The system was still in place in 2002, when the White House was weighing whether to invade Iraq. Intelligence officials widely — and wrongly — believed that then-dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. By December 2002, the White House had decided to invade and was trying to outline its reasoning for doing so when then-CIA Director George Tenet described it as "a slam-dunk case."
The consequences were disastrous. There were no WMDs, but the U.S. wound up in a nearly nine-year war that killed nearly 5,000 American soldiers, left more than 117,000 Iraqis dead, and cost taxpayers at least $767 billion. The war also damaged U.S. credibility throughout the Mideast and, to a lesser extent, the world. Tenet later described his "slam-dunk" comment as "the two dumbest words I ever said."
Two years later, Congress signed sweeping reforms requiring intelligence officials to make clear when the spy agencies don't agree. Retired Ambassador John Negroponte, who became the first U.S. national intelligence director in 2005, said if it hadn't been for the faulty WMD assessment "we wouldn't have had intelligence reform."
To prevent that from happening again, senior intelligence officials now encourage each of the spy agencies to debate information, and if they don't agree, to object to their peers' conclusions. Intelligence assessments spell out the view of the majority of the agencies, and highlight any opposing opinions in a process similar to a Supreme Court ruling with a majority and minority opinion.
The result, officials say, is an intelligence community that makes assessments by majority vote instead of group-think, and where each agency is supposed to have an equal voice. In effect, officials say, the CIA has had to lean back over the last decade as officials have given greater credence to formerly marginalized agencies. Among them is the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which warned before the 2003 Iraq invasion that the CIA had overestimated Saddam's prospects to develop nuclear weapons.