Friday, November 18, 2005

Pre-Invasion Intelligence: the Questions that Should be Asked 

The questions of what we did and did not know and what we could or should have known prior to the invasion of Iraq are very important and can be very helpful in determining the proper course of action in potential future crises. Unfortunately those questions are currently being intentionally wrapped around the axel of politics in an attempt by one party to turn public opinion against the other. One result of this is that a broad question of capabilities and accuracy has been narrowly defined based upon the successes and failures related to a single area of interest (WMD). While this is the topic de jour I will generally restrict myself to discussing the intelligence concerning Iraq's WMDs and programs. I will return to the political angle later, but first want to provide, as best I can, some objective thoughts on the important issue of pre-invasion intelligence and what it may mean for either future collection activities or the use of similar intelligence in the future.

In general I am uncomfortable with declarations of what we did and didn't know, as that can often be more contentious than constructive. I would rather speak of what we thought we knew and what we now know and examine where these are not at variance. Barring the most outlandish moonbat conspiracy fantasy wherein the President alone is privy to some super-secret data revealing that everyone else in the world was wrong, the major items of critical information we believed prior to invasion can be summarized as:It is important to note that all these items were believed with very strong confidence. So now, following the collapse of the Saddam regime and inspection activities, what can we say to actually know?It is important to note that this is only what we know. I am sure that in classified channels there are many more things we thought we knew and many more things we have discovered as fact that have not been release. These items may further support or contradict each other but I have no way to judge them, and I hope it stays that way (i.e. people who are supposed to keep classified information secure do so). What is often lost in the background noise of accusation and grandstanding is that nothing we have discovered as fact after invasion completely refutes what we believed to be true prior to invasion. The fact is that it will never be possible to prove Iraq had no WMDs at the time we believe they did. It is also, for example, an entirely reasonable belief that sometime in the many months prior to invasion Saddam had the opportunity to hide or move his contraband. I do, however, think that the reported complete lack of deployed weapons is a pretty good indication that the pre-invasion intelligence likely overstated both the extent of Iraq's programs and the certainty with which the evaluation was made. If one accepts this finding the next question is did we either have the information available or should have been able to collect the information needed to have provided a better capabilities estimate and a more accurate self-assessment of our confidence?

One thing we have learned from post-invasion analysis of documentary evidence is that it seems Saddam may have been just as wrong about Iraq's WMD capabilities as we were. There are indications that he was routinely told what he wanted to hear, often out of a well justified fear for one's life. If this is the case then it is clear that in this particular circumstance the most sure way to have improved the accuracy of our intelligence would have been to have had HUMINT (human intelligence) inside the Iraqi armed forces to report exactly what the situtation was at the unit level. The combination of the severe degradation of the CIA's HUMINT structure throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s coupled with the very closed Iraqi society make this a virtual impossibility. While additional information might have been available with improved satellite or communications intercept capabilities I don't think we have any meaningful way to evaluate if this is the case, and I don't necessarilly believe this possibility bears meaningfully on the apparent failures. This is because the greatest failure of pre-invasion intelligence was also seen as a failure of pre-9/11 intelligence that hasn't been much remarked upon: over confidence.

In both cases our intelligence structure failed to accurately assess what we did not know about the situation and to accurately appraise the confidence with which to ascribe to the intelligence. Basically, our failures were not so much in the data as in the metadata. We live with uncertainty every day in our private lives and so, too, does the national intelligence structure live with uncertainty. Understanding the known unknowns and anticipating the unknown unknowns (to borrow from Sec. Rumsfeld's lexicon) is essential in providing the most accurate evaluation possible, and this is no easy measure. Despite all the Monday morning quarterbacking of how obvious X is now, one must remember that the intelligence business is like putting together a 1,000,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, except that the pieces come from 10,000 different puzzles, some of them have the picture part torn off and pieces may be added or removed from the box at random. Out of all this the analyst is expected to put together enough of the one picture needed to answer the question. It is vital to understand what is unknown or may be unknown to evaluate just how likely it is that the picture you're putting together is both the right one and put together correctly.

So, while the politicians in DC are not actually asking these the questions they are, in a round-about way, asking a legitimate question, albeit in an illegitimate manner: had we accurately known the degree to which our pre-invasion intelligence was flawed would it have been sound to still have conducted the invasion? I say this is being asked in an illegitimate manner largely because they are framing the question with the assumption that at least one party (the President) did know the extent to which the intelligence was flawed, an accusation that not only has no evidence to support it but, rather, is being made in the face of much contradictory information. The discussion is furthermore delegitimized by the false impression that the supposed faulty reasoning that led to the invasion somehow obviates any value in or obligation to following through in Iraq. The real applicability of this discussion is instead in trying to frame a conscientious thought process whereby our policy makers may, in the future, make meaningful decisions in the face of known inaccurate and incomplete intelligence.

As to the political matters alluded to earlier, I have always held it to be one of the most despicable acts possible to misuse one's knowledge or intelligence to mislead and misinform those who have less of either. For example, while I can respect the consistency of Rep. Kucinich's anti-war position, I have nothing but disdain for him when he rolls out such standard talking points as the fabled "changing justifications for the war." I wish I were in the same room so I could ask him if he really believes that the assumed presence of WMD was the sole reason for the Iraqi invasion, because if so he apparently didn't even read the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 that he voted against, since it clearly outlines multiple reasons apart from WMD.

I have no objection to asking critical questions or even making sound criticism. I do, however, most stridently object to trying to pass impassioned cries of outrage based upon false pretext as legitimate discussion. Maybe it's just easier for some to make up a reality out of whole cloth then to constructively engage issue from the ground of truth.

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