Spying Today Special Report: Intelligence and the Iraq War

Why was Iraq targeted?

1) It was consistent with the US idea that it is easier to hit the countries that are backing the terrorists rather than taking on the terrorist groups one by one. Saddam wasn’t, but he had and he might again;

2) Iraq was an easy target crippled by years of sanctions and the no fly zones;

3) It suited Neo-Con policy in the region which was to break up anti-US and anti-Israeli states such as Syria and Iraq, preferably into an Alawite state, a Suuni, a Shia and a Kurdish. (Paper by leading hawk, Richard Perle.)

4) It should be a quick win (unlike Afghanistan which was dragging on). Also it would fill the gap since Osama Bin Laden had escaped;

5) It satisfied the Israel lobby in Washington. This would mean more money to the Republican party;

6) It satisfied the Arms lobby in Washington. (The war cost $2 Trillion – much of which went to the arms and defence industries);

7) It satisfied the Oil lobby in Washington which wanted to see the considerable Iraqi oil fields opened up;

8) After 9/11, the US public wanted to see “bad guys” bombed. Afghanistan hadn’t really “cut it”;

9) The US military, and to some extent the Bush family, had unfinished business in Iraq. The first war had been stopped early when it was thought Saddam must fall. But he didn’t. The idea now was to finish the job;

10) Genuine concerns that he might be developing WMD. This represented a failure of intelligence. There was an unknown and this was worrying;

11) It would make the President, who was notoriously weak and befuddled, look strong.

So the main problem is that the political decision drove the intelligence rather than the other way round. The reason this happened was that the intelligence was so poor.

After 9/11, Afghanistan was hit first because that’s where Osama Bin Laden was based. But once the Taliban had been forced to flee and Bin Laden had gone into hiding, the question was asked: what’s next? For all the reasons above, Iraq seemed like the perfect target to the right-wing administration at the White House.

But having taken the decision to go to war with Iraq, the White House now needed to sell the idea to the American public.

The first problem was that US intel could not find evidence of WMD. One answer to this was to say: “it must be hidden. Saddam is too clever.” After all, you can’t prove a negative. This helped, but the White House still needed intelligence. So the question became where to get it?

Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraq National Council was one source. These exiles wanted Saddam out and themselves in power – at any price. To this end, they provided a steady stream of exiles who, in effect, said anything their interlocutors wanted to hear. These stories were then fed to selected journalists.

The problem for the administration with using Iraqi exiles as a source was that the CIA knew that most of this was worthless and would not use it. The Bush administration created the Office of Special Plans (September 2002 to June 2003) which took the intelligence, unprocessed and put it out as truth. The use of unprocessed intelligence is incredibly dangerous as it is highly likely that false or fabricated intelligence will get through. Of course, this is exactly what the administration wanted. The OSP has since been called “the alternative CIA” during this period. A similar tactic has recently been used in handling intelligence related to Iran.

Senator Bob Graham on the intelligence committee says that George Tenet, director of the CIA, once came to the Senate intelligence committee with a report from the OSP claiming over five hundred WMD sites in Iraq. Graham asked Tenet how many of these sites were confirmed by intelligence on the ground? Tenet replied: “Zero”.

Another flawed source was intelligence allies. The Americans said that they wanted intelligence showing that Saddam had WMD. The allies wanted to keep the US happy so they started looking:

i) The BND in Germany produced CURVEBALL, in reality an immigrant named Rafid al-Janabi, a source who later admitted that he made everything up – he was just trying to keep his interrogators happy so that he could stay in Germany. He came up with the idea that Saddam was using mobile germ warfare laboratories to evade detection. The BND says that it expressed clear doubts about his reports, but senior CIA officials either were not told or did not care to believe those warnings;

ii) SISMI in Italy produced an old dossier that said that Iraq is trying to source uranium in the form of Yellowcake powder in Niger. The source of this report was Rocco Martino, a source used by Italian, French and British secret services and known to be unreliable. The documents contained in the dossier were forgeries. Who forged them is still in question to this day, but the US treated them as though they were genuine;

iii) In September 2002, the UK produced the “dodgy dossier” which contained false claims such as that Saddam could launch rockets at UK territory within one hour. It also repeated the Yellowcake story. SIS claimed that they had separate intelligence of their own that confirmed the Italian material, but the IAEA later investigated and found this to be false.

The real problem with all of the above is that because all of these agencies did not have good sources themselves, they could not tell the true from the false. But this problem was exacerbated by the fact that individuals bent the truth in order to gain favour. So in Italy, MPs have repeatedly requested an inquiry into how a report that was known to be false ended up being sent to the US. In the UK, John Scarlett (caricatured by one UK newspaper as “Baldy Lickspittle”) was rewarded with the top job at SIS by the Prime Minister because he had produced a report that said exactly what the Prime Minister wanted to hear.

Another key problem was that even when the agencies had enough intelligence to prove that these claims were false, politicians in the administration refused to hear them. So, in the case of the Yellowcake story, the CIA sent one of its officers, Joe Wilson, who knew Niger well, to investigate. He confirmed that the story was false: the French companies that owned the mines could show that no yellowcake had gone to Iraq. He reported to this effect. He was so exasperated when this was ignored that he resigned and wrote a book about his experience. President Bush famously used the yellowcake claims in his State of the Union address because his advisors had not told him about the agencies’ doubts. Three years later, when it was too late to matter, he admitted that he had been wrong.

In frustration at the administration’s approach, the CIA and others made their doubts abut the intelligence clear on back channels in Washington. Congress demanded a National Intelligence Estimate. An NIE is a digest of everything the US intelligence community knows about a particular subject. The White House needed to close this down. They did this in three ways:

i) An NIE normally takes three to four months to produce. The White House said that this one had to be produced in two weeks. This meant that there was no time to make further foreign enquiries to confirm or refute certain sources;

ii) Dick Cheney was appointed to oversee the drafting of the NIE. According to CIA officers involved in the process, he pressured the authors to say what the administration wanted to hear;

iii) However, to their credit, the agencies resisted this pressure and the final 95 page document was fairly honest about the uncertainty of the intelligence relating to Iraq. The administration wondered what to do? Their answer was to produce, in October 2002, an unclassified summary of the NIE. This was only 25 pages long, included only the most positive intelligence and was drafted to change the meaning of key passages so that, for instance, the possibility that something might be so was re-worded to be a certainty. The summary was given lots of colour photographs of Iraqi weaponry. It was then was put out to the press who lapped it up and it was also used aggressively by hawkish senators in Congress. It was only when the full NIE was de-classified in 2015 that the extent of this deception became clear.

Following the production of this summary NIE, Congress quickly moved to approve the war on 10 October 2002. Only those who had read the full report, such as members of the intelligence committee, opposed.

Colin Powell then went to the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003 and claimed that the case for the war had been made. He included lots of persuasive satellite imagery in his presentation supposedly showing nuclear processing sites and vehicles that were mobile labs for germ warfare. The weakness of satellite imagery (which America relies on very heavily for its intelligence analysis) was shown up when the invasion revealed that none of these facilities were what the NSA had claimed they were.

But it didn’t matter. Despite opposition from the French who probably had the clearest idea of the weakness of the intelligence, just one month later, on the night of 19 March 2003, the war began with the infamous “shock and awe” attack.

The war removed Saddam Hussein and that was clearly a good thing. But the price tag for this victory was high: hundreds of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, the destabilisation of an entire region, the creation of an entirely new terrorist group (Daesh) that is still a problem to this day. It can be argued with some force that thousands, including hundreds of brave armed forces personnel, have died to make a bad siuation worse.

But what was the part played by the intelligence services in this? It is easy to get “lost in the woods” when considering the intelligence relating to the Iraq War. Certainly, politicians ignored contrary advice. Allies sent poor or false intelligence. Satellite imagery proved to be almost useless. But in the end one key point stands out: the intelligence services failed because not one of them had a range of sources of sufficient quality and reliability.

It really is as simple as that. Intelligence is supposed to remove doubt. If intelligence services do not do their job properly, then policy mistakes will surely follow. That is the key intelligence lesson of the Iraq War.

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