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Butler's Dilemma: Lord Butler's Inquiry and the Re-Assessment of Intelligence on Iraq's WMD

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Failure 2: House of Cards:

In this case, the raw intelligence was accurate, or as accurate as possible, but it was erroneously assessed by the members of the Joint Intelligence Committee. In this scenario, those responsible for evaluating, collating and integrating intelligence with information from other, open sources reach incorrect conclusions either by basing the assessment on false assumptions about the intelligence target, or by incorrectly weighting or interpreting the available intelligence. This kind of breakdown is far from unknown in intelligence history, in which catastrophic misjudgements have been made despite being in possession of almost all of the relevant facts, let along fragmentary and uncertain information. Items can be overlooked, misunderstood or even actively suppressed by analysts who have rigidly preconceived notions of what they expect to find from the available intelligence. Like Garbage In/Garbage Out, if decision-makers are provided with erroneous assessments, they cannot reasonably be expected to make sound decisions.

There are sound reasons for an analytical House of Cards to be a serious possibility. For example, during the Hutton Inquiry it became apparent that there were dissenting views expressed from within the Defence Intelligence Staff concerning the consensus on Iraqi WMD, at least during the formulation of the September Dossier on the basis, in part, of the September 9 JIC report on Iraqi WMD. Perhaps even more significantly, the September 9 report explicitly acknowledged the very limited sources available for the assessment, noted the unpredictability of Saddam Hussein, and, according to the ISC, and was explicitly unable to confidently estimate the scale of Iraqi CBW capabilities.

While the accuracy of the September Dossier as such is not likely to be central to Lord Butler's deliberations, the reaction of intelligence officials to the report's content tells us much about how it stood in relation to the internal intelligence community assessments on which it was based. However, it also became evident during from both the ISC report and in the words of Scarlett and other senior intelligence officials testifying to Lord Hutton that the JIC had in no way been unhappy or uncomfortable with the tone and conclusions of the September dossier. This suggests that the JIC itself shared the government's convictions, and had downplayed the uncertainties in forming its own collective judgement.

On this basis, it seems likely that the JIC adopted an overconfident interpretation on the fragmentary and often uncertain raw intelligence before it. The US Senate report on pre-war intelligence has accused the US intelligence community of 'groupthink', that is, a shared and mutually reinforcing orthodoxy that took it as a given that Iraq had substantial non-conventional weapons. While this is a tempting form of assessment, it does a disservice to the analytical problems of gauging the overall meaning of a fragmentary body of intelligence. In the simplest possible terms, analysts on both sides of the Atlantic have had to make a judgement call about whether the fragments they were seeing were a representative cross-section of very limited research and development programmes or whether they constituted the ten percent tip of a submerged, concealed, iceberg of much more extensive activity and capabilities. Concluding that the fragments in hand necessarily represented 10% or an otherwise submerged iceberg rather representative of a residual capacity may prove to have been a capital error on the part of the JIC. Nonetheless, where there is a high degree of uncertainty, as there often is intelligence, then judgement calls have to be made and one has to gamble upon their accuracy. If there were substantial reasons to make a different judgement call, Lord Butler may have good reason to criticise the analytical process in the JIC. If there were sound analytical reasons to believe that the intelligence was a 10% tip (even if it wasn't), then his criticisms will necessarily be more understated.

A complication with the House of Cards scenario is that it could be either the result of sincere error, or of politically tainted reasoning. That is, analysts may build an analytical House of Cards on the basis of genuine evaluative or integrative errors, or they may build an ultimately unsupported architecture of assessment in order to tailor their assessments to what they believe their consumers want to hear. Although Lord Hutton cleared the government of 'sexing up' intelligence in the sense of falsification, he did raise the possibility that the Chairman of the JIC John Scarlett and perhaps others had been 'subconsciously' influenced to generate an assessment favourable to government policy. Certainly there is evidence from both the Hutton inquiry and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on intelligence on Iraqi WMD to suggest that Scarlett and the JIC were under very real pressure from Downing Street's Director of Communications, Alastair Campbell, and his Communications Department, to 'cherry-pick' the available evidence and suppress indications of uncertainty that had otherwise been included in the 9 September JIC report. However, as noted above, Scarlett and the Chief of the SIS, Sir Richard Dearlove, both indicated that they were not unhappy with the conclusions articulated in the September Dossier, and this indicates that either the September 9 report was wholly consistent with the September Dossier, or that the process of cherry-picking had been sufficiently subtle that Scarlett and company were unaware that the final product was misleading compared with the intelligence community's internal assessments. It is significant that the ISC and Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee concluded, along with Lord Hutton, that no undue or inappropriate pressure was brought to bear upon the JIC to shape its assessments to a particular, pre-existing policy. However, Lord Hutton's musings on 'subconscious influence' necessarily leaves the door open to Butler adducing evidence of tacit pressure or manipulation by the Government, or voluntary tailoring assessments by members of the intelligence community in order to curry favour with their political masters.

The main point of governmental exposure over the September Dossier within Butler's terms will probably have to do with the lack of success of the ISG in its search for WMD. What the ISG has found is overwhelming evidence of an extensive and intensive programme of sanitization of records, computers and laboratory facilities, as well as concealment of WMD programme components, prior to and during the Iraq war. Butler may conclude, as we have in Spinning The Spies that publication of such a detailed assessment critically tipped the allies hands to Saddam Hussein and his regime. National assessments are generally kept secret, not just to protect sensitive sources and methods, but also to prevent an adversary from gaining too complete a knowledge of one's thoughts and plans. Instead, Britain and the United States gave Ba'athist Iraq six months to pursue a 'scorched earth' policy of concealing or eradicating what WMD assets existed. This may yet prove to have been a crucial error. In some intelligence communities there are still practitioners who believe that the weapons exist, but remain either concealed in the desert or in one of Iraq's neighbouring countries (Halevy, 2004). This is not a possibility to be dismissed lightly.

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