Debating Military Intelligence

The Saddam-Hitler comparison (parody). US, 2005.

Today, the British government is finally releasing the long-awaited Chilcot inquiry on the UK’s role in the lead-up to the Second Gulf War, and the occupation that followed.

Already, more detailed stories are coming out for that period, such as how a lack of prewar planning, further compromised by organized crime and Iranian agents of influence, has left a bitter legacy for the residents of Basra, the only major city run by the British during this period. Or the renewed allegations that British troops carried out extrajudicial torture and killings against looters.

Most of the coverage, though, will focus on the case for the war itself put forth by the Blair government. Talk abounds that the former Labour prime minister, may be impeached so he cannot hold public office again in the UK. The intelligence cited as casus belli for the invasion will come under scrutiny as well, though since so much of it passed back and forth between the same British and American hands, though in the British case, most of the “intelligence” cited in public forums was either plagiarized from open sources or simply rumors reported as fact. Some formerly classified details may prove to be a reiteration of what is known now about the abuse of intelligence collection and analysis processes to deliver ultimately misleading talking points before the UN, the Sunday press, Congress, and Parliament.

The job of any country’s intelligence community is to “analyze, produce, and disseminate intelligence”: it does not set policies. However, the policymakers in the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans” (OSP) came to distrust the “mainstream” intelligence community’s delivery of intelligence to the White House, and so formed their own parallel conduit to deliver intelligence products. It is clear that the OSP is a case study in the tensions between analyst and policymaker … and how not to bring intelligence consumers and producers together to work more closely. The OSP’s failings in 2002 and 2003 illustrate the pitfalls of those doing intelligence work internalizing policymaking debates when carrying out their duties.

The Bush Administration was frequently demanding clarification and prioritization of intelligence products from the CIA and other agencies in 2002 and 2003 with respect to Iraqi WMDs and Saddam Hussein’s state sponsorship of terrorism, especially the alleged links to al-Qaeda so often cited by officials. It was even then understood that Vice President Dick Cheney’s visits to the CIA in the months before the war began were a signal event, and the formation of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) further signaled tensions between the intelligence community and policymakers.

The formation of the “Office of Special Plans” (OSP), a catchall designation for the civilian and uniformed employees of the Pentagon – including a handful of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) personnel – given special intelligence gathering tasks on Iraq by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy – the OUSDP – beginning in 2002, was very troubling.

According to a report prepared by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General in response to earlier Congressional findings, the OSP and OUSDP “the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and. al-Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision makers.” The existence of the OSP demonstrated the problems that arise when those tasked with intelligence collection and dissemination fail to maintain professional distance from the policy the intelligence is put to use over. For policymakers, it demonstrated the value of understanding the nature of the work in order to avoid making the same sort of errors again.

The priorities the OSP/OUSDP set were not inherently at odds with US policy, and reflected the importance assigned to those issues at the time: the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was focused on determining the presence of WMDs in Iraq, and of state-sponsored terrorism by Iraq that raised proliferation concerns. The argument between the intelligence community and the OSP arose from the fact that the members of the OSP then set out to focus on WMD confirming-information, and then process the intelligence there themselves.

The latter reason is why the clash of interests manifested with grave consequences, because it is otherwise quite common for policymakers to demand revised or more detailed intelligence findings. The OSP/OUSDP saw itself in a support role in the policy sense – to confirm a course of action – as opposed to the intelligence sense of trying to remove some of the opacity surrounding the NIE’s conclusions about the active status of the Baathist regime’s WMD programs, regardless of what other sources had to say.

Though the US did have high-level (and ultimately, accurate) information from weapons inspectors and also defectors collected several years’ prior to the last-minute return of the UN in 2002 – most notably from Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel al-Majid (who was later executed for treason), there remained doubt over their findings and the latter’s claims.

Iraq had deliberately obfuscated its WMD history to avoid admitting to the world it no longer held vast stockpiles of them to use as a bargaining chip in negotiating with the UN or deterring Iranian military action. In 1995, Iraq went so far as to muddy the waters it actually disclosed damning details about its nuclear and biological weapons programs within days of Kamel’s defection, doing so to undermine his testimony to the CIA and MI6 about the suspension of WMD work.

The problem was less that intelligence had been deliberately manufactured – though in several cases, it was, from whole cloth, by defectors wrongly given highest praise by the US and UK – but that conclusions drawn from the data conveyed a level of certainty that did not truly exist within the intelligence community.

In terms of collection for those assessments, the biggest difference between the OSP and the rest of the intelligence community’s work came after information was gathered and then proceed to the processing and exploitation and analysis and production stages. Congress and the Department of Defense found that the OSP did not make clear the caveats the CIA and other bodies had about certain Iraqi dissidents.

But by not explaining the “disclaimers” on such sources – as the National Security Agency reportedly did do – policymakers receiving OSP intelligence were in effect receiving just information, devoid of the context that these people being cited had suspect motives. As it was noted that DIA officers were performing work for the OSP, the mistakes here seriously called into question whether or not the distinction between intelligence consumer and producer was understood by those involved. In this instance, it was not.

Finally, in terms of dissemination, consumption and feedback on the intelligence provided, the OSP certainly used its policymaking position to vaunt itself over the CIA, and this was problematic because the OSP was presenting an inherently flawed product. Numerous former analysts testified to this, and George Tenet also expressed dissatisfaction with how the OSP had (in effect) a shorter walk to the White House than the CIA did in such a fraught political climate. Though this has been seen as the OSP’s biggest flaw, it is not so much a consequence of the OSP as of the nature of policymaking in Washington.

The OSP/OUSDP was dominated by staffers who had relationships with the Secretary of Defense’s own office and were in tune politically with the Bush Administration as suspicious of CIA “doves” who demanded more time to draw conclusions, something both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were loath to give, as the Chilcot inquiry now makes quite clear. Such close ties are inevitable and can override normal channels in any circumstances, in any administration: here, specifically, then-Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz had a history of clashing with the CIA, and the feelings of mistrust were indeed mutual.

Ironically, when the US and UK did occupy Iraq, all of the WMDs they found were leftover chemical weapons they had expected to find: materials that had been accidentally forgotten about, become inaccessible over time, or been deliberately concealed to avoid further embarrassment. Sadly, though, the personnel sent to dispose these lethal “leftovers” were not properly equipped to do so – raising questions over just what, exactly, the US and UK would have done if they had found the massive stockpiles and mobile weapons labs they claimed to be ready to deal with when they found them.

The challenge facing the intelligence community was (and is) to develop relationships that make it less likely any official will choose to set up a cherry-picking OSP to bypass analysts whose work is, by its nature, not going to come out and give them the kind of talking points to take on Meet the Press or Breakfast with Frost. For the CIA, and the intelligence community in general, future responsibility to prevent such poor communications between the intelligence community and policymakers will mainly fall on the intelligence community (a realization that helped drive the founding of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2005).

Policymakers must be told to what degree the sources cited are trusted by the intelligence community – a problem that was also apparent in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, according to two commissions of inquiry (one in Congress, the other in the White House) – as they are often not in a place to know this themselves about the source whom they’ve never met themselves.

Those delivering an intelligence assessment must convey to the policymaker that while they can use the intelligence community product however they wish, and can ask whatever questions they desire about it to their best abilities to answer, they must know that the intelligence community is not going to be able to magically produce an alternative proof for them to fall back on if things “go wrong.”

If nothing else, policymakers are receptive to “blowback” in the form of negative Congressional and media scrutiny, and the OSP affair provided plenty of that for the White House. When this is understood, then the intelligence community has a better chance of getting its foot in the door, so to speak, to deliver an intelligence product that the policymaker will be able to utilize. Issues that did become urgent priorities were raised in intelligence assessments before the invasion – on Iranian intransigence, on the possibility of civil war, on al Qaeda members pouring into the country – but all of these vanished beneath a tide of arrogance about the ease of “liberation” and the obsession over the more sound bite-friendly issue of WMDs.

And yet, the most far-ranging impact of this malfeasance and mudslinging, has been the poisoning of the US and UK’s intelligence chalices on how to evaluate the consequences of the Syrian Civil War after five years and the “Islamic State’s” victories in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Denunciations from inside the establishment claim figures have been cherry-picked to show victories where there are none, not unlike how estimates on enemy combat strength in Vietnam were fudged a generation ago. Cherry-picking intelligence – in particular, through targeted leaks about US operations in Syria and Iraq to either bolster or undermine the Obama Administration’s official line – seems to have become even more pronounced since the Second Gulf War. Information that if it were leaked by a whistleblower (meaning, if it were leaked off-script) to the press would lead to prosecutions and, in fact, has led to several such legal battles.

A key difference here is that despite the show and noise made in the name of regime change, the Obama Administration has proven by its actions it is not interested in that outcome for President Bashar al-Assad. Nor, it increasingly appears, was it interested in hearing about how the deteriorating situation in Syria was again feeding into Iraq’s internal strife and empowering what became the Islamic State.

What is the role of intelligence if we see what we want to see and ignore what we don’t? However one feels about the viability or legality of the U.S. intervening in the region again, there now seems to be a gaping hole in the halls of government where intelligence and political will ought to meet to hammer out a policy. In place of a set of bad data to justify regime change, as there was in 2003, since 2011 there appears to be a poorly-explained policy amounting to what some have called “No War, No Peace,” one with no end in sight, or willingness to make decisions that would force the U.S. to make hard choices about dealing with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and now, especially, Russia.

In the end, with the US once again failing to understand the internal situation in Iraq, one must ask what lessons, if any, have been taken into account since the Office of Special Plans was shut down. In both the UK and US, there was then and there is now a broad failure to understand and implement locally relevant and useful solutions, in part due to a lack of intelligence, but also because of a lack of solutions that can be easily implemented, yet also address the issues. Going along with sectarian narratives in the name of short-term stability, as the US and Iran are both wont to do, is easily done, but not actually workable over time.

Hopefully, some part of the Chilcot inquiry will bring more clarity to addressing bad practices carrying over into a conflict today that is altogether quite different from the one in 2003 – yet undeniably borne out of it and shaped by past errors and criminal negligence. Failure to do so would lead the inquiry to amount to little more than navel-gazing as the present crisis in Syria and Iraq continues to worsen.

Photograph courtesy of Steph Lewandowski. Published under a Creative Commons license.