John Keegan, author most recently of Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda and most famously of The Face of Battle, writes in today’s Telegraph:

The Government is facing demands for yet another investigation of the part played by the intelligence services in leading Britain to join the United States in the Iraq war. Two questions should be asked about such demands. The first is about the usefulness of intelligence in general to the inception and conduct of military operations. The second, more difficult to answer, is what specifically such an investigation might reveal.


In May 1941, the British, having intercepted and deciphered the complete German plan for the airborne invasion of Crete, including date, time, place, strength, methods and aims, were still unable to mount an effective defence and lost the island to a weaker force.

Excellent intelligence may, contrarily, appear to have been the key to victory, but closer inspection reveals that other factors were more important. At Midway in June 1942, the American Navy had again correctly identified the Japanese intentions for the operation and its date, location and timing; but, when action was joined, it was accidental factors that won the battle. In practice, the Japanese were winning the battle until the very last moment.

Usually, however, intelligence does not provide unequivocal answers, but only indications, which require imagination to interpret correctly. Interpretation inevitably leads to disagreements among the intelligence officers concerned. Before Midway, the most important naval battle ever fought, the heads of the naval plans and communication departments in Washington were at open war over interpretation.


Above all, it must be remembered that British intelligence was attempting to penetrate the mentality of a man and a regime which were not wholly rational. It now seems probable that most of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in the early 1990s, either by the first UN inspection team (UNSCOM) or as a precautionary measure on Saddam’s own orders. Saddam was, however, unwilling to admit to such a loss of power, because of the prestige his possession of WMD brought him in the region. His policy of disposing of his WMD while refusing to admit the disposal was completely illogical.

But then almost nothing in Saddam’s megalomaniac world was logical. What logical ruler would deliberately provoke two disastrous wars, either of which might have been avoided by the practice of a little prudence?

Good points all.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    “…indications, which require imagination to interpret correctly.”

    Yup. That’s the problem right there. It takes imagination. Insert your own “Uncurious George” joke here.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Is it your contention that presidents interpret raw intelligence data to make these judgments?

  3. legion says:

    No, but they certainly set the tone for their staff and advisors. And one of the hallmarks of this administration is that _nothing_ is a failure and _no_ decision is ever wrong. Keegan is dead wrong when he says an inquiry is pointless (at least, I think that’s what he says – I can’t get to the article link right now). If everything is spun as a victory, then there’s nothing we can learn from, and the same mistakes will be made over and over (and still called successes).

    Who, what, and why can be (and will be, no doubt) debated forever, but I think it’s pretty obvious that _some_ mistakes were made in this whole Iraq affair. To say we can learn nothing by examining them is surprising from a professional thinker like Keegan.

  4. James Joyner says:

    His objection is to yet another inquiry. Having some sort of blue ribbon panel do this is necessary politically. And I think there may be something to be learned here. But, fundamentally, this is about the nature of secret intelligence: it’s a near-impossible task.