What has the U.S. really learned from the Iraq intelligence fiasco?

March 26 2007


What has the U.S. really learned from the Iraq intelligence fiasco?

March 26 2007


What has the U.S. really learned from the Iraq intelligence fiasco?

BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE • Given how spectacularly wrong U.S. intelligence estimates turned out to be about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the world wants to know whether lessons have been learned and U.S. claims about Iran can be trusted.

A 2005 report by a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission appointed by President George W. Bush blamed the “major intelligence failure” regarding Iraq in large part on analysts

who took fragmentary and poorly sourced information about the country, combined it with their own pre-existing assumptions, and produced bold claims whose shaky foundations were concealed to policy-makers. In just one of many examples, the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq—which represents the official consensus of all U.S. intelligence services—said Saddam was developing biological weapons in mobile labs. Unmentioned was the fact that the information came from one source—an informant who passed information on to German intelligence but had never been interviewed by the CIA, and was “already known to be a fabricator.” Making matters worse, the threat descriptions in the President’s daily briefs were, “if anything, more alarmist and less nuanced”

than the original intelligence estimates. The briefs’ attention-grabbing headlines and drumbeat of repetition left an impression that there were many corroborating reports where in fact there were very few sources. And it didn’t help that administration officials like Vice-President Dick Cheney exaggerated what the analysts said, claiming Iraq had “reconstituted” its nuclear program.

The spooks, at least, say they’ve learned their lessons. As soon as it was clear WMDs were not littered across Iraq, “the CIA covered walls with charts criticizing its own work, and figuring out where analysts might have gone astray,” says John McLaughlin,

who was the agency’s deputy director at the time. As a result, the President’s daily brief has since been overhauled to explain how solid the information is or isn’t. And just before leaving his job as director of national intelligence in January, John Negroponte issued a directive to all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies requiring that analysts explain to policy-makers “the reliability of the information on which they depend.” Negroponte also instructed that “analysis must be objective and independent of political considerations.” He established a position responsible for “analytic integrity and standards,” setting standards, evaluating intelligence reports, and supervising an ombudsman to whom analysts can complain about problems. In addition, the intelligence

community is now expected to run its conclusions past outside experts.

“Many lessons have been incorporated from the Iraq period in the way intelligence is presented, collected and analyzed,” says McLaughlin, who was acting director of the CIA in the summer of 2004. “There is great care taken to spell out the uncertainties—the things that are not known, and to caveat judgments. There is an effort made to have national intelligence estimates reviewed by a broader range of people and to get discordant views into the process.”

Although the various inquiries found no evidence of political pressure on analysts, some analysts have come forward and claimed they were pushed to confirm administration assumptions that Iraq had WMDs. The attitude of analysts has also changed, says Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA agent who

held senior intelligence positions under several presidents. “Now it’s understood that it was all a horrible mistake and there was political influence,” he told Maclean’s. “Now analysts are willing to push back and the politicians aren’t ready to push down. The situation is different now.”

It may be different, but it’s not great. Bush’s commission also looked at intelligence on Iran and North Korea, and concluded that the Iraq intelligence problems were not unique. “Across the board, the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world’s most dangerous actors,” the report said.

The official U.S. intelligence consensus today is that Iran is developing nukes. “We

The case is based on a string of activities dating back to the 1980s, when Iran began to violate its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It engaged in secret experiments with nuclear fuel, failed to report importation of various materials and technologies, and hid its initial attempts to enrich uranium. Iran continues to deny inspectors access to equipment, environmental samples and certain personnel. It has refused to discuss apparent links between its nuclear program and military missile testing. REUTERS; MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/REUTERS

THE U.S. MILITARY shows weapons that allegedly came to Iraq from Ahmadinejad’s Iran SOME ANALYSTS SAY THEY WERE PRESSURED ON IRAQ There are also unanswered questions about Iran’s dealings with the nuclear proliferation network formerly run by the father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, A.Q. Khan, who has said he sold technology to Iran. Meanwhile, Iran has been openly pursuing uranium enrichment, claiming it is building a civilian energy program. The independent Viennabased International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which reports annually to the UN

refused. The UN Security Council imposed

limited sanctions on Iran in December, and is now considering tougher measures. The ayatollahs who oppress their own people and support the terrorist organization Hezbollah, and a president who has called for the “elimination” of Israel, hardly inspire trust. Nonetheless, the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which was leaked to the Washington Post, said Iran’s public explanation that it built the program in secret over 18 years because it feared attack by the U.S. or Israel if the work was exposed, is plausible but unverifiable. The estimate also included some alternative theories for some of Iran’s suspicious activities. (This was

in contrast to pre-Iraq analysis, which did not give serious consideration to the possibility that Saddam might not have WMDs.)

As in the Iraqi case, some Iranian dissident groups seeking regime change in their homeland have attempted to influence American intelligence about the nuclear program. This time, though, the CIA’s basic information is not coming from informants, but from the IAEA, which argued all along that there was no proof Saddam was building a nuke. But the chastened CIA is not the only player. The Pentagon last spring set up a sixperson Iranian directorate in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, staffed by some of the same people that belonged to the Office

of Special Plans, a body that produced false intelligence about Saddam. Skeptics see a replay of pre-Iraq alarmism in the Bush administration’s recent accusations that Iran is arming Shia militias in Iraq with precisionmanufactured explosives designed to tear through U.S. armour. The military says it is trying to call international attention to an

increase in the use of the highly lethal devices in the hope of deterring their use. But critics fear the White House is looking for a pretext for war.

In the face of wide-ranging skepticism about its claims, the administration toned down what had started out as aggressive rhetoric. On Feb. 11 in Baghdad, military briefers displayed various weapons and precision-manufactured explosives called EFPs, or explosively formed penetrators, which they said were being smuggled into Iraq with the blessing of the “highest levels of the Iranian government.” They said the Quds force, an Iranian special forces unit that specializes in intelligence activities abroad, was bringing in the weapons. And,

said White House spokesman Tony Snow, “The Quds force is an official arm of the Iranian government and, as such, the government bears responsibility and accountability for its actions.”

But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, quickly made clear there was no evidence implicating the Iranian government. “It is clear that materials from Iran are involved,” Pace told reporters. “But I would not say, based on what I know, that the Iranian government clearly knows, or is complicit.” Bush backed Pace. More discoveries followed, but no one has linked them to the Iranian government. On Feb. 17, a raid by American and Iraqi forces in the southern city of Hilla discovered a fake rock containing parts for roadside bombs,

including infrared sensors and electronic triggering devices the military said have only been previously used by the Iranian-supplied Hezbollah in Lebanon. Then, on Feb. 25, U.S. forces found a cache of weapons north of Baghdad that included 5-mm copper plates—enough to make 130 EFPs. Some of the weapons had serial numbers

that could be traced back to Iran. But Maj.Gen. Benjamin Mixon told reporters on March 9: “I can’t tell you for sure that those munitions came from Iran, and I certainly don’t have any information about the involvement of any Iranian government officials, none whatsoever.” Likewise, when senators asked McConnell about an Iranian government link at a Feb. 27 hearing, he said, “We don’t have evidence that there is or there isn’t. My assessment would be that there would be awareness—but there isn’t a direct

link that we can point to.” McLaughlin, the former CIA acting head, who now teaches at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, says he sees caution in the administration’s claims. “They are not making sweeping statements on the Iran stuff,” he notes. “Whoever did the briefing in Baghdad apparently went further than people in Washington intended the briefer to go in connecting the activities to top levels of government.” There is reason for caution. Most U.S. casualties are caused by Sunni forces, the enemies of both Iraq’s Shias and their Iranian allies

(Iran has a long history of supporting Shia parties in Iraq). As well, some of the weapons that have been found have had English markestimate Iran could produce a nuclear weapon by early to mid next decade,” Mike McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, told the Senate armed services committee on Feb. 27 But in keeping with the new caveat culture, he hedged that “our information is incomplete.” Incomplete indeed. There is no

hard evidence, no smoking gun—everything is circumstantial. “The case is not made yet,” says Cannistraro. “Analysts do not have confirmed intelligence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Everyone believes it’s plausible, but no one can prove it.”

ings, setting off disputes about their authenticity. The accusations against Iran are “an attempt to demonize the Iranians and prepare the ground for a later military action against Iran,” says Cannistraro. “This is political spin being done by President and vicepresident, not by the intelligence community. You have to realize the infamous briefing in Baghdad was only [given by] military personnel, and the CIA was not a part of it.”

Such skepticism has others worried that a very real threat is not being taken seriously enough. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a staunch supporter of the Iraq war, has said the mistrust of the government’s intelligence on Iran was “unwarranted,” and a “danger point” that could lead to a “reluctance” of people in the administration to draw the correct conclusions.

The new emphasis on the potential frailty of intelligence is cold comfort to those who must make decisions. “We still don’t have the intelligence community overall to give us, as policy-makers, the information that we need to make good decisions in North Korea, Iran and other places,” complained Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, on Mar. 4And just because the hawks were wrong about Iraq, doesn’t mean they are wrong now. There have been many cases of underestimating a threat. After the first Gulf War, weapons inspectors discovered that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program was farther along than anyone had suspected—instead of a decade away from a bomb, he might have had it by late 1992, had the program not been derailed by the war. And in September 1962, Sherman Kent, the father of American intelligence analysis, predicted that the Soviet Union would not put offensive missiles in Cuba. A month later, satellite photos showed they were already there. Kent later wrote, “In intelligence, as in other callings, estimating is what you do when you do not know.” It does matter whether we know precisely how close Iran is to a bomb. “Once you get to enriching and making nuclear fuel, the ability to shift on a dime to having bombs is enormous,” says Henry Sokolski, a former deputy for non-proliferation policy from 1989 to 1993 in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who now heads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. It’s not necessarily a reason to go to war, he says, but it’s reason enough to do something.

After all, it was after another spectacular intelligence failure, the attacks of 9/11, that saw the intelligence community criticized for not “connecting the dots” about al-Qaeda. “On Iran, you’ve got a lot of dots,” says former spymaster McLaughlin. “The question is, should you be connecting them?” M