Iraq Intelligence Failure Was Unavoidable

Now our President is calling for a new, all-seeing, all-knowing fact-finding committee to determine why our intelligence services failed in regards to Iraq.

I find this disillusioning, because the reason is as plain as the nose on one's face.
Here we find ourselves in February 2004, with egg on our faces again, wondering how all the intelligence experts got bamboozled in searching for answers in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Our intelligence services failed in Iraq because they did not have effective human intelligence-gathering capabilities in Iraq or the wider region. That is why we conned ourselves into believing the existence of a threat that had apparently been dismantled years earlier.

It seems that only months ago, just about everyone was completely convinced that the murderous despot had brimming stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Iraq supposedly had all of this at the ready, just waiting to destroy humanity. The staunch belief also prevailed that Iraq was burning the midnight oil in order to design, build, and ultimately, “saber rattle” the world with its nuclear weapons.

Why and how did we get it so wrong? The response is academically simple, however only on the surface. A vast operational void in the agency's ability to collect clandestine human intelligence haunts the CIA, that is still headed by a Clinton appointee, George Tenet.

The greatest problem that has directly contributed to shoddy information collection, regrettably confused for quality intelligence, was painfully predictable. Because of the nether-world trappings and demands of clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) operations, our agencies years ago ran out of spies who can function in the nasty back alleys of the globe without compromise.

When did this start? How did this happen? The fall of Eastern Bloc Communism in 1989 is where I see the beginning of the end of U.S. HUMINT capability. When the oppressed masses of the Warsaw Pact countries fled west en masse, many American and Western leaders saw the Cold War global threat as a thing of the past. This signaled a top-to-bottom realignment of military and civilian clandestine human intelligence collection efforts and initiatives. The pink slips flew and many old pros resigned or retired in disgust.

Today, the cumulative effect of cutting clandestine HUMINT operations to the bone is “in-your-face” obvious. Our intelligence services are ineffective and incapable. They are no longer a force multiplier that should be able to provide strategic and tactical intelligence that is timely and applicable.

In the past, when our intelligence capabilities were far more vigorous and capable, if you wanted to know or learn what was going on in a foreign country, particularly in a repressive state, it was a matter of asking the intelligence services, “What do sources on the inside say?” One would have likely received an intelligence picture that was both timely, accurate and responsive to expanded follow-on inquires.

Peacetime intelligence is all about locating, recruiting, training and taking care of human intelligence sources in foreign countries. They are often targeted against the government of their homeland, or other intelligence-related focal points to which they have had verifiable and credible access.

Make no mistake: spying is a very dangerous business for all involved. It is a tricky and unpredictable business, often punctuated by the involvement and recruitment of rather unsavory personalities. They, in turn, are often committing heinous crimes against their own government for the United States. Motivations run the gamut for spies and in the best-case ideology is a plus. However desire for reward, vengeance, personal grudges and general disillusionment usually upstage stalwart ideological grounds.

What peacetime intelligence does do is determine whom you may have to attack, depose or overthrow in a short-term timeline. Intelligence fails in this scenario because a long-term human intelligence network must be in place long before any action occurs. In Iraq, we fell far short in this process. All of our high-tech wizardry cannot replace a human source with exclusive access potential.

During the cold war, and particularly in the European theater, Western agencies succeeded in recruiting some valuable human sources while the Berlin wall was going up. They served for years, constantly being vetted, until their usefulness waned in the early 1990s. Many of these human sources were agents in place who never actively participated in or contributed to intelligence collection, but were there if needed.

But that was then. With the decline of HUMINT operations over the past 20 years, the Pentagon and intelligence community have directed massive spending toward technology that at its best can provide almost “certain” and “real time” information and intelligence – but not discern human intentions or resolve conflicting data.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress decided that it was not fitting and proper for the U.S. intelligence community to hobnob with criminals and unsavory people even if to sustain and maintain espionage operations. Besides, spy satellites are so much more sanitary, non-obtrusive and more plausibly deniable.

Why, thought the politicians, should American taxpayers fund bribes to an individual who has not proven his mettle and may have a shady history, who happens to be with the inner circle of key players in the Ba'ath Party, and professes to hearing a lot of conversations on varied subjects?

This brings us back to Iraq and the disturbing void in corroborated human intelligence on its suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. It is fitting to ask, “How, could we all miss the fact that Iraq was only pretending to have prohibited weaponry, and more?”

The emerging facts indicate that Saddam Hussein did not know that he was being duped by his own weapons scientists. An alternative theory is that Iraq itself mounted a large disinformation intelligence operation to maintain prestige in the Arab world and worry its adversaries. In either way, the fact remains that the Iraqi leader himself was almost clueless and no scientist at all.

Due to the serious lack of human intelligence capability, especially in the Middle East, it was next to impossible to corroborate or disproving the allegations of Iraqi WMD – especially after Iraq ejected the U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998. So we believed them. 
Establishing enough spies in Iraq who could have potentially exposed the WMD scam, would have taken more time, money, talent and dirty dealing than most governments – especially ours – would tolerate.

That is what President Bush's blue-ribbon committee will conclude after months of hearings and millions of dollars spent. You heard it here first, and for free.

J. David Galland

J. David Galland is Deputy Editor of DefenseWatch Magazine - Soldiers For The Truth. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey