Wed, Jul 21, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Intelligence loses its reputation

With security agencies on either side of the Atlantic reinforcing one another's mistakes and a crucial US election drawing near, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to get off the fence

By William Pfaff  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


The message of the Butler Report and the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has been the same. The British and US intelligence services have been compromised and politicized.

Their findings on Iraq were edited to deliver the conclusions the prime minister and president wanted, justifying an invasion the two had already decided on.

Criticism has in the past focused on the issue of deliberate bias or lies introduced into the evidence by interested ideological or exile groups. But more pernicious in the end was probably the analytical distortion produced by the conventional wisdom.

Lies risk being challenged and discredited. The conventional wisdom carries no risk for the person who invokes it. It has become what "everybody knows."

The conventional wisdom of Western intelligence before Iraq's invasion was that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons, and an active program for acquiring nuclear weapons.

Chemical weapons were not a great success during the Iran-Iraq war, although they were used by Saddam against passive civilian populations inside Iraq.

His government tried to develop nuclear weapons before the Gulf war, presumably for deterrent purposes, and for prestige and blackmail (since no non-suicidal scenario was ever offered for their offensive use by Iraq; and, while the Baath leadership did stupid things, it never gave sign of a self-destructive tendency: quite the contrary).

This history automatically led intelligence agencies after the Gulf war in 1991 to think that, despite UN strictures and inspections, Saddam would go on pursuing a deterrent weapon. That he would give it all up seemed unlikely. But "seemed" is not an intelligence finding.

The consensus that prevailed in Western intelligence agencies contributed to their reciprocal "intoxication" of one another, as French President Jacques Chirac remarked. Chirac has been in office long enough to take a disabused if not cynical view of anything he is told.

The institutional damage of this affair for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the CIA is great. The relationship between the two is an old one. The SIS launched modern US intelligence. It has remained ever since in a troubling superiority/dependency relationship with its rich transatlantic equivalents.

Beginning with the carefully managed visit to the UK in July 1940 of the New York lawyer William "Wild Bill" Donovan, as then president Franklin Roosevelt's special envoy, British intelligence fostered and educated the US intelligence and political warfare organization that Donovan, on Roosevelt's orders, established in 1941.

SIS showed its new cousins some of its secrets and trained American recruits to the US Office of Strategic Services. It reached an agreement on dividing the world for secret intelligence operations, excluding the US from most secret intelligence work in Europe and establishing strict rules of protocol.

The cold war, US money and muscle -- and the Cambridge spies plus George Blake -- changed this, making the SIS increasingly a subcontractor to the CIA. It nonetheless remained the only friendly global intelligence network, and brains sometimes trumped money and brute force.

At some point, probably recently, probably as a consequence of the shift in US policy after Sept. 11 and the decision of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to back to the hilt US President George W Bush's ill-defined and open-ended "war on terror," the intelligence relationship took a disastrous tip.

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