The Mother of All Corrections issued by the Washington Post Saturday illustrates what is wrong with our intelligence agencies, and especially with news coverage of them.
The inspector general of the Department of Defense had been asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee (and now, alas, its chairman), to determine whether the intelligence analysis on Iraq done by the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans under then Under Secretary Douglas Feith violated the law.
On Feb. 8, acting Inspector General Thomas Gimble issued his report. Washington Post reporters Walter Pincus and R. Jeffrey Smith wrote a story about it, which appeared on the front page of last Friday's paper.
The story made the front page of the Post because of incendiary quotes Mr. Pincus and Mr. Smith attributed to Mr. Gimble. Mr. Feith's office "was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaida," and produced intelligence "reporting of dubious quality or reliability."
The inspector general had said none of these things. These and other critical quotes in the story came from a press release Sen. Levin had issued in October, 2004.
This is a big boo boo. It's as if you took a Mercedes hood ornament, and put it on a Yugo. To the Post's credit, its 248-word correction Saturday ran on the front page as well.
What the inspector general did say was that Mr. Feith's activities were legal, and properly authorized by his superiors.
But, said Mr. Gimble, the analyses prepared by Mr. Feith's office were "inappropriate" because they "included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community."
It is interesting that Mr. Gimble should criticize Mr. Feith not for being wrong, but for deviating from the consensus, which was wrong.
Most in the Intelligence Community maintained there were no ties between Iraq and al Qaida because Saddam Hussein was secular, and Osama bin Laden was a religious zealot.
Subsequently uncovered evidence chiefly from the captured files of Saddam's intelligence service indicated there were many ties between Iraq and Islamist terror groups, including al Qaida.
This was hardly the first time the consensus in the Intelligence Community has turned out to be egregiously wrong.
Throughout the Cold War, the CIA greatly exaggerated the strength of the Soviet economy, and underestimated the portion of their national wealth the Soviets were spending on their military. The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a great shock to them.
It was the Intelligence Community that assured President Bush and President Clinton before him that Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was, in the words of CIA Director George Tenet, who served both presidents, a "slam dunk."
Competition in intelligence collection is, usually, a bad thing. But competition in analysis is, usually, a good thing.
"The biggest problem with intelligence is its natural human tendency toward group think it's why smart people can miss the big things with such regularity," wrote Andrew McCarthy, who prosecuted some of the terrorists involved in the first World Trade Center bombing, and who now directs the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
In reflecting on the intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq, the Robb-Silberman commission concluded: "The intelligence community needs to be pushed. It will not do its best unless it is pressed by policy makers sometimes to the point of discomfort...No important intelligence assessment should be accepted without sharp questioning that forces the community to explain exactly how it came to that assessment and what alternatives might also be true."
Mr. Feith's office was doing precisely what the Robb-Silberman commission said needs to be done.
The Feith effort was "a fresh, critical look" at intelligence community conclusions, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
"It is somewhat difficult to understand how activities that admittedly were lawful and authorized could nevertheless be characterized as 'inappropriate,'" he said.
Sen. Levin was for diversity in intelligence analysis before he was against it. He has in the past chided President Bush for not paying more attention to the doubts that a few mid-level analysts had expressed about the Intelligence Community's consensus that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.
If we are to prevent future 9/11s, we need intelligence agencies (and politicians and journalists) who are more interested in finding the truth than in reaching consensus.