On March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein and ensure the protection of America’s national security. Based on intelligence, leaders in the United States believed that they had enough proof that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that to protect itself from another September 11th the U.S. must intervene. Yet, this event is one of the worst intelligence failures in America’s history. When U.S. troops arrived in Iraq, they discovered that contrary to what the U.
S. believed, Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction at all. How could the United States have failed in such an important situation? At the root of the issue, the many in the Intelligence Community believed that Iraq had these weapons and refused to acknowledge otherwise. The Intelligence Community and policymakers fell into the same pitfalls that have plagued intelligence agencies and their clients for decades. The reasons why Iraq was an intelligence failure include insufficient intelligence collection and bias present throughout the analytic process.
Intelligence collectors faced a challenging task when it came to gathering intelligence concerning Iraq’s different weapons programs. Jervis (2006) states in his article that some blame for the intelligence failure belongs to those responsible for gathering human intelligence (p. 29). Despite it being so dangerous and difficult, one can argue intelligence professionals could have done better with the task of gaining information from human intelligence sources concerning this issue. In their report, Silberman et al. (2005) point out that “Human intelligence collection in Iraq suffered from two major flaws: too few human sources, and the questionable reliability of those few sources the Intelligence Community had” (p.
158). During its pre-war gathering of intelligence, the intelligence community did not have enough assets within Iraq. Because of this, intelligence agencies did not have good access to information concerning Iraq’s WMD program. When creating its report, the Select Committee on Intelligence for the United States Senate (2004) found that the CIA did not have any human intelligence assets reporting on WMD in Iraq in 1998 despite numerous recruitment campaigns and in 2001 the CIA had only four sources in Iraq who gathered intelligence on topics not related to WMD (p. 260). While it is not clear how many total agents the United States had in Iraq leading up to the invasion, the Intelligence Community was not prepared to gather intelligence from human sources concerning WMD. Because not enough attention focused on this issue, it resulted in too few human intelligence assets. Further, the United States was not even relying on their own intelligence before 1998 concerning WMD in Iraq. According to Jervis (2006), “The ICs relied heavily on information from the UN inspectors, and when they were forced out in 1998 adequate sources were not developed to fill in the gaps” (p. 29). Building on this problem, the Intelligence Community was not able to prove the credibility of the agents they did have access to. This is one of the fundamentals of human intelligence tradecraft that is essential before obtaining any intelligence from the individual. The SSCI (2004) summarizes how human intelligence collectors failed in this area:
The Intelligence Community depended too heavily on defectors and foreign government
services to obtain human intelligence (HUMINT) information on Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction activities. Because the Intelligence Community did not have direct access to
many of these sources, it was exceedingly difficult to determine source credibility.
An example of this is through the HUMINT source known as Curveball. It would be after the U.S. invaded that they would realize their mistake when they decided to trust this agent. In her report, Coletta (2018) writes that the principal source the United States based its argument for Iraq possessing WMD on was Curveball whose reports were later found to be fabricated and further states that the failure to establish this agent’s reliability was a fundamental intelligence failure (p. 70). The Intelligence Community relied too much on second-hand sources and neglected to confirm their intelligence assets. While the reasons why Curveball and other assets fabricated information is still a mystery or classified, it is clear the intelligence community did not have enough information on these sources, which did not allow them to properly confirm their credibility. This, of course, can lead to false information obtained by collectors which will end up in the hands of a decision-maker. At the root of the issue, problems that have plagued intelligence collectors for years, including a lack of human intelligence assets and a failure to establish their credibility, are a part of the reason why the U.S. intelligence community failed in realizing that Iraq did not have any WMD at all.
The lack of efficient collection was not the only reason Iraq was an intelligence failure. Both collectors and analysts involved with proving whether Iraq had WMD suffered from groupthink and their own biases. According to Janis (1972), who coined the term, groupthink occurs when the “pursuit of agreement among team members becomes so dominant that it overrides any realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action” (p. 9). Intelligence professionals, especially analysts, who were involved with Iraq suffered from groupthink during many parts of the intelligence process, which the SSIC points out throughout their report. In the analysis section of their report, the SSIC (2004) talks about how intelligence analysts and collectors showed symptoms of groupthink throughout the intelligence process, including a failure to consider alternatives, not challenging assumptions, selectively gathering information, keeping dissenting opinions to oneself and a failure to consider the warnings of their group decisions (p. 18). The Cause of groupthink in this situation is rooted in bias. Intelligence analysts, collectors, and managers allowed their biases concerning Iraq before the Gulf War to influence how they viewed the intelligence. They could not look at the information objectively. The SSIC talks about this bias more specifically:
The Intelligence Community (IC) suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. This “group think” dynamic led Intelligence Community analysts, collectors, and managers to both interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs. (p. 18)
Because Iraq had built up WMD in the past, the Intelligence Community believed that Iraq was doing it again. This is not necessarily illogical. In fact, it should have been the logical conclusion until intelligence professionals looked at the intelligence coming in and realize that Iraq was not rebuilding their WMD program. Instead, they believed the idea of Iraq possessing WMD to be an unchanging fact, and the intelligence should agree with that. Anything that did not confirm the assumption that Iraq had WMD was inaccurate information. Phythian (2006) highlights how intelligence analysts refused to believe that material Iraq had was to be used for anything other than the construction of Iraq WMD: “As elsewhere, evidence that emerged and conflicted with the dominant assumption concerning Iraqi intent with regard to WMD – in this case, that the tubing was intended for use in the Iraqi rocket program – was dismissed·” (p. 408). Assumptions should not influence intelligence; intelligence should influence assumptions. Silberman and fellow officers also argue that intelligence professionals viewed any information that did not agree with their assumptions was disinformation. According to Silberman et al. (2005), Analysts believed so much in their hypotheses that they completely put aside evidence that contradicted their hypotheses and viewed the absence of intelligence that supported Iraq having WMD to be a product of Iraqi deception (p. 169). Because intelligence professionals would not challenge their assumptions and hypotheses using different analytic techniques, they sent themselves on a hunt for something that was never there. Intelligence agencies could not see that Iraq did not have WMD because it did not agree with their hypotheses or assumptions, and American troops who invaded Iraq paid for that mistake in blood.
Groupthink, bias, and making decisions without enough or adequate information are not new, nor are they exclusive to the intelligence world. These pitfalls have been present since the fall of man. Proverbs 15:22 (ESV) says “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed”. Intelligence professionals only had a scarce amount of Human Intelligence, and the little they had turned out to be mostly unreliable. There was no corroboration of intelligence or validation of their sources. Because of this, they were relying on faulty information to guide their decision-making. Throughout the New Testament, there are quite a few examples of groupthink. John 12:42 (ESV) says “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so they would not be put out of the synagogue”. Many people believed that Jesus was who He said He was, but because they feared the local leaders, they did not voice their beliefs and conclusions because it was not the prevailing view of the time. Another example is when Jesus was crucified. Before Jesus was crucified, He was being praised by the people as He came into Jerusalem on a donkey but later the Jews went along with the decision to crucify Jesus because that was what the Pharisees and other leaders wanted. Another major example of groupthink is with Moses sending out the twelve spies. Ten of the twelve spies believed the land was unconquerable, and they spread this to the rest of the people. The people then began to adopt this view. Because of this, the Lord made the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years because the people believed that what they saw or heard was greater than His ability to give them the future land of Israel. The failure to find WMD in Iraq is just another example of how humans are inherently flawed. There is nothing new under the sun. The same issues that people of the Bible struggled with are the same issues that people of today struggle with. Iraq is just another example of this.
When Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the U.S. Intelligence Community had just caused one of the greatest intelligence failures since its creation. Because of a lack of adequate intelligence collection and bias throughout the intelligence community, intelligence agencies, as well as the rest of the U.S. government, faced embarrassment and ridicule from the American public and the rest of the world. Intelligence professionals could not see past their own biases and refused to challenge their assumptions. Further, the U.S. did not even rely on its own information and did not compensate for the lack of human intelligence assets in Iraq reporting on WMD after the UN left. The U.S. decided to go to invade Iraq based on questionable information and their own biases about Iraq. Because of this, many people, both Americans, and Iraqis, died in a needless war that neither side will soon forget.
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