THE U.S. INTELLIGENCE REPORT ON SYRIA: LEARNING FROM IRAQ
By Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS
28 Aug 13. The U.S. intelligence community is about to release its most important single document in a decade: its report on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The key question is whether the Obama Administration and the U.S. intelligence community understand just how important it is.
Roughly a decade ago – on February 5, 2003 – Secretary of State Colin Powell was trapped into making a statement about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN that proved to be almost totally false and that he later summarized as follows: “”It turned out, as we discovered later, that a lot of sources that had been attested to by the intelligence community were wrong…I understood the consequences of that failure and, as I said, I deeply regret that the information – some of the information, not all of it – was wrong…It has blotted my record, but – you know – there’s nothing I can do to change that blot. All I can say is that I gave it the best analysis that I could.”
In fairness to Secretary Powell, he made every effort to validate what he said before he said it. He was trapped, however, by both earlier U.S. statements and by a rush to produce “intelligence to please” a narrow cadre of ideologically motivate policy makers, and by almost as many problems in German and British intelligence as in the U.S. intelligence.
Many of the facts involved are laid out in a report the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued called the “Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq”. Somewhat ironically, this report came out on July 4, 2004 – a time when faulty U.S. intelligence and the absence of new Iraqi missile and WMD program had already embarrassed the United States before the world and at a time the seeds of a major Iraqi civil war were already dragging the U.S. into a “long war” when it had initially planned for U.S. forces to start leaving Iraq within 90 days of Saddam’s fall.
The report found fault after fault in the U.S. effort, although it came out too soon to trace the full extent to which policy level pressure had been put on some key analysts in DIA. It also did not fully address a series of previous problems in the intelligence assessment going into Desert Fox, all of the forces involved in politicizing intelligence within the Pentagon and in dealing with Iraq’s largely non-existent ties to terrorism, and all of the problems in the methodologies involved – issues that were highlighted by key members of the Committee in their “additional views” on the report.
It is all too clear, however, that the end result of the overall U.S. intelligence effort by the 2003 invasion of Iraq – and the systematic misuse of intelligence by policymakers before and after the invasion – did much to discredit the U.S. and its allies, to destroy trust in intelligence reports that cannot reveal every source and method, and in the motives of U.S. officials.
While there sometimes seems to be an almost deliberate effort to forget about the scale of these failures in the U.S. intelligence community and at the policy level, these are failures that have been reinforced throughout the world and especially in the Middle East and Islamic worlds. They have been further reinforced by the failure to find any physical evidence of Iraqi WMD programs and links to terrorism after the invasion.
More broadly, they have been reinforced by the broad perception among the Arab states in the region that the U.S. took a bad situation under Saddam Hussein and ended up leaving a broken Iraq that no longer had the military forces to contain Iran, and had lost its Arab identity under a largely Shi’ite government heavily influenced by Iran.
These latter judgments exaggerate both U.S. mistakes and failures, and the degree to which the Maliki government is