Sep 29, 2003 | 04:00 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Sunday, Sept. 28, 2003

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
One of the delights of our business is that we get to see surrealism without having to visit an art museum. Sometimes it's as if Salvador Dali painted a canvas just for us. It seemed that way today, when both U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice went on the Sunday news shows to reassert that the United States did have solid intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Here's what happened. Members — one Republican, one Democrat — of a congressional intelligence oversight committee went public with this claim about the Bush administration's intelligence on Iraq's WMD: "The assessment that Iraq continued to pursue chemical and biological weapons remained constant and static over the past 10 years." Put simply, the intelligence community had arrived at a conclusion and didn't re-examine it. Rice countered the congressmen by saying " was very clear that this (WMD development) continued and it was a gathering danger. Yes, I think I would call it new information and it was certainly enriching the case in the same direction." Powell weighed in with, "There was every reason to believe — and I still believe — that there were weapons of mass destruction and weapons programs to develop weapons of mass destruction." A CIA spokesman said, "The notion that our community does not challenge standing judgments is absurd." What we have is this. Two congressmen have charged that the Bush administration was wrong on Iraq's WMD program because it did not re-examine the intelligence. The administration and the CIA are deeply insulted. Their position is that they continually gathered the best intelligence that they could, and that this is the reason they were wrong. The great debate here is not whether the administration was wrong, but whether it was wrong because it either failed to challenge its old assumptions — or the fresh intelligence gathered was inaccurate. This is not a trivial question. Understanding the origins of intelligence failure is something every intelligence organization, including STRATFOR, has to do. It matters whether the failure was one of analysis, rooted in the Directorate of Intelligence, or of collection, rooted in the Directorate of Operations. If the White House overrode the intelligence, that matters even more. These things need to be understood. But the indignation with which the State Department, the National Security Council and the CIA are responding to congressional charges misses the point: Someone clearly screwed up, and if it wasn't a failure to challenge premises, then it was something else. Neither Powell nor Rice nor the CIA came close to offering an alternate explanation, as if one weren't needed. Powell came closest of any to making sense when he said that getting rid of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was the important thing. At least that is a policy. Our view has always been that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken because of strategic considerations, not WMD — that was just a basis for building a coalition with Europeans. However, the administration clearly thought it would find WMD — otherwise it would have created another excuse. This brings us back to the intelligence failure. One way or another, there was either a massive intelligence failure, or the WMD are still out there with the guerrillas. We think that to be marginally possible. But barring that, the fact is, someone was dead wrong. We don't think anyone lied, because that would be too stupid and unnecessary. Eventually they would wind up where they are now, and there was no need for that. Therefore, there was an intelligence failure, and if the origins of that failure were not in a fixed, unexamined set of assumptions, then it is time for Powell, Rice and the intelligence community to cough up another explanation. While they're at it, they might explain whether the CIA predicted the guerrilla war that the United States currently has on its hands, or whether this was another intelligence failure. Intelligence failures happen. Alternatively, intelligence estimates are sometimes overruled by customers who order up something more suitable to their political needs. All of this is understandable and part of the business. But the Bush administration's unending attempts to shoot down plausible explanations for intelligence failures without offering its own is bizarre. If we are to believe the administration, the intelligence process worked perfectly. The mere fact that it came up with the wrong answer should not be permitted to undermine the perfection of the process. Gee, we wish we could get away with that.

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