U.S. understanding of Iraq was also hindered by the fact that it had contacts with very few people who understood Saddam's regime. The embassy had been closed for a decade. The number of Americans who had any contact with regime officials was very small so opportunities to understand regime perspectives were limited -- much as they are today with Tehran and Pyongyang.
None of this is President Bush's fault, however. In the context of the days after the 9/11 attacks, when concern over the next attack on the U.S. homeland was palpable, America's tolerance for risk was dramatically lowered. There was no appetite for minimizing any threat that could repeat the trauma of the 9/11 attacks. Saddam was one of those threats.
The intelligence community also was right that Saddam hadn't lost his desire for WMD. He stated clearly during our debriefings of him after his capture that he intended to recreate these capabilities once conditions permitted -- that is, after sanctions were lifted.
It's not the first time America's spies have gotten a major intelligence call wrong. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died, intelligence experts said that his successor, Anwar Sadat, would never last. He did. Intelligence assessments steadfastly stated that Egyptian troops would not breach Israel's defenses at the Suez Canal in 1973. They did. Intelligence assessments are made on tough issues and usually with little solid information. Experienced policymakers know this.
Intelligence reports should not be the only basis for making decisions, and they were not for the Bush administration. Vice President Dick Cheney was correct to meet directly with intelligence analysts -- it's a good way to get a feel for what they really know. High-ranking officials were also right to think they may know more than the analysts. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, had much more experience with Iraqis than the analysts. He met with Saddam personally. He had multiple meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
There were massive errors made in the run-up to the Iraq war. Some seemed even at the time to be avoidable. But the historical record doesn't support today's conventional wisdom: Bush did not lie. He made decisions based on incomplete and incorrect assessments. All presidents do this, and some decisions work out well and some do not.
The intelligence community has instituted internal reforms to avoid the kinds of errors evident in the Iraq WMD case. For example, they now regularly use teams to test contrary assessments, so-called "Red Teams." They also are much more fastidious on declaring the strength of the evidence underlying their judgments. And, the attention to vetting all sources has been amped up to avoid more "Curveballs." But other errors will inevitably be made in the future.
Intelligence analysts are obligated to come up with assessments and predictions even if there is little real data. The default reaction is to assume the other party will behave according to our logic. And so, assessments are made about how guys like North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un will act. The odds that such predictions are correct are small. Hopefully, Washington appreciates that in such cases "intelligence" is not really going to get you very far. You may be better off asking Dennis Rodman than some analyst sitting in a cubicle in Virginia.