Deceptive intelligence reports — then and now

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a closed society. Defectors who provided information to foreign governments risked having family members back home executed. Even the highly regarded Israeli intelligence operation, I am reliably informed, had very little information about what was going on in Saddam’s Iraq.

The U.S. had a pressing need for such information, though. We had fought one war with Iraq and the possibility of a second loomed throughout the 1990s. During that period, we were also interested in regime change, and therefore craved information about the stength of Saddam’s internal opposition, their plans, and the likelihood that those plans might succeed with or without U.S help. The possibilities that Iraq had retained WMD, and might be developing new ones, and that it was harboring and/or assisting terrorists were also matters of serious concern, especially after 9/11.

The Iraqi National Congress (INC) was the leading organization of Iraqi dissidents. More than any other group, it had the ability to provide our intelligence services with access to individuals with knowledge about the situation in Iraq. However, the INC’s interests diverged from our own. The INC wanted the U.S. to help overthrow Saddam’s regime without regard to whether Iraq possessed WMD, was helping terrorists, or was engaging in genocide. In the absence of at least one of these conditions, the U.S. had no interest in making significant sacrifices to topple Saddam.

Accordingly, whenever the INC put our intelligence agencies in touch with dissidents and defectors, we had to worry about the reliability of the information these individuals provided. They might be providing us invaluable information, but they might, to the contrary, be saying what the INC wanted us to hear, especially about WMD and terrorist connections, without regard to the truth. And they could also be doing both — giving us a mixture of true important intelligence and falsehood or exaggeration.

Under these circumstances, the proper approach to dealing with such informants seems reasonably clear in principle. We should talk with these resources, but treat them with suspicion. They should be given polygraphs; they should be questioned closely; and their statements should be scrutinized and cross-checked with great care. After that, the information provided should be taken for what the vetting process has indicated it is worth.

But evaluating human intelligence and human’s who provide it is not a science. During the Cold War, we were far from infallible in determining which defectors could be believed and to what extent. We sometimes even had trouble figuring which of our own people actually were on our side. Therefore, no matter carefully we vetted INC-related assets, it probably would have been a mistake to take any important action or adopt any policy that depended on propositions of fact that could only be established through or with the help of information provided by such assets.

Reading through the more than 100 pages of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on our use of INC information that lay out the facts, it seems clear that our intelligence agencies acted consistently with the principles I have just articulated. They administered polygraphs to INC-related sources, they treated information from these sources with skepticism; they checked it carefully against other information. To the extent that our agencies thought some of the information was worth mentioning, they mentioned it in various documents. However, as far as I can tell from the fact section of the Intelligence Committee’s report, information from INC-related source never caused our intelligence services to reach a conclusion that differed from the conclusion they would have reached without that information.

One would think that this would be the end of the matter. However, some Senators who regret voting to go to war with Iraq seem to think that it sits better if, instead of being influenced by intelligence assessments that were merely mistaken, they can claim to be misled by assessments that arguably were fraudulent. Perhaps more to the point, some Senators think that it will sit worse for President Bush if they can claim that the intelligence process was contaminated by an outside organization (the INC) that “stove-piped” information to Bush, via the Vice President’s office, via the neo-cons at the Defense Department, without proper vetting.

It is for one or both of these purposes, I believe, that the Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, along with Republican Senators Hagel and Snowe, amended the conclusions contained in the original report to make it sound as if INC-related sources were influential, rather than peripheral at best. In my next post on the subject, I will discuss in some detail why, in my view, the amended conclusions contained in the committee’s report are quite deceptive.

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