Gently admonishing President George W. Bush, the nation's newly retired chief intelligence analyst on Tuesday suggested that the Iraq war was as much the failure of policymakers as it was the flawed intelligence on which they relied.
Bush told ABC News last week his biggest regret was "the intelligence failure in Iraq."
"I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess," Bush said.
Thomas Fingar, until this week the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, declined to directly address the president's swipe. But he said: "I learned something a long time ago in this town. There are only two possibilities: policy success and intelligence failure."
Fingar is in a better position than many in the intelligence agencies to assess those possibilities. Before the Iraq invasion, he was second in command of a small group of State Department analysts that notably cast doubt — albeit behind closed doors — on a key Bush administration rationale for the 2003 war.
'Got it less wrong'
A 2002 intelligence assessment pushed by the administration contended that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear, chemical and biological weapons program. Fingar's office dissented on the nuclear question.
His office "got it less wrong," he told reporters Tuesday during a valedictory round-table discussion.
But he acknowledged that the overall analysis of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities was wrong, and some of the underlying intelligence false. In fact, an exhaustive search turned up no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or any evidence there was an active program to develop it.
Part of the blame goes to time pressure, Fingar said: The Bush administration ordered the report to be produced in less than two weeks. Similar intelligence estimates can take months or years.
"It's my observation that it's very hard to dislodge a mistaken interpretation once it gets into the head of a decisionmaker who has used it in a speech, built it into a policy, conveyed it to colleagues around the world," Fingar said. "That puts to me an awfully high premium on taking the time to get it right."
Fingar said he does not think intelligence analysts have a responsibility to correct politicians' statements that veer off the contents of secret intelligence judgments.
"I did not think that was part of my professional responsibility," he said. "That would imply excessive belief that one view is right and another view is wrong."
Work within the system
Instead, he said, intelligence analysts should work within the system — point out the inaccuracy to the politician and let him correct the record, or not.
"At some point you have to try to make the system work, holding elected officials accountable, insisting that the oversight committee do their jobs," Fingar said, "not using the court of public opinion."
Speaking out publicly on intelligence carries it with the danger of turning analysts into policy advocates, he said.
The 2002 Iraq WMD failure revealed critical shortcomings in intelligence analysis which Fingar has spent the past three years trying to fix. A major challenge was getting analysts from 16 agencies access to each others' reports and analysis, a matter both of incompatible computer programs and the secretive nature of the agencies, even toward each other.
Unlike the flawed Iraq report, intelligence estimates now prominently note when analysts disagree; there is no longer an insistence that the reports reflect a consensus view.
"We had an awful lot of shared discontent in the way the community worked," Fingar said. "It proved more difficult to do it than it was to imagine it."
U.S. analysis has improved, he said.
"We're right an awful high percentage of the time," he said.