The Logic of Intelligence Failure

CDI president Bruce Blair has an excellent assessment of the inherent difficulty of intelligence:

The severe post 9/11 criticism of the U.S. intelligence system for underestimating the terrorist threat to America, and for overestimating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would be sharply tempered if critics understood the laws and limits of reasoning. Uncertain threats tend to be misestimated initially, and only repeated assessments can close the gap between threat perception and reality. Even when the strict rules of inductive reasoning are applied to spy data, ten or twenty successive reviews are typically needed to ensure that perceptions match reality.

Critics presume that far fewer assessments should suffice, and accuse users of intelligence with dogmatism if they do not respond with alacrity to the first alarm bells warning of a rising threat, or to the latest report discounting a threat. This criticism implies that intelligence analysts should suspend their prior beliefs and seize upon only the latest intelligence inputs. At the same time, if the inputs prove to be wrong, critics blame intelligence analysts for not seeing beyond the evidence and divining intentions.

While intelligence analysts cannot be psychics, psychology does, and should, figure prominently in the process of interpreting intelligence. Subjective opinion and preexisting beliefs, held by intelligence analysts and users of finished intelligence, including the top national security decisionmakers, are core elements of reasoned interpretation. The key to success or failure in interpreting intelligence information lies in rationally adjusting prior beliefs to make them conform to incoming intelligence information.

Prior opinion plays a critical role in every intelligence endeavor associated with current national security priorities: avoiding accidental nuclear war, detecting weapons of mass destruction, anticipating terrorist attacks, and preempting America̢۪s enemies. The initial bias of decisionmakers can be a blessing or a curse, but all that we can reasonably expect is that it is properly revised as new intelligence arrives.

An argument can be made that the processing of intelligence followed laws of reason in the cases of 9/11 and Iraq̢۪s weapons of mass destruction. Applying a rule of logic known as Bayes̢۪ law to these cases shows that the intelligence process produced conclusions that were not only plausible but reasonable.

Quite so.

Quite interestingly–CDI was hardly a proponent of the Iraq War–Blair makes a similar assessment of the WMD issue:

This seemingly dogmatic view is in fact the logically correct one. Why? Because top leaders do not function in a contextual vacuum. They inevitably depend on their own presumptions. And in the Iraq case, a very strong initial presumption of guilt is understandable in view of the regime’s history. In late 1998, UNSCOM issued its final report listing WMD capabilities that remained unaccounted. Iraq still had not disclosed those capabilities fully in its December 2002 report to the United Nations. In view of this failure and of Iraq’s historical intentions to acquire WMD, it’s not surprising that leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 the overwhelming bipartisan expert consensus of the United States and practically all other nations with modern intelligence capabilities was that Iraq certainly possessed at least a stockpile of chemical and biological agents.

Nobody seriously challenged that assessment, and if the rational calculations discussed above bear any resemblance to actual intelligence assessment during this period and after the war, it is no surprise that many of the most informed experts to this day still cling to the belief that Iraq possesses such weapons.


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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Delta Dave says:

    On one hand we have the perfect vision of hindsight. And on the other we have the flawed vision of reality.

    Could more have been done,…?? In hindsight, indeed, much more. In fact, in hindsight 9-11 could have been predicted and prevented in multiples of way…

    In reality, well, we are have to deal with the flawed processes in place and the lowest common denominator of human behavior working as marginal income screeners….not the ideal standard envisioned by perfected hindsight. Gee, wouldn’t it have been grand if all the screeners on duty on the morning of 9-11 were PhDs, the most alert, the most insightful, the most intitutive, the most aggressive, the most attentive screeners available, and armed with flawless intelligence …. but then they would have needed the supervisorary staff to also been on alert …. and the security staff to have been in top form … and the intelligence to have been ideally specifice to alert all the above to the moment of danger.

    If only all the planets had aligned correctly, the we could clearly and fairly blame someone…er..blamed the Bush adminstration and all career government employees on duty at Logan and Dulles, etc. for the “failures” of 9-11.

    I know we cannot blame the indivduals who actually committed the acts…they were driven to the action by American culture or whatever. And we cannot blame the Muslim community…they are a religion, a community, an advocate of restraint and peace.

    Yep, I am sure, in hindsight, its ALL Bush’s fault. (Well also Condi Rice’s (and maybe, if it floats, — Powell’s) fault also.)

    I know the liberals, the klintoons’ the dimocrates, and especially senator kerry are totally free of responsibility ….(don’t you just hate the word ‘blame’ — I do).