A Perilous Dialogue of Pessimists


Feb 4, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on February 4, 2004.

There are three possible reasons for the apparent failure of the US and British intelligence establishments to assess accurately the state of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction: mendacity, incompetence or systemic failure. So far, no evidence has emerged of knowing falsification or culpable errors of judgment, suggesting that in the end we may be left with the third explanation.

This apparent intelligence failure may have stemmed from the natural tendency of intelligence analysts to accentuate the downside of any risk, compounded by a preference among policy makers in this instance to accentuate the particular risk that Saddam Hussein might possess WMD.

Intelligence agencies operate under permanent pressure never to miss any impending disaster. After Pearl Harbor, after the attacks of September 11 2001 and after a number of unheralded disasters in between, large-scale inquiries have been mounted into the intelligence failures that allowed the US to be taken unawares. Comparable scrutiny has rarely applied to the many exaggerated appreciations and unduly pessimistic analyses issued by western intelligence agencies over these same decades. Indeed, this may prove the first time in history that a false warning received the level of scrutiny normally reserved for an unheralded disaster.

This is not to say that intelligence agencies always get it wrong. On the contrary, they are right more often than not. But there is always a margin of error in any intelligence assessment, sometimes small, sometimes quite large. These inevitable errors become a source of national controversy when they underestimate a threat, not when they overestimate one.

The intelligence community's natural tendency to stress the downside of any risk is in most instances offset by the policy maker's penchant for emphasising the upside. Government leaders do not, as a rule, like being told that their current policies will not work - or, worse yet, that they are courting disaster. The dialogue between intelligence analyst and policy maker is therefore normally one between congenital pessimists and optimists. This debate produces, in most cases, a more balanced perception than either side would come to if left on its own.

However, in cases where policy makers have their own reasons to emphasise the downside risk, their dialogue with intelligence analysts tends to accentuate rather than counteract the latter's natural caution.

Intelligence analysts are used to receiving push-back from policy makers who do not like what they are being told. The US and British intelligence communities are sufficiently insulated from overt political pressures to hold their own in such circumstances. In the instance of Iraqi WMD, however, the dialogue between intelligence and policy communities was not one between pessimists and optimists, but between pessimists and greater pessimists. The result was an almost inevitable emphasis on the downside risk.

This process of mutual negative re- inforcement also occurred throughout several decades of western Sovietology, producing consistently exaggerated appraisals of Soviet economic prowess and political cohesion. Here, too, the natural caution of intelligence communities was complemented, rather than counteracted, by policy makers' need to sustain public support for large defence budgets.

Faulty intelligence appraisals did not lead the US into war against the Soviet Union, however. Deterrence and containment were then key components of the American strategy. The US was not going to attack unless the Soviet Union attacked first, no matter how grave a threat it was perceived to be.

A policy of pre-emption sets a higher threshold for intelligence. It is one thing to expand one's defences on the basis of inconclusive evidence; it is quite another to attack a foreign nation on that same basis.

It is quite possible that both the US and British inquiries will, in the end, find no evidence of dishonesty or incompetence with which to explain their assessments of Iraqi WMD. Neither is it obvious how our intelligence systems can be altered to eliminate institutional bias in the future.

There is always a danger that inquiries of this sort will be driven by the need to lay blame and direct retribution. In this case, however, the proper conclusions may not be to fix our intelligence process but rather to alter the manner in which intelligence assessments are received and regarded, to establish greater accountability for false warnings, to educate the public and legislators to the inherent limitations of intelligence and, ultimately, to raise the bar for pre-emptive attacks in the future.

The writer is a former US assistant secretary of state and special adviser to the president; he is currently director for international security and defence policy wit h the Rand Corporation.

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