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INTELLIGENCE: AS FLAWED AS EVER

Paper No. 1060                                                   20/07/2004

by B.Raman

The first part of the enquiry report  by the US Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee (the second part on the role of the political leadership is expected to follow only next year) and the report of the British enquiry committee headed by Lord Butler on the question of the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by Iraq's overthrown Saddam Hussein regime have both underlined the flawed nature of the intelligence supplied by the agencies of the two countries before the occupation of Iraq by a coalition led by the US and the UK.

2.At the same time, they have ruled out any malafide intentions on the part of either the intelligence collection agencies or the assessment agencies such as the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) or the political leadership. The report of the Butler Committee has highlighted the mistakes made at various levels, but refrained from blaming any individual bureaucrat or political leader for them. In fact, at the press conference held by his Committee  on July 14, 2004, Lord Butler declined to find fault with the decision of the Tony Blair Government to appoint John Scarlet, the Chairman of the JIC, as the Director-General of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) despite the deficiencies in the performance of the JIC under his stewardship.

3.The language of the Senate Committee is quite forthright whereas that of the Butler Committee is mild and nuanced. This  could be attributed to the fact that Lord Butler is an ex-civil servant ( a former Cabinet Secretary ) used to restrained language and without any political agenda of his own. Moreover, his Committee was appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair.  As against this, the Senate Committee is a political and politicised body,  whose deliberations and conclusions could not have remained uninfluenced by the partisan political considerations of its members. Moreover, it does not owe its existence to the Executive.

4. Any objective analyst, knowledgeable in matters concerning the craft of intelligence,  would come to the following conclusions after reading the enquiry reports from the USA and the UK:
 

* There was no deliberate fabrication of evidence by either the intelligence bureaucracy or the political leadership.

* The intelligence agencies themselves realised the dubious or inconclusive nature of the evidence collected and underlined this in their reports to the political leadership through appropriate caveats.

* In their attempts to justify the need for the immediate invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Saddam regime, the political leaderships  concealed from public opinion the existence of the caveats and indulged in a spin to make inconclusive evidence appear as conclusive and uncorroborated suspicions as certitudes.

5. In their explanations of their action, the Bush administration in the US and the Tony Blair Government in the UK have referred to heightened fears of WMD getting into the hands of terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and argued that these fears and the need to prevent this warranted action against the Saddam regime, even if the evidence was inconclusive.

6. The USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) are not the only agencies in the world which often  supply intelligence, which post facto proves to have been inaccurate. All intelligence agencies, including those of India, have at one time or another supplied intelligence to the political leadership which subsequently proved to have been flawed.

7. A glaring instance relating to India which comes to my mind is with regard to terrorism in Punjab. The fact that the terrorists were trained, armed, motivated and guided by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was established beyond reasonable doubt through human (HUMINT) and technical intelligence (TECHINT).

8. What was not so well established was as to whether Pakistani military officers had infiltrated into the Golden Temple at Amritsar  and were acting as advisers to Bhindranwale. Many human sources of a dubious nature reported that this was so. The intelligence agencies themselves were not convinced of the correctness of much of the reporting of these sources. And yet, they could not have withheld it from the political leadership since the implications for national security would have been serious if their reports  were proved to have been  correct by subsequent enquiries.

9. To meet such contingencies, agencies all over the world follow a rule of prudence: Where an uncorroborated piece of intelligence could have serious implications for national security, if true,  report it and then verify it  instead of waiting till it is verified. The political leadership has to know that such intelligence, even if uncorroborated, existed so that it doesn't face a nasty surprise subsequently.

10. While bringing such intelligence, quite serious in its national security implications, but of questionable veracity, to the notice of the political leadership, the agencies use appropriate caveats. Examples of such caveats often used by the Indian intelligence community are: "According to an unconfirmed report, which requires further corroboration", "according to a report from a new and as yet untested source", "according to a source of unproven credibility" etc etc.

11. That is what the Indian intelligence did while reporting to the political leadership the uncorroborated information about the presence of Pakistani military officers inside the Golden Temple as advisers to Bhindranwale. On reading their reports, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had two options before her:
 

* Exercise patience till the reports were verified; or

* Order the Army or the Police to enter the Golden Temple and arrest the terrorists and their Pakistani advisers.

12. She ordered military action, with its tragic consequences, without waiting for the verification of the intelligence reports. The intelligence regarding the presence of Pakistani military advisers was found to have been wrong.

13. Was it a mistake on the part of the agencies to have brought this inaccurate intelligence to the notice of the political leadership even before it was verified. No, so long as they added the appropriate caveats.

14. Was it a mistake on the part of Indira Gandhi to have allowed uncorroborated intelligence to influence her decision without thinking of the likely serious implications of her decision to send the Army into the Golden Temple? It would be very difficult  for any objective person to give a definitive yes or no answer to this question.

15. It would be very easy for those outside the decision-making process to find fault with her for the way she acted on the basis of intelligence, which subsequently proved to have been flawed. But, they would not be able to understand the dilemma of a political leader, when he or she is informed of the existence of an uncorroborated piece of intelligence, with serious implications for national security, if true. In retrospect, she committed an understandable mistake of judgement but  it was an action in good faith.

16. However, it needs to be said to the credit of the late R.N.Kao, the then Senior Security Adviser to her, and other senior intelligence officers that they cautioned her about the dangers of any military intervention inside the Golden Temple. Amongst the possible dangers pointed out by them were: further alienation of the Sikh community; an adverse impact on the loyalty of the Sikh soldiers of the Indian Army; and an increase in threats to her own security from elements in the Sikh community.

17. Their reported advice was: Show patience and try to tire out those inside the temple by blockading them; or if you want immediate intervention, send the Police in and not the Army. She disregarded their advice and sent the Army in. The rest is history.

18. Any transparent history of the role of intelligence in decision-making all over the world would be replete with such instances. There is, therefore, no point in taking a self-righteous attitude with regard to what happened in Iraq.

19. Having said that, it must be added that the heads of the US and British intelligence agencies failed in their duty by not warning the political leaderships of the likely dangers of a military intervention in Iraq, whatever the provocation, and the overthrow of the secular Saddam regime. The military intervention has handed over this pre-2003 secular country on a platter to jihadi terrorists of various hues and thereby weakened the so-called war against terrorism.

20. Fortunately, their reports about the presence of WMD in Iraq proved to have been wrong. Imagine the consequences, if Iraq really had WMD. Just as the military intervention could not prevent the terrorists and the resistance fighters from getting hold of the vast conventional military arsenal of the Iraqi Army, it was doubtful whether it could have prevented them from getting hold of the WMD or at least part of it. The world would have been held to ransom by the jihadi terrorists.

21. This is the enormity of the blunders committed not only by Bush and Blair, but also by their intelligence and security advisers. Neither the Senate Committee nor Lord Butler nor their critics have addressed it. All the blunders arose from the basic assumption  that Saddam was a demon and an evil who must be removed from the scene at any cost. No one in the West is prepared to admit that this assumption was wrong and that all flawed intelligence and unwise actions with serious consequences for the region and the world flowed from this.

22. What happened before April,2003, is already part of history. Already five enquiries---four in the UK and one in the US-- have gone into it. Any new enquiries are unlikely to add further light on this. What is happening in Iraq since April,2003, is part of our daily lives--- more and more jihadi terrorism, more and more political violence, more and more deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of the terrorists as well as the occupation armed forces, particularly those of the US, more and more suffering for the Iraqi people, more and more human rights violations and more and more human brutalities of the worst kind .

23. In the midst of all this, what stands out loud and clear is that the American and British intelligence agencies remain as clueless about what is going on in Iraq as they were before April 2003. At least before April 2003, they had no physical presence in Iraq and had valid excuses for not being able to collect credible intelligence. They have no such excuse now.

24. There are over 150,000 coalition troops in Iraq. Hundreds, if not thousands, of intelligence officers of the US and the UK have been deployed all over the country, with the most modern communication interception equipment. Funds for their operations are limitless. They suffer from no restrictions in their operations relating to  the observance of the human rights of the Iraqis.

25. And yet, their intelligence continues to be as inadequate and as inaccurate as ever. Why? Unless that question is addressed and satisfactory answers found to it, Iraq would continue to bleed. It is remarkable and disturbing that no one is addressing this question .

26. This may please be read in continuation of my earlier articles on "Intelligence" in www.saag.org. 

(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: corde@vsnl.com )

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