Questioning the Iraq Intelligence Report

Robert Kagan has a withering critique of recent media reports based on leaks from a National Intelligence Estimation saying that the war in Iraq has created more terrorists. He observes that in both the NYT and WaPo stories, “there were no quotations from the NIE itself, so all we have are journalists’ characterizations of anonymous comments by government officials, whose motives and reliability we can’t judge, about intelligence assessments whose logic and argument, as well as factual basis, we have no way of knowing or gauging.”

That’s a fair point. Could it simply be selective reporting by non-experts based on the interpretation of selective leaks by those with an agenda? Possibly, given that the conclusions printed corresponded precisely with the prevailing wisdom in the Washington press corps.

[W]hat specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the “terrorism threat”? Presumably, the NIE’s authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn’t mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.

Probably what the NIE’s authors mean is not that the Iraq war has increased the actual threat. According to the Times, the report is agnostic on whether another terrorist attack is more or less likely. Rather, its authors claim that the war has increased the number of potential terrorists. Unfortunately, neither The Post nor the Times provides any figures to support this. Does the NIE? Or are its authors simply assuming that because Muslims have been angered by the war, some percentage of them must be joining the ranks of terrorists?

That’s a reasonable enough assumption, frankly, and one that I’ve always taken for granted. Indeed, it may be impossible to put concrete numbers on the phenomenon. One suspects it would be difficult to conduct reliable survey research on terrorist cells to determine a rank ordering of their reasons for joining.

Such an assessment would also require some estimate of what the terrorist threat would look like today if the war had not happened. For instance, did the authors of the NIE calculate the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the recruitment of terrorists or the effect of the bombings in Madrid and London? It is certainly possible that these events produced an increase in would-be terrorists by showing the possibility of sensational success. So if there is an overall increase, how much of it was the result of Iraq or the Danish cartoons or other perceived Western offenses against Islam, and how much of it is a continuing response to al-Qaeda’s own terrorist successes before, on and after Sept. 11?

Also unknowable, I’d think, for similar reasons. Still, intuitively, Kagan is on much more solid ground here. I have little doubt that the prospect of joining a longstanding effort against the infidel invaders in Iraq would be exciting to many angry young Muslims. At the same time, it’s not as if anger is a new conditions for youth in said communities. Indeed, as has been pointed out by many people many times, there were plenty of attacks by Islamist terrorists against the United States before the March 2003 launch of this war.

Finally, a serious evaluation of the effect of the Iraq war would have to address the Bush administration’s argument that it is better to fight terrorist recruits in Iraq than in the United States. This may or may not be true, although again the administration would seem to have the stronger claim at the moment. But a serious study would have to measure the numbers of terrorists engaged in Iraq, and the numbers who may have been killed in Iraq, against any increase in the numbers of active terrorists outside Iraq as a result of the war. Did the NIE make such a calculation?

What is the Delta? Again, probably unknowable–although one would think the NIE would contain a decent SWAG.

There is, in addition to all this, a question of context. What should we do if we believe certain actions might inspire some people to become potential terrorists? Should we always refrain from taking those actions, or are there cases in which we may want to act anyway? We have pretty good reason to believe, for instance, that the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the war, was a big factor in the evolution of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We are pretty sure that American support of the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviet occupation forces in the late 1970s and early ’80s also contributed to the growth of Islamic terrorism.

Knowing this, would we now say that we made a mistake in each of those cases? Would an NIE argue that we would be safer today if we had not helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein from Kuwait? The argument in both cases would be at least as sound as the argument about the most recent Iraq war.

In fact, the question of what actions make us safer cannot be answered simply by counting the number of new terrorist recruits those actions may inspire, even if we could make such a count with any confidence. I would worry about an American foreign policy driven only by fear of how our actions might inspire anger, radicalism and violence in others. As in the past, that should be only one calculation in our judgment of what does and does not make us, and the world, safer.

Quite so.

Now, contra Kagan, I would argue that the burden of proof is on proponents of the war in Iraq rather than its critics. After all, Not-War was the status quo. But in any calculus, vague assertions about the debits are worthless without consideration of the credits.

Like Kevin Drum, I’d like to see the release of the report, with whatever redactions are necessary to protect sources and methods. Indeed, there are reports that the president has authorized the release of at least the report’s conclusions. That’s a good thing. Given the domestic turmoil over the war, the more information we have, the better.

Interestingly, Spook66 somehow has his owned leaked copy of the document and he presents his own selective quotes that would seem to counterbalance much of what was in the NYT and WaPo stories.

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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. John Burgess says:
  2. Don’t you see this is all just a Rovian plot. First selected pieces are leaked to the NYT, WAPO. They of course take the bait. Second, the full report (minus the necessary redaction) is declassified and put out there.

    Now imagine if the administration had first just released the report. We would have seen the same behavior of highlighting the negative while dismissing the positive from NYT/WAPO, so no change there. But over all, there is likely to have been a lot less made over the other side of the story. But now, the other side of the story is likely to get at least some play (and major play on talk radio). It would be pretty hard for even the MSM to print the leaks, but not the report itself now. So the case for Iraq will likely get the best play in the media that could be hoped for.

    The case that on balance the war in Iraq is a front in the war on terrorism and that progress is being made is a good one. Whether the war in Iraq is Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Normandy invasions, South France invasion, Dieppe or the eastern front is certainly open for debate. The front in Italy was still seeing fighting when Berlin fell. The invasion of South France helped, but was a long way from vital to winning the war. The invasion of North Africa let us blood our troops, work out the kinks in going from a peace time army ready to fight the last war to an army ready to fight this war. While we tend to concentrate on the western front because that is where the US did most of its fighting in the European theater, the eastern front was where the war was really lost for the Nazis, with about 70% of the German military deployed to the Eastern front.

    Rove is playing the MSM here, its as clear as the nose on your face. Just wait until he releases the OBL in a casket photos for Halloween.

  3. Anderson says:

    It’s just breathtaking to me that anyone could suppose, even for a moment, that an American invasion of Iraq wouldn’t fuel Islamic terrorism against us. Certainly I wouldn’t trust that person’s political judgment at all.

    Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States.

    Maybe because it’s so easy to kill our soldiers in Iraq instead? This is the 2d time in a week I’ve seen this pretense that Americans killed in Iraq somehow don’t count.

    As for selective leaking, it’s an NIE … who thinks that every intel agency in the Executive Branch is going to agree? I’m sure there’s plenty to quote pro and contra.

  4. Wayne says:

    I had similar thoughts but it could have happen as it we know it now.

    Anytime during war when one side is having a ruff time, it will increase its recruiting and expenditures. It doesn’t mean they are not loosing, often just the opposite. The terrorists have been increasing their efforts for a long time now and would have keep doing so even without Iraq. Iraq probably increase their intensity but now they are fighting on the defensive instead of offensive strategy.

  5. You know, common sense in not all that common in the MSM and Liberal Wonderland. If you fight a determined enemy, like the Zombie Islamists, guess what? They are going to fight back. These people are determined to reinstate the Caliphate but worldwide. They have no interest in diplomacy, other than to use it as a ruse to allow more time to grow in number and strength.

    It is amazing to see the brainwashed elite clamoring to bash Bush when the Islamists are worst than anyone’s worst nightmare. They manifested their declaration of Global Jihad very effectively on September 11, 2001. There indeed is a war on terror. Unfortunately, we kept annoying the little kitten biting our ankle throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Now that kitten is a lion. The lion is killing, bullying, and terrorizing worldwide. To say that this is not the case, that the War on Terror is about trading US blood for oil is naive.

    This report being hailed by the MSM and Liberal Wonderland at-large is a great example of the stupor they are in. Their lust for power completely blinds them to the reality of the foe that we face. I think when the beheadings start in a western nation, they might just realize we are at war with Islam.

    Bubba’s Pravda

  6. M1EK says:

    The calculus goes like this:

    Before: M% of non-terrorist Muslims were willing to help / abet / not obstruct / not turn in terrorist Muslims.

    Now, M-N% are willing to do so, because a lot of non-terrorist Muslims hate us a lot more than they used to.

    Result: More terrorist Muslims, or at least, more successful ones.

  7. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: But, as Kaplan points out, we’re also killing actual terrorist Muslims by the thousands. Surely, that figures into the calculus, too.

  8. Anderson says:

    we’re also killing actual terrorist Muslims by the thousands

    Well, Rumsfeld thought they were being turned out faster than we were killing them, in his famous leaked memo …

    How many “thousands” of insurgents have we killed in Iraq, btw? Anyone know?

  9. Tano says:

    So what does this all add up to?

    We cant reliably assess the size of the threat in terms of the probability of another attack here in the US.

    We shouldn’t focus too much on the propensity of the terrorist pool to grow as a result of our actions.

    We don’t really know how to measure the size of the terrorist pool or its rate of increase or decrease.

    If it does increase, we can’t really parse out what the specific causes are, or how important each one is.

    In any case, the bottom line is our safety, and that can only be assessed by some complex function that takes into account all these things that we can’t really quantify very well.

    Therefore, we have no basis for claiming that the Iraq war has worsened our situation with regard to terrorism.

    But I guess it would also mean that we would have no basis for claiming that the Iraq war has improved our situation either.

    You think Kagan would be so kind as to make this argument forcefully to his buddies in the Administration? You think any of them would consider exercising such restraint?

    Kagan, of course, was a forceful advocate for invasion as far back as 1998. I guess he had the ability back then to do the calculations regarding our safety. And at every point till now. But suddenly, when others make such calculations, he helpfully points out that its really complicated to do so. Maybe there really isnt anything to do except to trust his judgement!

  10. Ray says:

    Has anything America, or any other country for that matter, done in the last 60 years or so that actually reduced the number of terrorists in the world? The only thing I can think of is the reunification of east and west Germany and the reduction of left wing terrorist organizations like the red army faction which operated in west Germany in the 70’s and 80’s. Other than that, I can’t think of a single thing. Can anyone else?

  11. Scott_T says:

    Anderson asked

    How many “thousands” of insurgents have we killed in Iraq, btw? Anyone know?

    The metric I’ve seen that is the most generous to the Terrorists is a 10+:1 ratio of our American losses verses Terrorists losses (ie 10 US soldiers dead, 100 Terrorists dead). Of course that flucates with operations and if the insurgency gets lucky with a “big kill” (IE Chopper or fully loaded Amtrac). So that’s around 30K or so currently, being generous. The ratio is changing now too, as IA takes over for the US in many areas.

    If you include the number of American WIAs (what 10K now?) the number of dead/wounded insurgents skyrockets.

    I’ve also heard 40K+ insurgent deaths and that was months ago.

    Remember also that a good portion of American hits are wounds, many Coalition hits are death and/or then capture.

  12. Susan says:

    The office of intelligence director John Negroponte released a 3-1/2 page section of the April report “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States” compiled by the 16 U.S. spy agencies hours after Bush ordered it declassified.

    Get your copy here.

    Not the Whitehouse version, but the declassified portions of the NIE report.

  13. Anderson says:

    A suspiciously round ratio, Scott, but probably as precise as we can get. Thanks!

  14. As we approach the midterm election, it is safe to conclude that little focus will be given to these realities and their eventual resolution…other than the GOP arguing that we cannot cut and run and the Democrats contending that the existing course of action is an unmitigated failure. I understand the partisan nature of politics but I can’t help but look for reasonable alternatives that might succeed.

    I contend that the Iraqi conflict, as well as the prevailing Middle East tensions, will be lessened in equal proportion to the success we achieve in providing for a Palestinian state. Given that the NIE assessment posits that, “If democratic reform efforts in Muslim majority nations progress over the next five years, political participation probably would drive a wedge between intransigent extremists and groups willing to use the political process to achieve their local objectives”, then it would be reasonable to conclude that any progress with the Palestinian issue will greatly enhance the speculative potentiality of the NIE report. Absent the Palestinian effort, I’m of the opinion that the NIE timeframe is overly optimistic and dependent upon a relatively static progression without the prevalence of unforeseen events and escalations…which seems unlikely at best.

    Frankly, I doubt that the existing Republican approach or the alternative of withdrawal supported by a number Democrats will serve to alleviate the existing conditions and bring relative stability to the troubled region. Neither approach has the wherewithal to alter the prevailing sentiment. Conversely, a voluntary effort that would demonstrate our ability to discern the profound importance of a successful Palestinian state would, in my opinion, yield exponential goodwill. Given the current conditions, such an effort has little risk.

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