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Iraq and Intelligence: Surprise, Surprise

Saturday Essay in the AFR, 17 August 2004

The Iraq War After 15 Months

            After Pearl Harbor, there were many inquiries into why the White House had been caught by surprise. For decades, conspiracy theories abounded. Passionate feelings, combined with the complexity and sensitivity of the subject matter, made it difficult to ascertain the truth. Something similar is at work in the case of the war in Iraq.

The difference is that, in this case, the White House was not caught by surprise until after the war was over. It went to war to pre-empt the possibility of being caught by surprise, only to discover that its fears had been exaggerated. It’s like having created the Manhattan Project, in order to get an atomic bomb before Hitler did so, only to discover, after the bomb had been made, that Hitler’s atomic bomb project had been moribund for some time.

            There is a strong propensity for those who always opposed the war to insist now that they have been right all along. Others are still fighting a rearguard action in defence of the decision for war. Such attitudes are entirely natural. They just aren’t much help in getting clear where and why errant judgments were made. Consequently, they impede any effort to improve either intelligence work, or policy-making processes.

One after another, the official inquiries have concluded that there was no sound basis for believing that Saddam Hussein had deployable WMD or that he had a strategic partnership with al Qaeda, but also no evidence that Bush, Blair or Howard lied to their constituents about their reasons for going to war. The intelligence agencies, rather than the political decision makers, have been singled out for blame. But what, exactly, were the errors committed?

Ironically, reporting of the matter has overwhelmingly concentrated on the conclusions of the inquiries, not on the evidence and processes of inference by which they reached those conclusions. Yet this is the very same cardinal sin of which the intelligence agencies and, at least by implication, the political decision-makers stand accused. So the key matters at issue remain very poorly understood. Not that that inhibits many people from expressing passionate opinions on the subject.

To understand what has happened, critics need to get over their pathological dislike of George W. Bush. If you belong in this category, you would do well to ask yourself, why did William Shawcross support the decision to go to war? Why did Bernard Kouchner, Richard Spertzel, Rolf Ekeus, John Keegan, Kenneth Pollack, Philip Bobbitt, Bernard Lewis and Kanan Makiya? All are individuals with expert knowledge relevant to the subject, independent judgment and strong moral credibility.

Certainly not because they were lied to by political leaders, or misled by the CIA. Certainly not because they were running secret agendas to do with oil or Israel. It was on more interesting grounds than these. Their judgment was that the time had come to overthrow Saddam Hussein. There are grounds on which you might have disagreed with them, or might now do so. But you can’t derail the argument by questioning their motives, in the way that too many people attempt to do with Bush, Blair and Howard.

They allowed that Saddam might or might not have deployable WMD, or the intention to use them, or active programs to acquire them, or dormant stockpiles of them. They allowed that he might or might not have an active strategic partnership with al Qaeda, though he certainly had strategic partnerships with various other terrorist organizations. They also allowed that it might be possible to contain him, even if he did have or acquire WMD.

The problem was that certainty was lacking in all these cases, that Saddam’s track record gave rise to serious concerns and that his ongoing behaviour gave no grounds for confidence. The much debated UN Security Council Resolution 1441 put the burden of proof on him, but he persisted in playing the same game of evasion and bluff he’d played since 1991.

The argument that many of the above figures made was that Saddam could not be trusted, should be overthrown and could not be overthrown by any means short of war. They also argued that his overthrow would be morally justified because of his track record in using WMD against both his neighbours and his own people, his dangerous propensity for strategic miscalculation in starting wars he could not win, and his appalling rule in Iraq, in which hundreds of thousands of people were tortured and executed and millions driven into exile.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it is not the same as arguing that Saddam demonstrably had both deployable WMD and a strategic partnership with al Qaeda. It is not, therefore, refuted by the finding that he apparently had neither. It is easy to miss or dismiss this point. In any case, while deployable WMD were not found, the Iraq Survey Group did find that Saddam had maintained literally hundreds of prohibited activities across the full range of WMD programs. He also had had many exchanges with al Qaeda over a decade. He was far from innocent and suspicion and frustration fed on his malignity and evasiveness.

Should the intelligence agencies, then, be excoriated for not being sufficiently skeptical or sufficiently clear in their estimates? Perhaps, though with caveats. The decision for war was not based on intelligence estimates in and of themselves. It was based on a strategic and political judgment that was always going to be contentious and that, under different leaders, might not have been made, even had the intelligence been much clearer and the danger more serious. Critics of the decision to overthrow Saddam need to bear this in mind.

There is a scene in Pearl Harbor in which the Chief of Naval Operations confronts a senior intelligence analyst who fears that the Japanese could be about to attack the great portage. What’s your hard evidence? he is asked. “If we had hard evidence, sir, we’d be at war,” is the reply. “So you’d have me mobilize the entire fleet, at a cost of millions of dollars, based on this spine-tingling feeling of yours,” the CNO challenges him. “No, sir,” says the intelligence analyst. “I understand my job is to gather and interpret material. Making difficult decisions, based on incomplete information from my limited decoding ability is your job.”

I like that scene. It rather neatly encapsulates both the challenges of intelligence analysis and the responsibilities of analysts compared with policy makers. We all have a stake in both doing their jobs as well as possible. We all too easily underestimate the difficulties they face in attempting to do so. We also tend to overestimate our own grasp of the ways they work and the grounds on which they make their judgments.

What the official inquiries into the decision for war in Iraq have shown is the fallibility of such judgments. Well, surprise, surprise. Just beware of your own fallible judgment, though, in denouncing Bush, Blair and Howard, or their intelligence agencies, for making errors of a kind you surely don’t make. There is plenty of scope for improving our judgments in matters great and small. Let’s concentrate on that, rather than on scapegoating, posturing or political point-scoring.