Remember the debate about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction? It’s back for an encore, thanks to Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who remarked at a hearing recently that whatever went wrong in the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi disaster, it wasn’t as bad as the Bush administration’s insistence that those weapons existed.
The blogosphere swiftly picked up the refrain, and so, once more, we have been treated to angry denunciation of the supposed cover-up of the true intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programs. A bracing challenge to this view is provided by “The Art of Betrayal,” Gordon Corera’s enthralling history of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6.
Corera, a widely respected British Broadcasting Corp. journalist with impeccable sources in the clandestine world, devotes a good deal of his narrative to the question of what went wrong in Iraq. But the wider focus is on the shadowy, yet colorful, figures who have populated the agency since the dawn of the Cold War.
The book is worth reading for Corera’s detailed recounting of largely unexamined swaths of secret history, which I will discuss in a future column. For the present, let us consider only what he has to say about Iraq -- and, in particular, about the notion that U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and their staffs fabricated the evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
One of my favorite historians, Andrew Roberts, insists that Corera’s research “explodes that myth completely.” That seems to me too strong. Rather, Corera offers a nuanced perspective that should serve as corrective to some of the sillier conspiracy theories that still abound. His account is unlikely to convince all the doubters, but should be studied nonetheless for the lessons it carries -- lessons to which President Barack Obama and his administration should pay close attention.
Corera has combed available public sources, both official investigations and various memoirs, and added to it his own reporting, most of it from anonymous intelligence sources. His ironic conclusion: “Everyone, including the spies, was convinced by the intelligence that said Saddam had the weapons,” he writes. Yet “they were not sure it looked strong enough to win the argument.”
By everyone, Corera means everyone. As he reminds us, even Hans Blix, the chief United Nations arms inspector before the war, believed that Saddam Hussein had hidden weapons of mass destruction. David Kay, who led the postwar Iraq Survey Group that found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, went into his search expecting to find the opposite. In this sense, Bush and Blair were just along for the ride.
The myth of the super-weapons, once it gained currency, could not be dispelled. Saddam’s penchant for secrecy only made matters worse: “Every general knew he did not have the special weapons but thought his counterpart down the road did.” Even in the absence of a conspiracy, the widespread belief in Iraqi duplicity created a situation in which Saddam was unable to prove a negative: “The bar for intelligence that suggested there were no weapons was far higher than for any evidence of their existence.”
After the war, it turned out that British and U.S. spies had believed their own intelligence shaky, but thought the other’s conclusions were sufficient to bolster their analysis. Both agencies were undone partly by the sacred “control principle,” holding that if Country A gives information to Country B, Country B cannot share the details with Country C without the permission of Country A.
This doesn’t matter much when there is plenty of time to analyze and develop the intelligence. It matters a great deal when political leaders demand immediate action.
According to traditionalists, the errors were “the logical endpoint of the desire of modernisers within the service to make it useful, relevant and close to policy.” Interestingly, this very battle forms the basis of a 1989 novel by John le Carre, the former MI6er whose novels, Corera tells us, have had a considerable, if controversial, influence on the Secret Intelligence Service. In “The Russia House,” le Carre invents a confrontation between U.S. and British spymasters over a Soviet scientist’s offer of intelligence on strategic weapons. When a British agent-runner expresses skepticism and urges that they proceed with caution, the American snaps: “This is not London. This is Washington. And for Washington, intelligence has to be useful, and that means it has to be used, not contemplated in Socratic detachment.”
Overall, Corera agrees with the conclusion of the British investigators: With a single exception, the intelligence wasn’t spun by the politicians. It was “simply wrong.” From the point of view of the spies, he points out, this realization is far more damaging. It means they didn’t do their jobs. And the political leaders, says Corera, “believed the intelligence they had been told about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
Does this let the politicians off the hook? No, says Corera. The Secret Intelligence Service was worried as early as November 2001 that “Washington’s hawks already had Saddam within their sights.” Still, the British believed the most likely U.S. course would involve a bombing campaign to support an internal rebellion. When invasion became more likely, the spies simply went along.
This is not unusual. Intelligence services, he points out, exist largely as extensions of politics. One of Corera’s sources describes what he calls a “cultural weakness” of the Secret Intelligence Service: “It is all too eager to please.” Longtime Central Intelligence Agency watchers have made a similar observation.
In the case of Iraq, one issue is that there was, in effect, a deadline: It was increasingly clear that Bush and Blair meant to go to war by early 2003. Thus the intelligence agencies were faced with the need to find a way to document what they believed to be true but couldn’t quite prove. As Corera points out, the enemy of good intelligence work is often time. It can take months or years to determine whether a bit of information is even true -- longer still to figure out what it means. The faster the spies have to work, the greater the likelihood of error.
This proposition is one that should be pondered by the Obama administration as it continues its drone war. Drone attacks require good intelligence, both to identify a target’s location and to make certain that the target is as important as the planners think. Critics have contended that the administration is not even carrying out its own announced strategy -- targeting the leaders of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups -- but rather is using the drones as part of a more general war of attrition. Certainly it is unlikely that any significant fraction of the estimated 3,400 people who have died in the administration’s drone war were “high-value targets.”
The lesson of the Iraq error, Corera tells us, is that political leaders should avoid “overemphasis on intelligence” in the decision to wage war. One worries that the Obama administration, rather than learning history’s lessons, seems to be choosing precisely the opposite course.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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