Big gaps remain in intelligence on al-Qaida, report finds

Knight Ridder NewspapersMarch 31, 2005 

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated al-Qaida's efforts to develop biological weapons and still don't have a full understanding of the terrorist group's chemical-weapons programs, the presidential commission investigating the performance of American intelligence reported Thursday.

Some 42 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, "There are critical intelligence gaps with regard to each al-Qa'ida unconventional weapons capability—chemical, biological and nuclear," an unclassified summary of the commission's report said.

The commission also said "a number of overarching problems" that plagued the CIA's and other agencies' efforts against al-Qaida are likely to hamper ongoing American efforts to collect intelligence on the nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons programs of al-Qaida, other terrorist groups and so-called rogue states such as North Korea.

The U.S.-led war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the commission said, may have spared the CIA and other agencies "a future intelligence failure" by destroying the group's chemical- and biological-weapons programs before they could be turned against Americans.

American intelligence agencies "entirely missed" the size and scope of al-Qaida's efforts to develop a virulent biological strain that the report identifies only as "Agent X," one unnamed counterterrorism official told the commission.

"In fact, al-Qa'ida's biological program was further along, particularly with regard to Agent X, than pre-war intelligence indicated," the commission concluded.

"If it hadn't been for finding a couple of key pieces of paper (in Afghanistan) ... we still might not have an appreciation for it," the counterterrorism official said, according to the unclassified summary of the commission's report. "We just missed it because we did not have the data."

The commission, chaired by federal Judge Laurence Silberman and Charles Robb, a former Virginia senator and governor, said U.S. intelligence "was not able to assemble a more complete picture of the group's efforts because it failed to penetrate the al-Qa'ida network."

The report said American intelligence agencies underestimated "al-Qa'ida's fast-growing unconventional weapons capabilities and aggressive intentions" because they failed "to understand adequately the character of al-Qa'ida after 10 years of its mounting attacks against us ... and its aspirations to acquire highly lethal weapons."

As a result, the report said, the CIA and other agencies failed to focus adequate resources on al-Qaida, and a National Intelligence Estimate begun after Sept. 11 "highlighted how little the intelligence community actually knew."

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The full report is available online at

http://www.wmd.gov/report/wmd(underscore)report.pdf

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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