What's with all those intelligence commissions?

What's with all those intelligence commissions?

What's with all those intelligence commissions?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 1 2005 6:50 PM

What's With All Those Intelligence Commissions?

How to tell them apart.

In a 600-page report released on Thursday, the "Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction" called prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons capabilities "dead wrong." How many of these intelligence commissions have there been since 9/11, and how can we tell them apart?

Three—two about the intelligence failures that led up to 9/11 and one about WMD. In February 2002, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence convened the "Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001." In November 2002, President Bush signed legislation forming the "National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States." And in February 2004, the president signed an executive order to call together the WMD Commission.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.


The congressional committees that conducted the Joint Inquiry included nearly 40 members. They did their work without the president's involvement and produced a more than  800-page report on the failures of the CIA, FBI, and NSA to predict or disrupt the 9/11 attacks. The report, which was released in December of 2002, recommended amending the National Security Act of 1947 to create a new director of national intelligence who could "make the entire U.S. Intelligence Community operate as a coherent whole." The Joint Inquiry also prescribed major changes for the FBI and more cooperation between the NSA and the other agencies.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the "9/11 Commission," had a broader mandate. A 10-person panel of former politicians (now mostly lawyers and academics) was charged with assessing American intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy, border control, aviation, and resource allocation. In its best-selling book, released in 2004, the 9/11 Commission reiterated many of the Joint Inquiry's recommendations, asking for a more coherent national terrorism policy and a new national intelligence director. The group also recommended creating a National Counterterrorism Center, gave tips on how to better defend the homeland, and urged an aggressive policy of attacking terrorists around the world.

President Bush summoned the WMD Commission by executive order, calling on the group to investigate intelligence failures related to weapons of mass destruction around the world. He appointed nine members, including politicians like Sen. John McCain and university presidents like Richard Levin of Yale and Charles Vest of MIT. The determination that prewar assessments of Iraq were "riddled with errors" made up only one part of the group's final report. The commission presented case studies of Libya and Afghanistan as evidence of how to proceed in Iran and North Korea. Reiterating the findings of the two earlier reports, the WMD Commission recommended stronger, more centralized management of the intelligence community. The commission also proposed creating a National Counter Proliferation Center—to complement the 9/11 Commission's National Counterterrorism Center—and a number of task forces to look at specific threats.

The three commission reports all point out that similar recommendations from past intelligence commissions have been largely ignored. These past commissions include 1994's "Commission on the Roles and Capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community" (or the Aspin-Brown Commission), the Gates Commission on the North Korean missile threat in 1996, the Jeremiah Commission on India's nuclear test in 1998, the "Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction" (or the Gilmore Commission) of 1999, 2000's "National Commission on Terrorism" (or the Bremer Commission), and the "U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century" (or the Hart-Rudman Commission) of 2001.

Explainer thanks Gregory Treverton of the RAND Corporation.