'Cherrypicking' a fight with Saddam

February 20, 2004

Intelligence on Iraq was the victim of spin, argues Philip Davies, as politicians took a selective approach to the presentation of the facts.

Britain is facing the fourth inquiry into the war with Iraq in less than a year. One ordinarily expects to see searching self-examinations in the wake of devastating national defeats rather than a decisive victory.

And, yet, since the war in Iraq formally ended, we have seen inquiries by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Affairs (FAC), the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), Lord Hutton and now a fourth chaired by former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, all dealing in some measure with prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The irony is that intelligence itself appears to have had very little to do with the decision to go to war in either the UK or the US. In both countries, intelligence was certainly invoked as justification, but the decision was ultimately political. The US desire to go to war almost certainly had more to do with intimidating potential nuclear weapon states such as North Korea, Iran and Libya than any real threat from Iraq. In Britain, it seems to have been a calculated risk, exchanging a commitment to support any potential war in Iraq for a US willingness to slow down long enough to try to secure a renewed United Nations mandate or to convince Saddam Hussein to go quietly.

Behind the furore is a growing consensus that there was a major intelligence failure in the assessment of Iraqi WMD programmes and capabilities, but it is not clear that this was the case. While the Iraq Survey Group is yet to find the equivalent of a smoking gun, its work is still far from complete.

It does seem likely that the intelligence community overestimated Iraqi programmes and capabilities to some degree. This kind of error has a well-established precedent. During the 1980s, for example, UK and US estimates miscalculated Soviet chemical and biological weapon (CBW) holdings by about a factor of ten. Thus the risks of estimating the WMD programmes of another "hard target" such as Iraq were familiar to analysts - some of whom, such as David Kelly, had also been involved in the post-cold war inspection of Russian CBW facilities.

The key word is estimate. As George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has recently observed: "It is important to underline the word estimate. Because not everything we analyse can be known to a standard of absolute proof." Even if the numerical estimates of Iraqi WMD programmes were as far off base as the Reagan-Thatcher era assessments of Soviet ones, that does not necessarily mean that there was a significant overall intelligence failure. This is because the numerical estimates were qualified by a very high degree of uncertainty. That uncertainty was driven by the very limited amount of raw information available and inherent problems in the reliability of human sources such as dissidents, exiles and their contacts within Iraq. Tenet reminds us that the US intelligence community "never said there was an 'imminent' threat". It is often forgotten that he spent the autumn of 2002 publicly warning that intelligence did not justify a war.

It is precisely because the national all-source assessments generated by the CIA in collaboration with its intelligence community partners did not support military action that administration officials such as Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice set about bypassing the CIA and its contemporaries in the departments of state and defence. Teams were assigned to "cherry-pick" raw information from the national intelligence database that supported the administration line on Iraq. They then "stovepiped" the information, sending it directly to decision-makers without going through the checks on source reliability and for corroborating information that the professional analysts would normally undertake.

In the British case, the situation was almost entirely the reverse. The Joint Intelligence Committee was in effect co-opted by Downing Street and manoeuvred into publicly providing evidence in support of a policy of war.

This generated a measure of debate in the intelligence community over how the available evidence was presented in the so-called September dossier.

The ISC subsequently reported on dissent within the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), since made explicit by retired senior DIS analyst Brian Jones in testimony to the Hutton inquiry and then in a series of articles and interviews in the press. More to the point, the JIC's own internal assessments on Iraq were far more qualified and doubtful than the public dossier suggested. For example, according to the ISC report on intelligence on Iraqi WMD, the September 9 2002 JIC assessment warned that "intelligence remains limited and Saddam's own unpredictability complicates judgements".

Likewise, in February 2003 the JIC agreed that there was no evidence of Iraq providing CBW materials to al-Qaida or associated groups and even warned that military action in Iraq would increase the risk to the UK from Islamic terrorism.

The language adopted in the dossiers published by Downing Street masked the prevailing doubts felt at the JIC level as well as within the DIS. In other words, the assessment of the intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic was yes, Iraq probably has WMD programmes, but no, they are not very big if still active, and moreover our degree of certainty does not warrant precipitate military action. If the programmes existed at all, it is likely they were of a sufficiently small scale that the six months warning the UK and the US gave Saddam was more than sufficient to conceal or destroy every trace of them, either within Iraq or by slipping them across the borders of Syria or Jordan. In addition, UN inspectors, independent observers and the intelligence community have pointed out that Saddam's regime was very adept at deception and concealment.

Unfortunately, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the present crisis is an almost mechanically inevitable consequence of the progressive openness and transparency in national security affairs that has been developing since the turn of the 1990s. Intelligence publicised is intelligence politicised.

Agencies and communities become pressurised to give results that support administration doctrine or policy and to avoid conclusions or even considerations that might prove controversial or unpopular. Lord Hutton acknowledged this risk in his final report as he mused that JIC chairman John Scarlett and his colleagues might have been "subconsciously" pressured to alter their draft to meet Alastair Campbell's presentational needs. More damningly, however, and too often overlooked, is Hutton's conclusion that the government did indeed "sex up" the September dossier - if one defined "sexing up" as meaning that "the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted". After all, selective presentation rather than falsification has always been the essence of political "spin".

The other danger of excessive openness is that by turning intelligence practitioners into public figures it is easier to deflect blame on to them than when they were anonymous advisers. Politicians can blame the war and its consequences on a failure of intelligence to accurately gauge Iraqi WMD programmes. In the US, this has already begun in the form of the Silberman-Robb commission and dark hints from administration officials that they were misled by the intelligence community.

In Britain, the situation is more opaque. Both Labour and the Conservatives have reasons to want to see the intelligence services exonerated by the Butler inquiry. Labour must be divided between the desire to find a scapegoat and the need to avoid being seen as taking Britain to war on false or mistaken premises. Meanwhile, the Conservatives surely realise that if intelligence is cleared, then the only remaining suspect for an unpopular decision to go to war is the Labour administration, whether or not the remit of the inquiry includes the political decisions taken on the basis of intelligence.

In the last analysis, if there has been any real failure in the intelligence community surrounding the war with Iraq, it has been the failure to resist political manipulation of their work and information.

That manipulation has become possible because of the headlong rush towards ill-considered and excessive transparency in intelligence affairs on both sides of the Atlantic.

The clock, however, cannot be turned back. What is required is the development of a new system of safeguards and controls that will allow the kind of public accountability so essential to contemporary governance while minimising the risk of political exploitation. These are dangerous times where a strong intelligence community is our true first line of defence against the depredations of a new generation of terrorist, unprecedented in its brutality, aided by citizens and governments of countries who would otherwise appear our friends. It is not a time for the intelligence services to be crippled by political abuse or public yardarm clearing.

Philip H. J. Davies is deputy director of Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, Brunel University. He is co-author of a study of the Hutton inquiry being published by the Social Affairs Unit in March, and his book MI6 and the Machinery of Spying will be published by Frank Cass in May.

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