Iraq and Intelligence: 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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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