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CIA & IRAQ: Lessons for India

Paper No. 1053                                                 11/07/2004

by B.Raman

The report of the bipartisan US Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee on the poor performance of the US Intelligence Community (IC) in Iraq has not come as a surprise.

2. It has drawn attention to multiple intelligence failures relating to Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the main pretext used by the Bush Administration in the US and the Tony Blair Government in the UK for invading that country and overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. The two Governments had rejected the conclusions of the teams of UN inspectors about the non-discovery by them on the ground during their inspections of any evidence to show that Iraq had any WMD as alleged by the intelligence agencies of the two countries. The report of Lord Butler, who is enquiring into the performance in Iraq of the Secret Intelligence Service ( also known as MI 6), the British external intelligence agency,  is expected later this week. It remains to be seen whether he would be as damning in his indictment of the MI 6 as the Senate Committee has been of the CIA.

3. The two main conclusions of the Senate Committee are:

  • Most of the key judgements of the CIA  about Iraq's WMD programmes "were either overstated or were not supported by the raw intelligence reporting".
  • The intelligence community suffered a "collective group-think", which led analysts to presume that Iraq had WMD programmes and to interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusive.

4. In an apparent attempt to soften the blow to the already much-damaged credibility of the Bush Administration, Pat Roberts, the Republican Chairman of the Committee, has pointed out that the CIA was not the only agency  to have gone wrong in concluding that Iraq had WMD. The agencies of many other countries, including those of France, Germany and Russia, which had opposed the invasion, had believed that Iraq did have them despite their non-discovery by the UN inspectors. He has, therefore, characterised it as a global intelligence failure.

5. In the joint media briefing by the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman on the report of the Committee held on July 9,2004,  Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic Vice-Chairman, was more damning in his comments. He said: "Many members of Congress would not have authorised the war if they had known then what they knew now. Tragically, the intelligence failure set forth in this report will affect our national security for generations to come.Our credibility is diminished, our standing in the world has never been lower. We have fostered a deep hatred of Americans in the Muslim world, and that will grow."

6. It was stated during the briefing that there was no evidence that the CIA analysts came under pressure from the White House to deliver certain findings, although some Democrats on the committee disagreed with the attempt to exonerate the Bush Administration of any responsibility in the matter.

7.In a press briefing after the release of the report, Deputy CIA Director John Laughlin, who is holding temporary charge of the agency after the resignation of George Tenet as Director became effective on July 8,2004,  said people should not conclude from the Senate report that there were huge failings within the agency. He added:  "It is wrong to exaggerate the flaws or leap to the judgment that our challenges with pre-war Iraq weapons intelligence are evidence of sweeping problems."

8. The Committee members themselves have admitted that the CIA was proved right in its conclusions that the Saddam regime had no links with Al Qaeda and had no role in the New York World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993 or in the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US as alleged by many neo-conservatives, including Vice-President Dick Cheney and James Woolsey, former CIA Director during the Clinton Administration.

9. To justify its action in invading Iraq and overthrowing the Saddam regime, the Bush Administration had given two reasons---its possession of WMD materials/capability and its links with Al Qaeda, both of which, according to it, posed a threat to the US.

10. From the fact that the CIA had disagreed with the assertions of the Administration about the Saddam regime's links with Al Qaeda,it is evident  that there was  apparently no attempt on its part  to furnish tailor-made reports to buttress the allegations of the Administration. If it was under a compulsion to do so, it would have also sent reports confirming Saddam's links with Al Qaeda. The fact that the CIA was proved right in the case of the Al Qaeda links charge and proved embarassingly wrong in respect of WMD rules out any intellectual dishonesty on its part  in relation to WMD. This was a case of wrong analysis, wrong assessment and wrong  reporting and not conscious fabrication (by the agency) of evidence to support the Administration in its efforts to convince public opinion about the justification for the war.

11. There have been many serious failures by the US Intelligence Community in Iraq, whose consequences for the future of the region and the rest of the international community could be quite devastating.The Committee has highlighted only one of these failures relating to WMD. Among the other equally serious failures with long-term consequences are the CIA's shocking under-estimation of the sense of patriotism of the Iraqi people, their fierce determination to resist US occupation and the support enjoyed by the anti-US resistance forces  amongst the public and its failure to draw the attention of the Administration to the fact that Iraq was the most secular and enlightened  country in that region, that the Baath Party under Saddam Hussein had ruthlessly crushed fundamentalists and banned their madrasas and that its overthrow could lead to the Iranisation of Shia-dominated southern Iraq and the Talibanisation of the Sunni-dominated central Iraq.

12. The state of Iraq today, which increasingly resembles Afghanistan of the 1980s after the Soviet occupation of that country and its installation of a puppet regime in Kabul, is due to the total failure of the US intelligence process, which led the Bush Administration to invade that country under the illusion that its troops would be welcomed by the people as liberators.

13.  This is not the first time that the CIA had so seriously failed to understand a foreign people, their culture and their feelings. It had under-estimated the feelings of anger of the Iranian people in the 1970s against the Shah of Iran, thereby paving the way for the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In Iraq, it at least had some valid excuses for its failures. It had very little physical presence in that country after 1990, thereby forcing it to rely on dubious reporting from  anti-Saddam mercenaries such as Ahmed Chalabi and many other members of the present Government in Iraq, who were living in political exile, for its analysis and conclusions.

14. It had no such excuses in Iran. It was practically ruling that country behind the facade of the regime of the Shah of Iran . Hundreds of its officers were present all over the country.Hundreds of US military officers were attached as advisers to the Armed Forces of the Shah. The US had a very large Embassy in Teheran, well-endowed in funds and human resources. And yet, its  intelligence failed to notice the gathering storm against the Shah and to forewarn its Government of it.

15. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, there was a plethora of enquiries into the performance of the CIA by  Congressional Committees and the Administration. There was an intense debate in the US as to why the CIA failed so miserably in Iran. Go back to those reports and those debates of 20 years ago and re-read the reports on Iraq now coming out of the US. You will have an impression of deja vu.

16. Lack of human intelligence, lack of human sources, lack of financial resources, lack of knowledge of the language and culture of the people, which forced the CIA officers to interact only with the English-speaking and Scotch-drinking upper middle class with whom they felt comfortable and with no contacts in the poorer sections of the society and in religious circles, with whom they felt uncomfortable, weak analysis --- those were the reasons for the CIA's failure in Iran as they came out of the reports and debates of the early 1980s.

17.Those were the very same reasons which contributed to the failure of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, in Afghanistan. And those are the very same reasons now coming out of the US in relation to Iraq.

18.If financial resources and a huge bureaucracy alone can lead to better HUMINT, the US intelligence community must be the best informed in the world  today.In the 1980s, its intelligence community, including all the HUMINT and TECHINT agencies put together, had a total budget of around US $ 10 billion per annum. It went up to US $ 20 billion plus in the 1990s. It is now estimated at US $ 40 billion plus, thanks to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

19. What have all these billions and billions  of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of officers produced? More and more strategic failures of disturbing proportions. After Iran, it is Iraq. After Iraq, will it be Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?

20. Despite all this, it would be incorrect to project the CIA as a blundering agency stumbling  from one serious blunder to another. It has had innumerable tactical successes to its credit, which would be the envy of any agency in the world. Its greatest strategic success since the Second World War has been its contribution to bringing about the collapse of the Communist regimes of the USSR and other East European countries. Let us not grudge admitting that if democracy is slowly taking roots in those countries and they are taking their due place in the political and economic mainstream of the world, much of the credit has to go to the doggedness of the US political leadership in pursuing its objective of vanquishing international communism and the able assistance received by it from its intelligence agencies.

21. It would be equally wrong to write off the US as having already lost its so-called war against terrorism, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or the rest of the world. The situation looks unwinnable today due to the wrong policies and methods of the US, but it may still prevail ultimately, thanks to its resilience and its conviction that if it did not seek out, hunt and destroy the jihadi terrorists in the distant lands of Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, they might  come and destroy it in its homeland. Its determination to root out the jihadi terrorists, who pose a threat to its nationals and interests, remains as strong as ever despite the set-backs suffered by it.

22. If it has to succeed, it has to take seriously the lessons and warnings  from Iraq and from the snake-pits of jihadi terrorism in the terrorist triangle of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and re-fashion and re-tool its intelligence agencies in order to enable them to succeed strategically. A strategic success by the US in its war against jihadi terrorism is in its interest, in India's interest and in the interest of the rest of the civilised world.

23.What bin Laden and Saddam have proved is that money and a large intelligence bureaucracy alone cannot produce better intelligence. One can get better intelligence products only through better techniques of collection and analysis, better analysts, better analytical tools and  a better understanding of foreign people, their cultures and feelings. Unless there is an enquiry into  the totality of the intelligence process, one cannot establish the real reasons for the CIA's intelligence failures.

24. The Senate report strikes one more for the questions which it does not pose and seek to answer than for the questions which it does seek to answer. Consequently, it reads more like a collation of blatant  failures than an incisive analysis of the reasons for the failures.Among the questions, which it seems to have  evaded,  are:

  • What were the gaps, deficiencies and inaccuracies in the respective coverages of HUMINT by the CIA and TECHINT by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other TECHINT agencies and what were the reasons for them? From a study of the reports coming out of Iraq since March last year, it is apparent there have been failures not only by the CIA, but also by the TECHINT agencies. The report focusses largely on the failures of the CIA. In the US, the TECHINT agencies and their work and coverage are still treated as highly sensitive and, hence, there is no public spotlight on their performance.
  • What were the respective roles of the CIA, the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the intelligence Directorates-General of the Armed Forces in Iraq? Since there was only a small reservoir of human sources available in Iraq and in the political exiles' community outside, the same sources were often re-cycling themselves among different agencies. Chalabi 's is a typical example.He started by working for the CIA, which reportedly discarded him after finding him unreliable. He subsequently moved over to the DIA and became its blue-eyed agent. According to sections of the US media, many of the reports on Iraq's WMD, which subsequently proved wrong, came from him. It has even been alleged that the Iranian intelligence was using him to mislead the US intelligence and force the US leadership to overthow Saddam, its hated adversary.
  • What were the respective  roles of the Defence Department, the State Department and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in the analysis, assessment  and decision-making process? Even if the CIA had given wrong or over-stated conclusions on the basis of dubious evidence, it was their responsibility to have vetted them and given their independent judgment to the President. Did they do so? If not, why not?
  •  It had been alleged in media reports that parallel, unauthorised (by law) intelligence collection and assessment groups were operating from the Defence Department at the initiative of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, and that they were instrumental in distorting the intelligence process. To what extent these allegations were correct? If true, to what extent they affected the performance of the CIA?

25. Without knowing the answers to these questions, it might be unfair to paint the CIA as the only or real villain of the piece. There are certain lessons for the Indian intelligence from L'Affaire CIA. The CIA follows the principle of strict separation of the operational and analysis responsibilities with two Divisions and two separate cadres of officers dealing with them. The operational division is responsible for the collection of HUMINT and passing it on to the Analysis Division for analysis and assessment by its officers. While doing so, it edits all references to the sources, their access and how they got the intelligence.

26. The analysts have to analyse and assess the reports without knowing much about the source who gave the reports. It has been alleged that as a result of this, the analysts did not know that much of the intelligence relating to WMD was coming from anti-Saddam political exiles and mercenaries such as Chalabi, who had their own agenda.

27. There does not appear to have been any debate in the various committees of the NSCS regarding how this information was collected, the reliability of the sources and how the field observations of the UN inspection teams did not corroborate them.

28. The role of George Tenet as the Director of the CIA has also not received the attention it deserves. In the US, there has always been an unresolved debate regarding the role of the intelligence chiefs in policy-making. Should the agencies confine themselves to collecting and reporting intelligence or should they also be involved in policy-making? More specifically, if an intelligence chief finds that the agency's reports are being used for taking a decision which is not in the national interest, is it not his responsibility  to point this out and, if necessary, advise in writing against the decision because of  its likely negative consequences?

29. From the Senate enquiry, it would seem that the CIA's analysts, while taking cognisance of the dubious reports regarding WMD, did express their reservations in some instances about the acceptability of the reports, but a political leadership, which had come to office determined to overthrow Saddam, would seem to have swept aside their reservations and caveats and did not bring them to the knowledge of the Congress either, while seeking its support for the war.

30. Under such circumstances, was it not the responsibility of Tenet to seek a hearing by the Congressional Committees and place before them his reservations about the manner in which the intelligence was being distorted and misused by the Administration to serve its purpose of going to war. By failing to do so, Tenet has laid himself open to the charge of colluding with the political leadership in a manner which was detrimental to the USA's national interests.

31. The relevance of the lessons for India arises from the fact that  the late R.N.Kao, the founding father of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), and his associates and successors  had to some extent, but not totally, emulated the CIA model in structuring the R&AW with a limited  separation of the operational and analytical responsibilities and other working practices largely borrowed from the CIA.

32. It used to be said that when Indira Gandhi created the R&AW in 1968, she was keen that the agency should interact more with the agencies of continental European countries such as those of France and the then West Germany and pick up their good practices instead of letting itself be totally influenced by the CIA and the MI6 models. Though an attempt was made in that direction, the influence of the CIA-MI6 models on the thinking and working practices of our intelligence community remains  strong. This needs correction.

33. Under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian intelligence did play a necessary role in policy-making. Its views were sought and welcomed by them, but under the BJP-led Government the agencies were reportedly sought to be kept out of the policy and decision-making process. It is said they were repeatedly told that it was their job to collect and disseminate intelligence and not to dabble in policy and decision making. It is also said that the intelligence agencies were kept out of the decision-making process which led to A.B.Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February,1999, and to Musharraf's State visit to India in July,2001, both with highly embarrassing consequences for India. In June 2001, they were reportedly told by the then Government that it was none of their business to comment on the wisdom of Vajpayee's action in inviting Musharraf to come on a state visit and independent assessments by them were neither sought nor encouraged.

34. This is a wrong approach. The chiefs of the intelligence agencies must feel free to express their reservations about the wisdom of any policy having a bearing on national security to the political leadership--in writing, if need be. Attempts to silence them or to exclude them from the policy-making process would prove counter-productive.

35. At least in the US as in many other countries, there is the mechanism of the parliamentary intelligence oversight committees to bring to light sins of commission and omission, whether by the political leadership or the agencies themselves, and to provide the chiefs with a forum before which they could express their reservations over any aspect of the policy of the political leadership. The fact that Tenet did not use this forum is a different matter.

36. In India, the benefit of such a mechanism is denied to the public for keeping the agencies and the political leadership on the right path. It is equally denied to the agencies for ventilating their concerns, problems and reservations. It is high time such a mechanism is set up.

37. What the Chairman of the Senate Committee has said about the intelligence agencies of France, Germany, Russia and other countries too believing that Iraq had WMD is correct. What is not known is how they got their intelligence---from independent sources or from the CIA and the MI6 under the intelligence liaison mechanism? Most probably, the latter.

38. Therein lies the danger of too much dependence on intelligence liaison. If one intelligence agency disseminates knowingly or unknowingly wrong intelligence, this could distort the policies of many Governments. Today, the CIA dominates the global intelligence collection process with regard to Al Qaeda. The kind of human, financial and technical resources which it has been able to mobilise for this purpose would be much beyond the reach of the rest of the world. It has virtually monopolised the interrogation of terrorist suspects--- whether captured in Afghanisdtan, Pakistan or in Iraq.

39. The intelligence agencies of other countries have not had the benefit of a joint interrogation and have to rely on the CIA's findings and assessments. The projection of Al Qaeda as an almost  non-State super power is largely from the minds of the CIA's analysts. One has seen from Iraq how wrong the CIA's analysts could be.

40.Many analysts---governmental and non-governmental--including in India  would seem to have uncritically accepted the analyses and assessments relating to international terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular emanating from the CIA and disseminated through other intelligence agencies and non-Governmental Al Qaeda Watchers . The Iraqi case underlines the importance of subjecting the CIA's assessments and conclusions on the terrorism issue to a critical examination instead of blindly accepting and acting on them. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )