Intelligence Failures Now and Then

The special commission investigating U.S. intelligence failures prior to the Iraq war has been focusing on the erroneous belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the president’s candid hour-long interview with NBC’s Tim Russert pointed to another serious intelligence failure: The president’s decision to take the country to war in Iraq was based not on the observations of area experts and seasoned professionals, but rather on the advice of a handful of partisans with a political axe to grind. In fact, Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, has admitted that his reports on WMD were faulty but that it doesn’t matter now. “We are heroes in error,” he says. “Our objective has been achieved. … What was said before is not important.”

All presidents receive information about potential threats from many sources. Much of this information is speculative, some of it is contradictory. Even the best leaders make decisions based on incomplete information, and on intuition.

Often their hunches are correct. Following the dramatic launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in October 1957, many Americans feared that the United States had become vulnerable to nuclear attack from Soviet missiles, and they called upon President Dwight Eisenhower to close the so-called missile gap.

But Eisenhower doubted that Soviet successes in the space race constituted a threat to the United States. A key factor in Eisenhower’s belief that there was no missile gap were conversations that he had had with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. At one point, for example, Khrushchev confided to Eisenhower that the United States possessed an overwhelming strategic advantage over the Soviets. It was for this reason, Khrushchev explained, that the Soviets would not agree to an arms control pact that would freeze American superiority into place.

There was always the possibility that Khrushchev was lying. Eisenhower weighed that possibility. But he noted that the U-2 spy plane program had failed to locate even a single operational Soviet missile site. Eisenhower correctly deduced that Khrushchev was telling the truth. There was no missile gap.

Compare this episode with the approach taken by President Bush in the lead up to war with Iraq. The president received numerous recommendations about what to do with Iraq. Very few people disputed that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. But some warned that Iraq would disintegrate into a cycle of violence following his removal from power. Others worried that a new government would be hostile toward the United States. A classified State Department report released to the media prior to the start of the war warned that, throughout the Middle East, “anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States.”

Given these pre-war predictions, journalists asked senior Bush administration officials how they would deal with such a government. Russert asked: “If the Iraqis choose…an Islamic extremist regime, would you accept that, and would that be better for the United States than Saddam Hussein?” The president replied: “They’re not going to develop that.”

He then revealed that his confidence stemmed from some special intelligence he received in a private conversation. “Right here in the Oval Office,” the president explained, “I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people … that have made the firm commitment” to “minority rights and freedom of religion.” “These people are committed to a pluralistic society.”

The three people in question — Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim — are members of the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the United States immediately after the collapse of Saddam’s regime. Pachachi was thrown out of the Iraqi government following the Baathist coup of 1968 and spent many of the intervening years in the United Arab Emirates. Chalabi left Iraq in 1956, and is best known for his role as a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an organization that had long advocated Saddam’s removal from power. Finally, Al Hakim, is a leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution and is also a leader in the Shiite paramilitary Badr corps.

These people, the president says, are committed to creating a liberal democracy. And, in fairness, “these people” — two who have not lived in Iraq for decades and a third the leader of an Iranian-based Shiite revolutionary group — may be. But, given that American administrators appointed them to the Governing Council, should we have expected any less?

Before taking the country to war, the president argued that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action. His calculations assumed a smooth transition in post-Saddam Iraq to a liberal democratic government that harbored no ill will toward the United States. He based this presumption not on the opinions of area experts, but rather on the promise of three individuals whose credibility was open to challenge, and whose understanding of the situation on the ground in Iraq was based not on facts, but rather on conjecture, speculation, and wishful thinking.

That is an intelligence failure.