The intelligence jigsaw
22 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Matthew Quarisa

I’d like to add a different perspective to the post on the limitations of intelligence that was offered by my colleague, John Coyne. I write as someone who worked at the Office of National Assessments for over 11 years, although I left ONA in late 1996, and have no personal or specific knowledge to offer on the character of the supposed ‘flawed intelligence’ about Iraqi WMD that’s said to have provided the basis for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Let me begin by agreeing with John’s analogy on the nature of intelligence assessment—it’s like being given 10,000 jigsaw pieces within which an indeterminate number of pieces from a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle are hidden. Intelligence assessment has much of that ‘puzzle-within-a-puzzle’ quality to it, where you don’t have all the pieces—typically you may have only half—and you aren’t even fully certain that the pieces you do have are entirely authentic. Casting it like that provides a better sense of what intelligence assessment can and can’t do.

The analogy’s not meant to belittle the role that intelligence collection and assessment agencies play. In reality, what ONA offers is ‘all-source assessment’: that is, it merges information that’s publicly available (whether in the form of readily-available media reporting or less accessible ‘grey literature’), with information that comes through confidential government channels, and with reporting that comes in through more arcane sources (what we commonly call ‘secrets’). As you go up that chain, information becomes more expensive—and harder—to collect. In essence, then, the government has spent a tidy sum of money to get the analyst the initial 10,000 jigsaw pieces. The eventual incomplete puzzle might seem a weak foundation for grand conclusions, but typically the analyst has access to more pieces of that puzzle than anyone else.

Still, the incompleteness of the intelligence analyst’s knowledge is, I believe, the best explanation for why it’s wrong to think—as many do—that the US, UK and Australian government ‘lied’ about Saddam’s possession of WMD in 2003. ‘Lying’ would mean they had the complete jigsaw puzzle, and consciously misrepresented what the jigsaw showed. I think they never had the full picture. Intelligence doesn’t offer a perfect understanding of the world—and Iraq was a hard collection target.

So, let’s assume that strategic analysts in 2003 started with an incomplete puzzle. What happens next? Here, I think, is where the going gets even tougher. The job of an intelligence analyst is to call it as s/he sees it—that is, to give the government the best assessment of what they think the puzzle’s actually about. Because the puzzle’s incomplete, good assessment turns upon good pattern recognition skills, expertise and experience. But let me make one thing plain: analysts are not paid to tell the government that they don’t know what the puzzle shows. Nor are they paid to offer a string of conflicting and ambiguous judgments to their ministerial readers. If ONA were to do that, it would—and should—be closed down.

Good assessment turns on good judgment. And for that reason, when we think about how to ‘get the process right’, I think that’s essentially done by hiring the best people. I’m opposed to the idea that analytical tradecraft should fall under the purview of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. It’s fictitious to believe that an external agency should stand over ONA analysts qualifying their judgments. If an analyst writes ‘Iraq probably has weapons of mass destruction’, and someone else comes along and—in the spirit of contestability— adds ‘but it might not’, I really don’t see how that helps. I don’t think it even adds any new information.

The myth of the ‘lie’ means that lots of people over the years have come to believe that Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction. That’s simply wrong. The Iraqis used chemical weapons against the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Further, the existence of a biological weapons program was dragged from the Iraqis in 1995, when the Iraqis confessed not merely to manufacturing biological agents but to weaponising them.

Yes, the UN Special Commission did good work in tracing and destroying the bulk of the Iraqi arsenal in the 1990s. But Saddam frequently led UNSCOM inspectors on a protracted game of hide-and-seek. And in 1998 he threw them out altogether. True, the inspectors returned in 2002. But the question that surely rebounded around all three Western governments in 2003 was ‘Why would Saddam go to such lengths to conceal the status of his WMD stocks unless he had something to hide?’ Richard Haass has answered that for us: Saddam didn’t want it known that he didn’t have any WMD. If that’s the real explanation, Saddam Hussein was playing a decidedly risky game—not least because he was relying on the ability of Western intelligence analysts to separate out the pieces of two distinct jigsaw puzzles from within the 10,000 pieces.