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Intelligence analysis of Iraq’s nuclear potential ahead of the 2003 war was flawed
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‘Politicization is like fog. Though you cannot hold it in your hands, or nail it to a wall, it does exist, it is real, and it does affect people.’[1]

Failures in policy are expensive and blame is often assigned to intelligence agencies. Accurate assessments form the core of intelligence, and it is when there is a difference between expected and observed estimates, that intelligence failure occurs.[2] Intelligence failures are ordinary but, it is of concern when political, economic, or military power is employed and its impacts on foreign policy are known.[3] The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is considered as the ‘mother of all intelligence failures’ as the justification for war was based on the foundation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.[4] The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reported that, ‘Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.’[5] Further, it stipulated that if Iraq were able to procure adequate amounts of foreign fissile material, then it would have a nuclear weapon within months or a year.[6] Upon invasion, no weapons were found in Iraq. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Silberman-Robb Commission, attributed the failure to the intelligence community (IC).[7] Neither found politicization to be the cause of failure and criticized the IC for not ‘accurately or adequately’ explaining to policymakers the ambiguities that lay behind the judgments placed in the NIE.[8] Follow-up investigations found that policymakers had a prominent role in politicizing assessments in the lead up to the war.[9]

This essay argues that the intelligence analysis was flawed owing to politicization and inefficiencies in the intelligence cycle. This essay will demonstrate that the Bush administration, prior to the invasion, displayed a clear intent to overthrow Saddam using intelligence as a means of garnering public support. The pro-war environment, although subtle, hampered the analytic process of the intelligence cycle. It will go on to describe how analyses on Iraq’s nuclear potential were selectively brought into prominence in the bureaucracy and in the public. In addition, the essay will account for inadequacies in the intelligence cycle, which along with politicization, greatly accentuated the flaws.

Intent

In the post-9/11 world, preventive logic was central to the Bush administration and the intent to dismantle Saddam’s government by military action was not a secret.[10] To wield public support for a war, it is necessary to distinguish between good and bad, and demonstrate genuine fear regarding the adversary’s capabilities.[11] Bush branded Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’ and announced that Iraq possessed WMD, which was a precursor to their availability in the hands of terrorists.[12] Thus, Iraq was a threat to international security. A month before the NIE was released, a poll showed that 82% of Americans believed that a military intervention of Iraq would be justified if Saddam were developing nuclear weapons.[13] The haste to address the Iraqi threat is further evidenced by the relatively short timeframe in which the NIE was generated.[14] This demonstrates the intent to launch a military intervention in Iraq and that showcasing evidence of Iraq’s nuclear capabilities to the public would justify it.

The invasion of Iraq highlights how politicization is both unavoidable and detrimental in democratic politics. The aim of any IC is to gather relevant and accurate intelligence on issues of strategic importance that can be used by policymakers to formulate a policy.[15] It is a unidirectional process, where information flows from the intelligence ‘producer’ to the policymaker or the ‘consumer.’[16] Credibility is bestowed upon intelligence when it works autonomously and objectively, but the addition of ‘political tone or character’ is necessary for the pursuance of political interests.[17] Politicization can be useful when it presents information in a way that emphasises its importance, while it is misused when it skews the facts to further a political objective.[18] The forms of politicization witnessed here include, the influence of policymakers’ preferences on the judgments of the IC and the use of intelligence to garner public support.[19] The Bush administration intended to go into war and ‘used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made.’[20] This indicates that politicization went beyond its usefulness of highlighting an imminent threat and instead the intelligence gathered was tailored to fit a wider political goal.

Groupthink

The molding of intelligence analyses was achieved by influential figures of the decision-making network whose objective was to induce a regime change in Iraq. Wolfowitz and others were critical of the intelligence cycle and held firm political views that involved the overthrow of Saddam’s government.[21] A groupthink was formed that began to challenge the IC’s assessments.[22] For instance, the CIA was unable to find evidence linking Saddam and 9/11, but despite this, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz were still convinced there was a connection.[23] In this manner, 9/11 acted as a catalyst in their objective to invade Iraq and intelligence was to be an instrument to further that agenda. The Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans (OSP) were Pentagon intelligence groups specifically set up to make assessments in accordance with policy objectives.[24] This involved cherry-picking or selectively presenting evidence that supported the notion that Iraq had nuclear weapons capabilities for government campaigns, and reporting evidence without substantiation.[25] It was observed that the reports of these groups were different to the ones presented by the IC, and the differences were attributed to the latter’s poor performance on account of 9/11.[26] In addition, the groups were found to be dependent on sources such as, Ahmed Chalabi, whose credibility was marked as unreliable by the IC, instead of technical experts.[27] The groupthink flourished under an environment where the IC was under immense scrutiny for failing to convince policymakers the imminence of the 9/11 threat. Thus, the groupthink, despite lacking an analytic drive, directed intelligence towards a war objective and established a pro-war environment.

The environ

The politicization that ensued within the IC was subtle. A divisive climate had been established with the formation of the Pentagon intelligence groups and with the CIA vying to reestablish its credibility. The atmosphere compelled analysts to generate assessments that heightened the Iraqi threat.[28] In addition, stovepiping was carried out, where raw intelligence that favored war went to higher authorities straight away without analysis, while dissenting views were filtered out.[29] Moreover, analysts who formed assessments that were at odds with the administration’s needs were repeatedly asked the same questions by policymakers.[30] Analysts were never asked outright to change their judgements, but to continually look for alternatives bearing policy preferences in mind.[31] According to Pillar, overt forms of politicization were rare, but the pro-war environment was ‘unrelenting,’ and ‘inescapable’ and analysts who went against the grain would have been lost.[32] Jervis acknowledges that he was unable to find any analysts who felt pressured, but he also attests that it would be unlikely that anyone would admit to having made errors in judgment owing to politicization.[33] A sounding testament to politicization stems from Canadian intelligence reports that were skeptical of the resumption of a nuclear program owing to the lack of evidence of equipment and materials required for reconstitution.[34] There were bureaucratic pressures to modify inferences to support invasion, but it is argued that the IC was immune to this as intelligence did not form part of political discourse in Canada.[35] This highlights that although it is not possible to quantify the political pressures felt by the IC, the overall determination of the administration to commit to war was palpable and most definitely influenced the IC.

Selling the war

‘Selling the war’ involved the issuance of public statements by the administration using unsubstantiated evidence and questionable material. The public relations campaign for an invasion began before the NIE was published when Cheney attested to the resumption of Saddam’s nuclear weapons program.[36] Till early 2002, the IC, based on reports from the IAEA and UNSCOM, noted that most of Iraq’s physical infrastructure had been destroyed and Iraq was not reconstituting its weapons program.[37] It extended its observation to include that nuclear potential could be reinstated in 5-7 years or in a year if fissile material were to be acquired from a foreign source.[38] The CIA at this juncture, noted that there was no evidence that Iraq was trying to acquire fissile material from abroad. Nevertheless, in July 2002, they released a draft paper stating that Iraq had resumed its program.[39] The versions released to the public and the drafts were found to be different in terms of the nature of assertions, and the wording appeared more suited towards a public relations campaign.[40] Additionally, it was claimed that the CIA white paper was a summarized version of the NIE, when in fact, it pre-dated the NIE.[41] Taking into consideration that no new assessments regarding Iraq’s nuclear program had been made since 1998, it is indicative that the CIA’s assessments had been marshalled towards an invasion prior to the NIE[42]

Furthermore, the administration actively cherry-picked pieces of information without taking into consideration the IC’s uncertainties.[43] In his State of the Union address, Bush stated that Iraq had actively procured yellow cake from Niger.[44] This was misleading as the IC had been divided over this issue owing to its dubious source. The evidence was later found to be forged, but the CIA continued to publish these assessments and in less than a fortnight, Iraq was invaded.[45] Similarly, in his speech to the UNSC, Powell referenced Iraq’s possession of aluminum tubes and other types of equipment required for uranium enrichment.[46] It was not stipulated that the IC diverged over this intelligence; the CIA attributed the tubes to the resumption of the weapons program, while the Department of Energy and the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research attributed their use to rockets and opined that they were not indicative of reconstitution.[47] The claim was based on information gathered by an intelligence officer at WINPAC and despite the ambiguity, it was given a great deal of attention.[48] The issuance of public statements on information that was under consideration was a challenge for analysts since they were attempting to uncover more information.[49] It placed the additional burden of having to avoid making assessments that were contradictory to the publicly issued statements.[50] Collectively, this suggests that the IC was dissuaded from offering claims that went against the grain.  

Inefficiencies

Although the intelligence assessment stating that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons capabilities stemmed from various strands of politicization, it is evident that there were weaknesses in the intelligence cycle. On the intelligence collection front, after 1998, the IC did not have any HUMINT sources, while the OSP relied heavily on an Iraqi defector, ‘Curveball,’ who had previously been characterised by the IC as unreliable.[51] In addition, there was considerable dependence on the reports from IAEA and UNSCOM.[52] In terms of analysis, the absence of a Red Team meant that assumptions went unchallenged, accuracy of reports were not questioned, and alternative viewpoints were not considered.[53] There were issues pertaining to style and the use of language in the reports, suggesting that it was too convincing and varying degrees of certainty were not conveyed appropriately.[54] Jervis opined that the IC ‘overlearned’ from their past mistakes and overcompensated by exaggerating their assessments.[55] Prior to the First Gulf War, the IC faltered on their estimates of Iraq’s nuclear potential and were unaware of about half of the nuclear weapon installations.[56] Subsequent analyses assumed that Saddam had resumed the nuclear program after 1998 but they failed to take into consideration the state of the program, which had become weak, inefficient, and wrought with corruption.[57] Despite developing an understanding of the regime, analysts did not take into consideration Saddam’s attitude towards disarmament and national security. Most of the literature suggests that Saddam expelled the UNSCOM inspectors and kept up appearances to employ ‘deterrence by doubt,’ but another explanation is that inspections by foreign organizations would have rendered the regime vulnerable to internal threats.[58] The IC was focused on the WMD threat, and they failed to look for alternative explanations for the expulsion of the inspectors. In contrast, Canadian intelligence opined that Saddam was not hiding WMD, rather, he was unable to resume the program, owing to the sanctions.[59] The technical analysis was also flawed, for instance, the NGIC opined that it was unlikely that the aluminum tubes were for rocket use, when in fact, that was found to be their purpose.[60] Conformity was observed when the Department of Energy opined that the aluminum tubes were unlikely to be used in enrichment but went ahead with the consensus that it was for Iraq’s nuclear program.[61] Collectively, this highlights that there were deficits in the intelligence cycle, which were not a result of politicization.

Speaking truth to power

A range of tactics were employed by the Bush administration to arrange facts on Iraq’s nuclear potential around a policy that was determined to use military force to overthrow Saddam.[62] This case shows that intelligence and policymaking are bridged by politics. Although blatant forms of politicization, such as a threat to change an analysis, is unlikely to have occurred, there was considerable intent to distort intelligence to further the political agenda.[63] The analytic part of the intelligence cycle had weaknesses, resulting in ambiguities in assessments, and in the pervasive pro-war environment, there may have been a tendency for these uncertainties to be skewed in accordance with policy objectives.[64] Politicization was a key instrument used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and the erroneous estimates of Iraq’s nuclear potential was in part due to politicization, but it was not the only factor that contributed to the flawed analysis.

Lakshmy Ramakrishnan is pursuing MA International Relations at King’s College London. She also holds a postgraduate degree in Biomedical Science and regularly writes for magazines and periodicals. Her research interests include health, security, and diplomacy. 

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[1]  John Gentry, Lost Promise: How CIA Analysis Misserves the Nation, 1993), 243.

[2]   Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails : Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (New York: Cornell University Press, 2010)2.

[3]  Stephen Marrin, "Preventing Intelligence Failures by Learning from the Past," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 17, no. 4 (2004), 655-672. doi:10.1080/08850600490496452.

[4]  Michael Fitzgerald and Richard Ned Lebow, "Iraq: The Mother of all Intelligence Failures," Intelligence and National Security 21, no. 5 (2006), 884-909. doi:10.1080/02684520600957811.

[5]  National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction,[2002]).

[6] Ibid.

[7]  Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on the US Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq,[2004]).

[8]  The Silberman-Robb Commission, The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction,[2005]).

[9]  Select Committee on Intelligence, Whether Public Statements regarding Iraq by U.S. Government Officials were Substantiated by Intelligence Information,[2008]).

[10]   Jack S. Levy, "Preventive War and Democratic Politics," International Studies Quarterly 52, no. 1 (2008). doi:10.1111/j.1468-2478.2007.00489.x.

[11]  Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 227.

[12]  Liesbeth van der Heide, "Cherry-Picked Intelligence. the Weapons of Mass Destruction Dispositive as a Legitimation for National Security in the Post 9/11 Age," Historical Social Research (Köln) 38, no. 1 (2013), 286-307.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Mark Phythian, "The Perfect Intelligence Failure? U.S. Pre-War Intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction," Politics & Policy 34, no. 2 (2006), 400-424. doi:10.1111/j.1747-1346.2006.00019.x.

[15]  Michael Handel, "The Politics of Intelligence," Intelligence and National Security 2, no. 4 (1987), 5-46. doi:10.1080/02684528708431914.

[16]   Sherman Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World PolicyPrinceton University Press, 2015)180.

[17]  Richard Betts, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 74.

[18]   Betts, Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, 74

[19]   Paul R. Pillar, "Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq," Foreign Affairs; Foreign Affairs 85, no. 2 (2006), 15-27. doi:10.2307/20031908.

[20] Ibid.

[21]  James Bamford, A Pretext for War : 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies (Place of publication not identified: Anchor Books, 2005)251.

[22]   Phythian, "The Perfect Intelligence Failure? U.S. Pre-War Intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction," , 400-424

[23]  Bamford, A Pretext for War : 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies248

[24]  The National Security Archive, Special Plans and Double Meanings: Controversies Over Deception, Intelligence, and Policy Counterterrorism,[2014]).

[25]  Bamford, A Pretext for War : 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies246

[26]  Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco : The American Military Adventure in Iraq (London: Allen Lane, 2006)84.

[27]  Select Committee on Intelligence, The use by the Intelligence Community of Information Provided by the Iraqi National Congress.

[28]  Joseph Cirincione et al., "WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications," Biosecurity and Bioterrorism; Biosecur Bioterror 2, no. 1 (2004), 51-55. doi:10.1089/153871304322964345.

[29]   Seymour Hersh, "The Stovepipe," The New Yorker, 2003, 077.

[30]  Bryan Burrough et al., "The Path to War; the Path to War," Vanity Fair, 2004, 228.

[31]   Bryan Burrough et al., "The Path to War; the Path to War," Vanity Fair, 2004, 228.

[32]   Paul R. Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)148. doi:10.7312/pill15792.

[33]   Robert Jervis, "Reports, Politics, and Intelligence Failures: The Case of Iraq," Journal of Strategic Studies 29, no. 1 (2006), 3-52. doi:10.1080/01402390600566282.

[34]  Alan Barnes, "Getting it Right: Canadian Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, 2002-2003," Intelligence and National Security 35, no. 7 (2020), 925-953. doi:10.1080/02684527.2020.1771934.

[35]  Ibid.

[36]  The White House Archives, Vice President Speaks at VFW 103rd National Convention ,[2002]).

[37]  National Intelligence Council, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs,[2002]).

[38]  Ibid.

[39]  Director CIA, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs,[2002]).

[40]  The National Security Archive, PR Push for Iraq War Preceded Intelligence Findings,[2008]).

[41]  Ibid.

[42]  Scott Lucas, "Recognising Politicization: The CIA and the Path to the 2003 War in Iraq," Intelligence and National Security 26, no. 2-3 (2011), 203-227. doi:10.1080/02684527.2011.559141.

[43]   Pillar, "Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq," , 15-27

[44]  The White House Archives, Bush Delivers State of the Union ,[2003]).

[45]  Phythian, "The Perfect Intelligence Failure? U.S. Pre-War Intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction," , 400-424

[46]  US Department of State Archive, Remarks to the United Nations Security Council,[2003]).

[47]  Select Committee on Intelligence, Report on the US Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq

[48]   Ibid.

[49]   Pillar, Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform148

[50]  Ibid.

[51]  Phythian, "The Perfect Intelligence Failure? U.S. Pre-War Intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction," , 400-424

[52]  Ibid.

[53]   Jervis, "Reports, Politics, and Intelli

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