Iraq – The Real Failure of Intelligence

On this, the tenth anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the BBC has a retrospective on a small part of the Intelligence picture that was available prior to the war. In a nicely balanced report — balanced from a literary standpoint at least — they discuss two low-level defectors who fabricated stories, and the two high-level sources who reported accurately on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. The US, with the UK in tow, accepted the fabricators and ignored the truth-tellers, and so went to war. At the end of the BBC-USA clip on the report (but not in the on-line version), they ask the rhetorical question “If more people had listened to these two, would the US and UK have still gone to war?

The answer is, yes, of course we would have.

It was never about WMD. It was never about nuclear weapons. It was all about George Bush and Dick Cheney and the neocons, who wanted to go to war, who wanted to seal in place American domination over the Middle East for the rest of the American Century. We had plenty of intelligence that showed that Iraq had a minimal WMD capability, essentially some old chemical weapons left over from the time they invaded Iran and from their attacks on Iraqi Kurds. Few chemicals, no biologicals, and most certainly no nuclear weapons.

Back when the war had just run its course and no WMDs were immediately apparent, I wrote to some friends (this was the ancient, pre-blog era, when communication was by more personal means, like e-mail) that it was obvious that Hussein had been running a deception operation against us, claiming to have WMDs in order to keep us from invading. Since most deception is self-deception, it was clear even then that we believed the reports because we wanted to believe them. I was wrong.

We were not deceived. The United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission was not deceived. The Intelligence Community was not deceived — they sinned knowingly. The President was not deceived. The American people? The American people were deceived, but not by Hussein. They were deceived by George Bush and the White House. The goal was to promote an invasion of Iraq, in the same way that the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia was designed to promote an invasion of that country, in 1914. If it hadn’t been destroying WMD, it would have been preventing human rights abuses, or halting groundwater pollution, or some other of the great ongoing goals of the neocons.

So, what was the Intelligence failure? It was a failure of integrity, of backbone; a failure to speak truth to power. A failure, in other words, of the very heart of what constitutes Intelligence-with-a-capital-I. The failure started at the top. George Tenent, a man associated with Intelligence for a long enough time to know better, reportedly told Bush that the evidence on WMD was a “slam dunk case.” He was telling the President what the President wanted to hear. Why did he do it? Probably because there is a long history in DC of people who aren’t team players being left out of the decision-making process. If he had thrown cold water on the plan, the war would have happened anyway, and he never would have been invited back. Cascading down from that failure of leadership was the failure of anyone else in the community to take a stand against it, to inform the Joint Chiefs, or even Congressional staffers that a major blunder was in the offing.

We had one chance, back in 2002, when a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was prepared on the topic. This letter, from an analyst who was present at some of the discussions, gives a clear picture of how the evidence was stacked in favor of Bush’s preferences. Now, NIE’s are written by the Intelligence Community Staff, and the IC Staff works for the DCI, who is also Director, CIA. They can be very political because their conclusions drive budget decisions (I’ve seen this personally from both the DIA and the Air Staff side in battles over the long-standing USAF position on the range capabilities of the Soviet Tu-22M/Backfire in NIE 11-3/8) but they are supposed to be a general consensus of what the Community really thinks, and if one agency is pushing a position for budgetary reasons, the others are likely to push back. Not so under George Tenent.

That was our unforgivable failure, and it’s a much worse failure than simply believing the wrong sources. It strikes at the very heart of the Intelligence process and the reasons why the Craft even exists. If this is all the better we in the Intelligence Community can do, we might as well fold up our tents and be replaced by the various political parties’ platform committees.


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