Spy Work In Iraq Riddled By Failures
LA Times – Spy Work In Iraq Riddled By Failures
A pair of British-recruited spies in Iraq, whose alarming reports of Saddam Hussein’s illicit weapons were rushed to the White House shortly before the U.S.-led invasion last year, were never interviewed by the CIA and are now viewed as unreliable, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say.
The CIA’s reliance on the two Iraqis, who were recruited by Britain’s MI6 in late 2002 and thought to have access to Hussein’s inner circle, is the latest example to come to light of the failures in human intelligence gathering in Iraq. U.S. agencies were also beset by broader, more systemic problems that included failures in analyzing communications intercepts and spy satellite images, the officials interviewed by The Times said.
U.S. experts, for example, still have not been able to determine the meaning of three secretly taped conversations that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell played to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 in making the case for war. Investigators have been unable to identify who was speaking on the tapes or precisely what they were talking about.
U.S. analysts also erred in their analysis of high-altitude satellite photos, repeatedly confusing Scud missile storage places with the short, half-cylindrical sheds typically used to house poultry in Iraq. As a result, as the war neared, two teams of U.N. weapons experts acting on U.S. intelligence scrambled to search chicken coops for missiles that were not there.
Most important, they say, was the fact that the CIA was unable to recruit a spy in or close to Hussein’s inner circle before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The lack of access was especially glaring because U.S. intelligence had made Iraq a priority target since the 1980s.
“We had zilch in terms of direct sources,” said David Kay, who led the search for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq last year as special advisor to CIA director George J. Tenet.
There’s quite a bit more like that in the story, including details of MI-6’s infiltration of the UN inspection teams that provided perhaps the best human intelligence assets we had in Iraq. Some of it is simply wrong, such as the assertion that the CIA “failed to predict Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.” In fact, their assessment was overridden by President George H.W. Bush, whose own human intelligence contacts assured him otherwise.
While much of this is useful, it is underpinned by a rather unrealistic expectation of what intelligence agencies can reasonably accomplish. Calling it a “failure” every time we act on partial information is problematic, as it reinforces the natural bureaucratic tendency to hedge bets. When starting from the premise that Saddam was actively pursuing a weapons program–certainly, a reasonable bet–it’s hardly surprising that a cylindrical storage silo was identified as being used for missiles. The reverse error–misidentifying missile silos as chicken coops–would have been far more catastrophic.
The nature of intelligence is that one is trying to discover information that people are actively trying to hide and then extrapolate future actions. Professional analysts can’t do that particularly well within our own society–where information is freely available and reporters constantly talk to decision-makers.