Sunday, February 13, 2005

Intelligence Failures

I won't pretend that my being a journalist makes what I do anywhere near as sophisticated as what our intelligence officers do when they provide the information that guides national policy. But, our jobs are, at the most basic level, not entirely different. A journalist talks to people, gathers information from sometimes disparate sources and connects the dots into a reasonable story.

One thing you realize, as you get on in a journalistic career, is not to overlook the simple and direct pieces of information that come to you. Sure, we all want to know what we're not supposed to know. But, most of the time, the information is out there in a very direct form and you only have to know where to look. I have only written one story that was wholly dependent on a former employee of a company handing me a folder of internal documents. And even in that story, it was the interviews that came later and the public statements that the company had made that really sealed the deal.

Iraq told us rather vehemently that they did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction. Now, Saddam Hussein was not a man to take at face value. But, there was other evidence supporting his claim and an inspection process set to verify them. Instead, we invaded and found... Saddam was telling the truth.

Now, North Korea says they have nuclear weapons. The Administration's response has been... skeptical. They've claimed this before, say the White House. Maybe this is all just a pose. Maybe. White House spokesman Scott McLellan said as much a few days ago. I'll try and find a link for you all later.

It's very odd to see the White House express publuc skepticism about North Korea's claim. They say they have them. That's free, direct and easy to understand information that requires no spy work, no digging, nothing but watching CNN, really. Should we work to verify their claims? Of course. But, given that they say they have them, we should be treating them as if they do. A lot of what I'm hearing on the Sunday chat shows this morning is people wondering if they're telling the truth. But our policy, I think, should assume they are.

While we were building up to the war in Iraq, the North Korea situation was bubbling. Kim Jon Il has been pretty vocal about wanting the weapons, about his ability to develop the weapons and about his need for the weapons in order to deter US aggression. He had means and motive all along. The Clinton Administration had been dealing with this issue throughout two terms and they briefed the Bushies on it. But, instead of dealing with the obvious and available information, we spent our energy and resources on Iraq.

It's really a basic mistake in journalism -- you miss the obvious story because you spend days and days and days (and I've done this!) chasing something that isn't there. Never ignore obvious information. Never.


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