Why We Didn't Get the Picture


Feb 1, 2004

By Bruce Berkowitz

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Post on February 1, 2004.

We Collected A Little, and Assumed a Lot

Last week David Kay went to Capitol Hill to explain to lawmakers what he had found in Iraq. Until last month, Kay, a widely respected proliferation expert, headed the Iraqi Survey Group, the team assigned after the war to find Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons — and assess how well U.S. intelligence understood the threat.

“It turns out we were all wrong, probably, in my judgment,” Kay said at the hearing. “And that is most disturbing.”

Disturbing is right. What happened? U.S. intelligence analysts have been taking a lot of criticism lately, but I believe that, when all the investigations are completed, we will discover that this wasn't an intelligence analysis failure. It was mainly an intelligence collection failure, combined with a misunderstanding all around about how intelligence really works.

Our biggest problem in assessing the Iraqi weapons programs was simply that we lacked reliable, independent sources of information about threats that are increasingly difficult to see. The equipment for making chemical and biological weapons is nearly identical to that for making pesticides and beer, and the really essential components are the knowledge inside the weapons makers' heads. What's more, we have yet to figure out how to penetrate closed societies such as Iraq. All the other problems followed from this basic lack of data.

It now appears that after 1998 Iraq did indeed have chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs — but they were in a “standby” mode, with Saddam waiting for the day United Nations sanctions would break down. The programs were mainly on paper or in the heads of technicians, and apparently did not amount to much.

But when combined with our inability to crack Iraqi secrecy, these hibernating programs and Iraq's past behavior gave the impression of a much bigger and more successful clandestine effort. When U.S. intelligence spotted an illegal sale, hidden transaction or remnant of a program that had been shelved, our analysts concluded — correctly — that Iraq still planned to develop the weapons. The satellite imagery and telephone intercepts that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented at the United Nations in February 2003 were real. We just didn't know the complete meaning of all these things.

It did not help matters that U.S. intelligence had underestimated Iraq's nuclear programs in the early 1980s and '90s. Analysts — lacking hard information — concluded the worst. Indeed, nearly everyone was taken in — officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, our British allies, and even French and U.N. officials. Almost no one denied that the Iraqis were hiding something. The question was always what to do about it, and when.

The ultimate irony was that Saddam Hussein — who might have put all questions to rest — was so intent on maintaining his power at home and his stature abroad that he could never let inspectors discover for themselves that his weapons programs had been shelved. He is now paying the price for what appears to have been a colossal bluff.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Recall the infamous “missile gap” of the 1960 presidential election. After the Soviet Union surprised the West in 1957 by testing the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile, U.S. intelligence predicted the Soviets would build them by the hundreds.

Nikita Khrushchev boasted that Soviet factories were turning out missiles “like sausages,” and we had little information from inside the Soviet Union to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence analysts were still smarting from having underestimated the pace not only of the Soviet missile program, but also of its nuclear weapons program a few years earlier — just as today's analysts were haunted by having missed Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction prior to the Persian Gulf War.

The first-generation Soviet missiles, as it turned out, were lousy weapons, and the Soviet Union never built many. But no one knew this until after the United States had committed to building thousands of its own missiles as a deterrent. The recipe was the same in 1960 and 2003: Take a record of previously underestimating the enemy, combine with a secretive regime and a mercurial, bluffing strongman, mix in inadequate information and — voilà — you have a lot of chagrined officials and a huge bill.

This problem will likely get worse. Not only is it hard to detect chemical and biological facilities, even nuclear weapons programs today have a small “footprint.” Where the Manhattan Project required the equivalent of small cities, more recent programs, such as the one South Africa ran in the 1980s and Pakistan built in the 1990s, require only a few large buildings. Much of the North Korean program appears to be hidden in caves, and until recently we knew little of the Iranian and Libyan programs — which ran for decades.

That's why we need to focus even harder on improving collection and on understanding the true limits of our information at any given moment. Even the best analyst can't make intelligence out of whole cloth.

But the most important lesson to draw from this episode is appreciating how intelligence really fits into the making of U.S. foreign policy.

Kay said analysts have come to him “almost in tears” because he had been unable to find the weapons they predicted. He describes them “apologizing for reaching the conclusions they did.” As a one-time analyst myself, I sympathize with them. Analysts are regularly asked to put their reputations on the line. And at stake this time was whether Americans would go to war.

But trying to understand an often-hostile world with incomplete data is, in essence, not an intelligence problem at all. It's a policy problem, and hinges on the kinds of risks an official is willing to accept on behalf of his country. Critics of the Bush administration claim officials “cherry picked” intelligence to fit their own preconceptions or relied too much on outside analysts. Vice President Cheney — who still believes we may find hidden weapons in Iraq — has been the most conspicuous target.

This suggests that intelligence is — or ought to be — the most important input for government officials. In reality, intelligence is just one drop in a fire-hose torrent of facts and analysis an official sees every day. Personal contacts, think tank papers, press reports, and the gut reactions an official brings to office are usually much more important. After all, that's why we have elections. If policy automatically followed from intelligence, what would be the sense in choosing one candidate over another?

When used wisely, intelligence can contribute to good policy. But history shows that any policymaker can seize upon bits of intelligence that confirm his or her worst fears or greatest hopes, especially when there's little to choose from. Even as that data begins to look more tenuous, those long-cherished views can be hard to let go.

Intelligence analysts will always need to know when to say only “we cannot rule it out” instead of “we believe.” Then officials will have to decide what they want to do, argue their case and run on their record. That's exactly how policy — and intelligence — should work in a democracy.

Bruce Berkowitz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation. His latest book is “The New Face of War” (The Free Press).