The Iraq WMD Failure


INTRODUCTION Intelligence postmortems are critical analytic reviews, always conducted in hindsight, of the intelligence timeline leading up to particular national or global security events turned disastrous1. Examples through history of disastrous intelligence failures and subsequent postmortems include: Pearl Harbor and the Pearl Harbor Postmortem, the 9/11 attacks and the 9/11 Commission Report, and the 2002 Iraqi WMD estimate and The Senate Report on Iraqi WMD Intelligence. After the dust from calamities such as these settled, officials were selected to conduct a thorough analysis of the intelligence timeline that existed just prior to the events; that is, officials examined, as Richards J. Heuer, Jr explained it in the Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, a fundamental question: Given the information that was available at the time, should analysts have been able to foresee what was going to happen?2 Reviews such as these are conducted in order that the Intelligence Community (IC), the various organizations, departments, and agencies the world over, which are in the front lines of the war for information supremacy, can learn from mistakes and chart a way ahead that is devoid of disastrous events like those studied. In this paper, I will review one of the more well-known intelligence failures of the US IC, the failure to accurately describe the “quantity and quality” of Iraq’s WMD programs, via two of the numerous postmortems conducted thereafter, measured against time and peer-tested standards for intelligence analysis. In so doing, ultimately, I intend to emphasize what I think is
Richards J Heuer, Jr, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Washington DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA, 1999) 166. 2 Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 166.

the primary failing that resulted in the overall failure, which for the most part will end up being in alignment with the assertions originally made in the postmortems. Thereafter I will examine correlations between the Iraqi WMD failure and the 9/11 failure; doing thus reveals whether the IC truly is learning from its mistakes. Finally, I will propose what further changes to the IC need to be made if the US is to successfully avoid future intelligence failures and the disastrous events that invariably follow. “BODY” OF EVIDENCE The official postmortem on the Iraqi WMD failure, The Senate Report on Iraqi WMD Intelligence, asserts that eleven conclusions, or what I consider “findings that are conclusive of analytic failure,” each relating a particular failing that contributed to the overall failure, can be derived.3 The conclusions can be found in the introduction of the report. I do not have definitive evidence to support the following claim (the report does not detail the committee’s approach in reviewing the intelligence timeline), but I think the committee responsible for conducting the Iraqi WMD postmortem decided that a finding warranted being elevated to the level of “conclusive of analytic failure” based on either (1) the frequency and/or consistency, or (2) the degree of severity and/or impact. In other words, if the committee was discovering that the same analytic failings were at issue again and again, and/or the analytic failings carried through for a substantial length of time, the failings were made conclusive of analytic failure. If the committee discovered that an analytic failing had a significant degree of severity and/or impact on the overall failure, even if only seen once throughout the timeline, that failing was deemed conclusive of analytic failure. By way of these same principles, in my estimation, conclusion three stands out as being the most detrimental and therefore the failing that contributed most to the overall failure, because
3 A Senate Committee, The Senate Report on Iraqi WMD Intelligence, 1-35.

it had both consistency throughout and impact. In fact, the failing to which conclusion three points may be the epicenter for the overall failure. Conclusion three, edited for conciseness, states, “The IC suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing WMD program. This presumption was so strong that formalized IC mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and groupthink were not utilized.4” Heuer might suggest that this presumption did not merely affect the analysis of the collected intelligence surrounding Iraq’s WMD programs, but the initial perception of the raw intelligence as well. The presumption exacerbated preexisting shortfalls inherent in the human condition, namely, “We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.5” The presumption was that Iraq’s WMD programs were substantial; therefore, any evidence remotely consistent with this view was treated as fact, while any evidence that was not consistent with this view was not even perceived. Few are likely to think to raise questions challenging something that is already consistent with their prevailing mindset. Because this presumption was so pervasive, not just vertically at all echelons within organizations, but laterally across the IC as well, few stopped to critically analyze whether the judgments being made were appropriate despite mechanisms in place to prevent instances of this egregious phenomena. There is one point in the committee’s third conclusion that requires greater clarity. The committee deemed that this particular conclusive failing was an instance of “groupthink.” The definition of groupthink, as defined in Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations, is: a cloistered and likeminded small group that highly values consensus and reinforces collective confidence6. By the definition alone we can see that groupthink cannot be
A Senate Committee, The Senate Report on Iraqi WMD Intelligence, Postmortem (Pittsburgh: Government Printing Office (GPO), 2004) 18. 5 Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, 8. 6 George, Roger Z, and James B Bruce, Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2008) 163.

applied with any sense of justifiability to the Iraqi WMD failing being discussed (presumption) because the IC is not a “cloistered and likeminded small group.” Further there were dissenting voices coming from certain organizations, but those voices were not offering any viable alternatives that the whole of the IC could accept and present to policymakers, as in, there were none7. There are several other reasons why groupthink was not necessarily working in conjunction with the IC’s presumption regarding Iraq’s WMD programs. One of those reasons follows. Robert Jervis, in Why Intelligence Fails, discounts the groupthink claim, I believe rightly so. In a nutshell, he suggests that the committee was using the term “groupthink” in a more colloquial sense, and that the IC in fact had fallen victim to plausibility8. For instance, looking at the situation just from the angle of Iraq’s leader, it was plausible to believe that Saddam Hussein was bolstering Iraq’s WMD programs because of his actions in the past (1990’s) and actions at that particular time (2002). The plausibility was so strong, partly because it coalesced with the IC’s prevailing mindset (presumption), that the community failed to consider any alternatives. Looking at the situation again from the angle of Iraq’s leader, but this time applying an alternative assessment of his behavior (hindsight certainly helps here), one might say that Saddam had lost any coherent WMD strategy except to make it appear to hostile neighbors (Iran, Kuwait) as though Iraq’s strategy was still alive and well and aimed right at them. Ultimately, Jervis is suggesting that no one was necessarily wrong in making the presumption that Iraq’s WMD programs were substantial; they were wrong not to suggest alternative hypotheses9. COMPARISONS WITH 9/11
Jervis, Robert, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010) 130-131. 8 Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails, 129-131, 145-150. 9 Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails, 153.

However, at this point in the IC’s history, members should have easily seen where problems in their analysis resided either by (1) more ardently adhering to the precepts of their tradecraft (while intelligence analysis has yet to achieve the practiced precision of a field like law or medicine, there are still long-established standards that should guide day-to-day operations), (2) critiquing the end-product (again there are long-established standards for what makes a well-crafted intelligence end-product), or (3) applying lessons learned from previous postmortems. One such postmortem that should have been fresh on everyone’s mind is the 9/11 attacks postmortem. The 9/11 Report is seminal as far as postmortems are concerned. It was written for the American people, accessible and enlightening, so that they might easily understand the intricate workings of the IC. How much easier might someone inside the IC comprehend it? I cannot cite figures, but I would postulate that the 9/11 Report is required reading for IC members in management positions and that a very high percentage of those members actually did read it, along with many of the postmortems the preceded it. What should they have learned and passed along to their subordinates, the frontline analysts? The report stresses that there are 4 areas that deserved the greatest attention as they concern reform in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Those areas were: imagination, policy, capabilities, management10. The first and the last directly relate to the frontline analysts going about their day-to-day responsibilities of analyzing intelligence, making judgments, and writing reports. The imagination piece emphasizes the need for analysts to think “outside of the box” or to think less linearly (which typically begins from their own preconceived and flawed notions), toward a logical end (which generally is far removed from the actual end). The management

The 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, Postmortem (Pittsburgh: Government Printing Office, 2004) 369-386.

piece concerns the reapportionment of leadership mentality. The general atmosphere prior to 9/11 was one where those on the frontlines supported managers; managers drove the machine. The report suggests that those on the frontlines should be supported by managers; those on the frontlines should be the ones driving the machine.11 These findings are not far removed from the findings from other postmortems. Is the IC taking lessons from the postmortems seriously? Well, in the case of the 9/11 Report, the IC was not exactly able to. The official report was not released until 2004 and the Iraqi WMD failure had occurred in 2003. That does not mean that there were not stirrings within the IC to figure out their mistakes and some initial assessments of how to improve. With all the eyes on the IC after the 9/11 attacks, one would think that there would be more careful, less rushed, reports being disseminated. One would think that, despite the absence of the official report, there was an obvious need to think “more imaginatively,” to not fence in intelligence analysis (the fence was analysts presumtions), but apparently this need was neglected in the Iraqi WMD estimate just as it has been for decades. MY PERSONAL “WAY AHEAD” PLAN My personal assessment concerning what further changes need to be enacted in order to improve the IC focuses on individual mindsets. The assessment also comes from an idealist point-of-view, which is replete with its own set of biases, primarily in regards to what many would call my religion. I am a Buddhist, but it is not a religion to me so much as a mindset and/or lifestyle. Nonetheless, many people would suspect that my ideas for creating a better IC stem from the Buddhist religion, regardless of whether they know my inclinations toward Buddhism, simply because of the nature of the ideas.

11 The 9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report, 369-386.

For instance, to make a better IC or a better intelligence analyst, I would recommend right up front that everyone “disregard self.” This is one of the principle edicts of the Buddhist religion. However, I am not asking analysts to disregard themselves in terms of meeting their basic needs such as sustenance. I am speaking of a complete disregard for who they believe themselves to be. It is only when individuals first break apart the constricting walls of self that they can cease filtering the world through “self” and instead see the world around them as it really is. One of the walls of self is “experience;” once individuals realize that they are not bound by their experiences, that at any point they can disregard their experiences and completely change the course of their lives, they can begin to think more imaginatively about the world around them. This is just one example of the type of suggestions I would make to the IC in order to improve it. The suggestion does correlate with the suggested need for “imaginative” thinking that has come out of many passed postmortems, but try to get anyone in the IC to accept it. CONCLUSION In conclusion, postmortems of intelligence failures within the IC are a vital aspect to winning the war for information supremacy, thereby decreasing the probability of disastrous intelligence failures and the calamities they induce. Postmortems highlight for the IC those areas that are in need of attention or reform. This paper further highlighted a failing within the Iraqi WMD failure, which was the overwhelming presumption within the IC, by stating that it acted as the failing that brought on all other failings. This assertion was corroborated by referencing the works of Heuer and Jervis. A brief assessment of the effectiveness of postmortems was then conducted by juxtaposing the WMD report with the 9/11 Report; the results were less than encouraging. Finally, I proposed an idea for changing analysts’ mindsets, from my personal point-of-view, meant to improve the IC in its quest to secure our nation and allies.

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