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Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers (ARSIPSO)

This is with reference to my letter No. ARSIPSO/GS-BSD-4/2023 dated. 10/08/2023 on the 4th B.S. Das Memorial Lecture, which had to be rescheduled for unavoidable reasons.

The 4th B.S.Das Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Shri Anil Kumar Sinha, IAS (Retd.), on the subject Disaster Management: Creating Safer Communities, has now been rescheduled for October 14, 2023 as per the following:

Conference Room No. 2, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, October 14, 2023 (Saturday)

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Silberman - Robb Commission Report on U.S. Intelligence Capabilities - Kalyan K. Mitra


The worst ever verdict on the U.S. Intelligence agencies has been delivered by the “Commission on the Intelligence capabilities of the United States regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction” which made its 601 page report public on 31st March, 2005 (91 pages of the report dealing with Nuclear programmes in Iran, North Korea and Covert operations were not made public). President Bush had created this Commission in his reelection year to investigate how policy makers used the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The WMD Commission chaired by retired judge Lawrence Silberman & former Senator Charles Robb catalogued, like the Senate intelligence report in 2004, numerous failures of intelligence collection and analysis. It took a dim view of turf battles amongst the multiple intelligence agencies, their outdated technology and poor quality of human intelligence. Some of the findings of the Commission are briefly mentioned below:

- The agencies have been repeatedly blamed for poor tradecraft and mismanagement.
- After going through two years of “President Daily Briefs” (PDB’s) in the period before the Iraq war, the Commission found that these reports were totally one-sided and provided the President with a daily drumbeat of sensational headlines only. A group of top officials told the Commission that they found these highly classified documents of little real value.
- The intelligence agencies are totally ignorant of contemporary vital cultural issues. Unlike the Cold War days when they acquired impressive expertise on Soviet society and the Communist ideology, there is no expertise today for modern day Islamic extremism.
- Saddam Hussain’s government was repeatedly able to foil many of the operations of the super secret National Security Agency which failed to collect useful signals intelligence because technological changes in telecommunications have put major sources of eavesdropping out of the NSA’s reach.
- The top leadership of the CIA ignored unnamed analysts who had questioned the intelligence regarding Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons provided by a source who was known to have problems with drinking and whose reliability was very much in doubt.
- The United States knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programmes of many of the world’s most dangerous actors.
- The US agencies have been slow to monitor global stockpiles of anthrax, ricin or viruses like small pox or the plague. The Commission sounded a note of alarm regarding catastrophic biological attack and observed that America has escaped major biological attack by sheer luck. The progress made by terrorists in developing biological weapons has been underestimated by the US intelligence. The report has referred to the discovery of equipment for production of a virulent biological weapon code named “agent-x” (probably anthrax) by Al Qaeda operatives.

- The report confirmed that the U.S.was wrong in asserting before the U.N. Security Council (in February 2003) that Iraq had biological weapons. The intelligence community was inundated with evidence that gravely undermined the charges levelled against Iraq. The analysts ignored dissenting views and counter evidence to the hypothesis that Iraq had on going nuclear weapons programme and was buying Aluminium tubes to be used in centrifuges for Uranium enrichment. The National Intelligence Estimate in October 2002 on Iraq’s weapons was “dead wrong” in analysing the Iraq threat on the basis of those tubes which, according to leading centrifuge physicists and dissenting analysts from other agencies, were the wrong size, shape and material for likely use in centrifuges.

- The tubes matched the dimensions of Italian rocket called the ‘Medussa’, a standard NATO weapon and Iraq had declared a stockpile of identical tubes to UN Inspectors in 1996. Yet the CIA and the DIA concluded that these tubes proved that Iraq had renewed gas centrifuge uranium enrichment programme. The DIA depended on an Iraqi defector code named “curveball” whose fabricated reports were relayed to the Pentagon through German intelligence.

The Commission found no evidence that the intelligence analysts have been politically pressurized to suit preconceived notions about Iraq’s non-conventional weapons programme. It passed no judgement on the vital question whether top policy makers had used intelligence to justify America’s Iraq war. Nevertheless, the Commission noted in passing that it is difficult to deny that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about prevailing conventional wisdom. The Commission also maintained silence on the all important question why no one has been held accountable for letting assumptions and beliefs pass as reliable intelligence. George Tenet, the CIA Chief, was allowed to resign in the face of growing criticism, but Bush rewarded him with the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. The top officials involved in the review and dissesmination of pre-war intelligence on Iraq, viz. Condoleeza Rice, Hadley and Wolfowitz were all praised in public and rewarded.

The Commission branded the intelligence agencies “headstrong” and warned John Negroponte, the National Intelligence Director that sooner or later, the agencies would “run around or over him”. It called upon the NID to undertake a radical reorganization of all the US Intelligence agencies in order to end constant turf battles that plagued the 15-Agency Intelligence community. The NID has also been urged to encourage a culture of challenging assumption and preconceived notions. No previous Commission – there have many in the US – has ever lambasted the intelligence agencies so severely before. The Commission found that the agencies functioned as typical government bureaucracies unwilling to take risks or accept advice from outside.

The Commission made 74 recommendations including the creation of a non-government research body to constantly test and challenge the conclusions of the intelligence analysts and a National Intelligence University to improve the training of analysts and field operatives. It proposed the creation of a National Counter-Proliferation Centre to manage and coordinate intelligence relating to weapons proliferation. Along with the National Counter Terrorism Centre, it will also remain under the NID who would have control over all the agencies. Among its other recommendations, creation of a Human Intelligence Directorate in the CIA and reshuffling of the FBI and the Justice Department are likely to face opposition from various quarters. The Commission observed that the FBI does not have the required analytical capability. Referring to the turf war between the FBI and the CIA, it found that crucial information on terrorism was not shared on occasions between the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. The Commission recommended the creation of a National Security Division for Terrorism, episonage and intelligence-related cases in the Justice Department which overseas the FBI. The Commission’s views on the FBI have been reinforced by a report released by the Justice Department on 9th June, 2005. Inspector General Glen A Fine’s 371 page report has documented serious shortcomings in the performance of the FBI which missed atleast five chances to detect the presence of two of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers – NAWAF ALHAZMI and KHALID ALMIHDHAR – after they first entered the US in early 2000. The failure of the FBI was due to deficiencies in the way the bureau handed terrorism and intelligence cases. Fine’s Report on the FBI’s performance refers to three major episodes before Sept. 11 attacks : failure to track ALHAZMI and ALMIDHAR, failure to connect Al Qaeda operative ZACARIAS MOUSSAOUI to the hijacking plot and the handling of a July 2001 memo from FBI operative at Phoenix, KENNETH WILLIAMS who theorized that OSAMA BIN LADEN might be sending operatives to US flight schools.

The WMD Commission’s report contains a devastating portrayal of the US Intelligence agencies and their officers. The Commission noted that the agencies resist change – an attitude born out of the secretive, insular nature of the intelligence business. It has gone to the extent of recommending that the intelligence community must be “pressed harder and harder to the point of discomfort”. The report implies but does not categorically say that Bush went to Iraq war due to faulty intelligence though with the benefit of hindsight, it can certainly be said that Bush and his advisors decided to go to war not because of faulty intelligence. The truth is America wanted a regime change in Iraq and hence it went to war. Besides Iraq, the Commission has also examined the performance of the agencies in respect of other countries too – viz. Iran, North Korea, Libya and the nuclear proliferation network of Abdul Qadir Khan of Pakistan.

There is a marked tendency on the part of security analysts in India to refer to the system prevalent in the US and recommend structural changes on the US pattern to set matters right in our country. The present writer considers this tendency unfortunate because empirical evidence shows that the performance of the multi-agency US intelligence community with estimated annual budget of over $40 billion has been far from satisfactory. Repeated intelligence failures have led to the appointment of many committees in the past, each of which exposed the agencies, recommended remedial measures but failed to bring about the desired improvement. There is a strong underlying assumption that given greater resources and structural reforms, collection and analytical efforts can be enhanced. The record all over the world, however, shows that neither organizational reform nor technological advances can significantly improve the quality of intelligence.

High level post-mortem of intelligence failures have identified the chief reason to be failure of analysis rather than collection and the inability to collect human intelligence rather than intelligence through technical means. The intelligence establishment everywhere needs more and more men and women who have the talent and expertise to understand complex events, alien cultures and analyze enormous data from a variety of sources. The desk analysts mainly remain busy in producing current intelligence. They tend to neglect study and preparation of long-term estimative intelligence based on classified inputs as well as open source data in order to bring out alternative scenarios for policy makers. Conventional wisdom often prevents analysts from anticipating scenarios that challenge prevailing beliefs. The remedy lies in encouraging unconventional ‘outside the box’ analysis. There is overarching need for shedding obsession with secrecy & interacting with experts, academics, scientists and think tanks in the outside world. There is need for paradigm shift in the organizational culture of intelligence agencies everywhere in order to bring about the much desired “glasnost” in the intelligence establishment.


The views and facts stated above are entirely the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the views of this Association in any manner.

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