased how far American war-making has come. At the same time, the war in Iraq has also revealed that the nation‘s intelligence network is still mired in a Cold War mindset, ill-suited to handle the war on terror with its small secretive organizations that are almost impossible to penetrate.

"Overall, the military performance has been impressive," said Michael O‘Hanlon, an expert on military strategy at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. "But a lot of the problems you‘re seeing now stem from simply being poorly prepared going in."

The prewar intelligence, which predicted that Iraq had stockpiles of mass-destruction weapons, looks to have been badly flawed, if not exaggerated.

The plans for rebuilding Iraq turned out to be wildly optimistic, failing to anticipate the tenacious insurgency that continues to destabilize the nation.

The cause for war — pre-empting a dangerous dictator — perhaps wasn‘t as pressing as it was made out to be. Portrayed by the Bush administration as a threat to Americans, Saddam Hussein was probably only a regional threat at best.

For reasons good and bad, the campaign in Iraq will change the way wars are fought and intelligence is gathered.

Strategic war plan

Military students will study Operation Iraqi Freedom as a precedent-setting success built on new tactics meant to exploit cutting-edge technology.

Never have the different armed services worked so effectively and closely together in sharing information in real time.

Air power was both overwhelming and surgically accurate. By the time most U.S. ground forces encountered resistance — sporadic from southern Iraq to Baghdad — it had been significantly reduced by relentless air assaults.

During the height of the bombing, U.S. forces flew close to 2,000 sorties a day — four times the number flown during the peak of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

Potential targets were selected and vetted using unparalleled intelligence.

Special forces troops on the ground were able to identify targets so bombers could strike even in blinding sandstorms. "As a percentage of overall war effort, they (special forces) were unprecedented," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of the Pentagon‘s Joint Staff.

The war plan, initially attacked by critics for relying on insufficient forces and unproven technology, produced one of the most impressive military victories in U.S. history.

If anything, the strategy worked so well that the pace of the war — the speed of the victories and the rapid movement north from Kuwait to Baghdad — caught coalition forces off guard and initially unprepared to handle the chaos that followed the rapid implosion of Saddam‘s troops.

"The Iraqi forces just never expected U.S. forces to move so quickly and to be as powerful and overwhelming as they were," said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq."

Intelligence failures

The Bush administration contends its prewar intelligence, drawn primarily from the CIA, was unequivocal in its conclusions that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons.

But almost a year of searching has yet to produce a single banned weapon.

The failure to find any has exposed staggering weaknesses in the nation‘s intelligence apparatus and hierarchy.

"We have serious problems on the intelligence side — deep and systemic," said Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an independent committee that counsels the Pentagon. "The CIA has an almost perfect record of getting it wrong in the (Persian) Gulf."

The apparent intelligence failures have raised serious international doubts about Bush‘s policy of pre-empting threats before they emerge.

The question now is, where will the blame and the consequences for those failures ultimately reside?

Some war critics contend that the real culprits are leading members of Bush‘s inner circle who, the critics say, shaded the intelligence they were given to make Iraq appear more menacing than it actually was.

Bush has repeatedly characterized Iraq as a "grave and gathering" threat. But in a recent speech, CIA Director George Tenet said his agency never portrayed Iraq as an "imminent threat" to the administration.

That incongruity has left senior administration officials on the defensive.

"It wasn‘t that we didn‘t present the truth," Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently. "We presented what we believed the truth to be at that time, and we had every basis for believing that that was the case."

The CIA is revamping its intelligence-gathering procedures to ensure information is properly vetted. One of the changes entails making sure intelligence analysts know more about the covert agents gathering the information they analyze so they can better evaluate its credibility.

Keeping agent identity secret was a protection measure.

Meanwhile, the CIA and the administration now face almost half a dozen separate investigations into how the prewar intelligence was gathered. One, by the Senate Intelligence Committee, will look into whether or not senior administration officials exaggerated the intelligence they were given to justify invading Iraq.

Once the investigations settle, the nation faces the herculean task of overhauling the intelligence network.

The nation undertook large-scale reforms after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The answer back then led to the creation of the CIA.